Many domains of publicness and privacy

I found this interesting episode from page 154 to 155 of Ferdinand David Schoeman’s book, Privacy and Social Freedom (see information about the latest edition of this book on

……there is not just one public and one private domain, but many of each. Segregation of role is critical. Information exposed to one community should be private relative to another.

Let me illustrate the significance of this point about the role of the segregation of spheres of life. Oliver Sipple, a Vietnam War veteran, was active in the gay rights movement in the 1970s in San Francisco. His family, living in Detroit, knew nothing of his sexual orientation. In 1975, Sipple was propelled to the status of a hero by knocking the revolver out of the hand of Sara Moore after it was aimed and fired once at President Gerald Ford.

Major newspapers revealed that Sipple was actively gay and part of the gay rights movement. This revelation brought about estrangement from his family, and that in turn exacerbated serious psychological and social problems. Sipple committed suicide ten years after, he had saved the president’s life.

One might ask what was the point of the newspaper revelations that Sipple is gay in a story about his heroism. Some gay activists argue that only through such revelations will we ever be able to normalize being gay. Journalists will argue that because Sipple’s heroism made him a figure of public interest, the revelation of personal details was both legal and helpful to the public in getting a fuller picture of the person. Both approaches avoid focusing on the individual costs suffered in pursuit of the ends they espouse. To the activists, we could respond that there are enough gay people who are open about this fact of their lives so that their goal can be accomplished without imposing sacrifices. To the journalist we could respond that maybe this fuller picture is not worth its costs. No public decision was pending in which Sipple’s sexual orientation figured. Indeed, the only understanding we might derive from the case is the potentially disastrous consequence of such public revelations, even of public facts, across domains of life.

We tend to develop a dichotomic view of our public and private lives as we grow up. From various examples we draw some “gut feeling” on which is public and which is private; what we speak in front of an audience, what we do on open streets are most likely to be public matters, while whom we have sex with and what food we overindulge on are left to private affairs. Yet, many areas of what makes our selves are submerged in both public and private realms. As explicated in the passage above, the questions often are not just a binary switch over whether something is public or not, but whether something that is known to some should be disclosed to others as well.

It is rare that an individual opens up every little detail of his-or-herself to another; apart from some deepest secrets one would keep to oneself, people around an individual would know some sensitive details about him or her–just not everything on a complete picture. There are usually “family matters” that you do not want even your closest friend to know about, and conversely your best pals may know much more about you than your family does. Your co-workers could be aware of some of your peculiarities which your spouse may not know, and there could be something you feel comfortable to share with everyone except for your boss. Therefore much of what we are may not be completely public as you’d like your politicians to be, but those are not privately secluded from others either.

What makes things more complicated is that the advent of information technologies somehow melt down the boundaries you set up around groups of people around you. A simple Google search on your name or whatever silly-looking nickname you made would reveal a plethora information about what you post. Every goofy thing you did on your privacy and thought only your friends would know can be also known to your employers, costing your job. It’s not just about mischievous hangouts, but every precious bit about you increasingly seeping through your fingers, out of control. What made Oliver Sipple’s case unique was that the amount of attention  an individual could receive as well as the extent of Sipple’s activities was so rare for an individual at the time. What we do in the present time, however, is so much more search-able and accessible even to people unbeknownst to yourself. This requires a careful redefinition of publicness and privacy, far from what we are accustomed to.


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