Each of us has a private life. We all have secret thoughts that we choose not to share, even with our closest friends. You might have a hobby or interest that you keep completely to yourself. You might have a private space where you record your thoughts, a space that is for your eyes only. In a similar vein, most of us would be very unsettled by the idea that a person might be watching us without our knowledge. In most aspects of our daily lives, we assume, even while in public, that we are operating under a degree of privacy, that nobody is watching us as we go about our business.
The relationship between humans and privacy in western tradition is pretty old, stretching back all the way to creation according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Adam and Eve, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, instantly seek out privacy, covering themselves with leaves, and attempt to hide themselves from God. If one is to take this story at face value, it is the knowledge of good and evil which incites them to seek out privacy, at least of their nakedness. According to Richard E. Miller, “Before the fall, there was only innocent looking; after the fall, on the other side of Eden, there is shame, concealment, and the designation of spaces on the body that are not to be looked at.” (1) What we can learn from this story, at least as far as privacy is concerned, is that it is in our nature to be concerned with our privacy; desiring privacy is part of being human.
Fast forward a few millennia: The United States was founded on the idea that people were individuals and had “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (2) A few years later, in 1791, the right of privacy itself was made a little more concrete as it was defined and established legally in the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (3)
We live in a country that prides itself on the protection of the rights of the individual.
But a distinction should also be drawn between two different meanings of the word privacy. On one side, there is what I will call self-thinking; the internal thoughts that we have and the private experiences of our lives. We can choose what portions of these thoughts we share and with whom we share them. Alternatively, there is the desire to keep our lives and our personal information from external access; it is our assumption, especially as Americans, that we are not being constantly monitored by powerful entities such as the government or private corporations. Throughout the content of this unit, students will explore the distinction between these two definitions through reading and discussing a variety of texts, fiction and informational, that delve into the idea of privacy.