Privacy as Social Mechanism for Preserving Identity Inconsistency


Society Sets the Boundaries of Privacy



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Society Sets the Boundaries of Privacy

We shall illustrate privacy as serving the incomprehensible coexistence of two conflicting identities by means of a story related in Arnon Goldfinger’s documentary film, The Flat (Israel, 2011). The film follows the director as he is clearing out the contents of his grandmother’s apartment and discovers family secrets, including evidence of a close personal relationship between a Nazi officer and his grandparents. The friendship between the two families lasted for several decades, even though the Nazi officer played an active role in the murder of masses of Jews, including family members of his grandparents, who knew about their friend’s military past and ignored it in their annual get-togethers. The director’s mother recounts that in her childhood there were clear boundaries regarding what questions could and could not be asked: “They didn’t tell me anything, and I didn’t ask”. The film illustrates the possibility of alternately functioning with conflicting identities – the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and a close friend of a former Nazi officer and his family – and it is the boundaries of privacy between the identities that enable her to do so.


In the following section, we will present two test cases – one from the US and the other from Israel. The two cases illustrate how society sets privacy boundaries in order to enable the existence of ‘incompatible’ social identities, each of which possesses social value. We shall see how the social mechanisms that shape privacy boundaries are dynamic and in constant negotiation – the product of values, culture, and interests founded on social profit and loss. In both cases, the line separating the private and public is not a boundary of politeness or cultural custom, but is established in law, and both present a tension-filled encounter between several public and personal identities that clash when society has an interest in their existence despite their incompatibility. The first case is the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy formulated in American military law by former US Presidents Carter and Clinton, which President Obama repealed in 2009. The second is Israel’s policy on the rehabilitation of IDF widows (which was repealed in May 2009). It should be noted that the examples focus on legal expressions of privacy, which is extensively documented.


  1. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

The US Army has a long and bumpy history of contending with the issue of homosexuals serving in its ranks. Since the 1950s, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Secretary of Defense, 1950) has stipulated that engaging in sodomy (as defined by the law) constitutes grounds for court martial, and President Carter asserted that “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service”. This statement was translated into official US Department of Defense policy in 1981, whereby displays of homosexuality (including non-sexual acts) would lead to dishonorable discharge, or in other words, discharge without rights. In this context the arguments against homosexuality were clearly associated with identity: in President Carter’s words, such acts are incompatible with the image of a soldier. There was a price to pay for this perception of the soldier’s image, and based on the partial information that exists it is evident that during World War Two and the Korean War thousands of soldiers were dishonorably discharged for homosexuality (Bérubé, 1990). In addition to the personal implications for the soldiers themselves and their comrades, discharges on this scope impact manpower quotas, and reduce fitness levels and recruiting potential. Since the military chose to pay the price, it may be assumed that the value accorded to the heterosexual image of the soldier was greater.

However, vigorously facing the solider identity was the civilian identity. In the US (like Israel), military service is a track to social mobility, and consequently the right to serve is a public resource like the right to attend school and college. Equal rights in general, and access to public resources in particular, are an important element in American civilian identity, and in this context it is sufficient to mention the second sentence of the US Declaration of Independence, which opens with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

The position based on the principle of equality became a major subject of debate in President Clinton’s 1991 presidential campaign, and a solution was needed that would enable America’s democratic society to preserve the value inherent in a society that grants equal opportunity to every individual, as well as the value inherent in the image of a heterosexual soldier (a solider is a ‘macho man’). The solution conceived to enable the two incompatible identities to coexist was ‘not knowing’: if the military doesn’t ‘know’ that soldiers serving in its ranks are homosexual, it will not have to instigate proceedings against them, and consequently efforts must be made to ensure that the military remains ‘ignorant’ of their sexual identity. The military must refrain from instigating investigations into its soldiers’ sexual orientation, and soldiers must refrain from revealing their sexual orientation to the military authorities. This solution was dubbed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT). In this case we find an explicit policy on keeping information confidential in order to enable the two identities to coexist – the heterosexual soldier, and the civilian who does not draw a distinction between people based on their sexual orientation (Graham, 2003).

This policy served American society’s needs through two administrations – Democratic (Clinton), and Republican (George W. Bush) – which included two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in 2010 public opinion polls began indicating that 67% of Americans support equal and unconcealed military service (Gallup Survey, 2010). It further transpired that the silencing policy had a serious impact on serving homosexuals, for they could not respond to incidents of abuse associated with their sexual orientation for fear of dismissal (in at least one case, the abuse resulted in murder). President Obama made the subject a campaign issue, and after being elected he had the policy repealed.

From a social identity perspective, the DADT policy played a positive role from the point of view of equal rights activists: it constituted a declaration that homosexuals were serving in the military. That being the case, the soldier identity lost its heterosexual orientation, for there was no longer any point in assuming that the proportion of homosexuals in the military is significantly lower than in the general population. Once the soldier identity lost its heterosexual signifier, there was no longer anything to trigger clashes between the two identities. The DADT policy lost its justification, and was abandoned.





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