Privacy as Social Mechanism for Preserving Identity Inconsistency

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Rehabilitating War Widows

The State of Israel’s obligation and responsibility toward IDF widows was formulated back in the 1950s. The purpose of the laws was to financially rehabilitate those who were either adversely affected as a result of military activity or lost a family member in combat. However, an IDF widow’s entitlement to a pension was conditional upon her not remarrying. The establishment did not provide reasons for this stipulation, but it may be assumed that her identity as an IDF widow might be impaired if she were to start a new family. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, and especially since the Six-Day War (1967), the IDF widow’s public status, her presence at memorial ceremonies, and prominence in the public discourse have positioned her as an ‘agent of commemoration’ and part of Israel’s commemoration, heroism and patriotism discourse (Ben-Asher & Lebel, 2010).

The revocation of an IDF widow’s pension rights once she remarries resulted in many widows concealing new intimate relationships over the years, and refraining from remarrying for fear of losing their pensions. They also kept their public appearances beside a new partner to a minimum, fearing public criticism over what was perceived as a ‘desecration of the fallen’, and as the widow rebelling against the role demands placed on her, which accorded her a single role: widowhood (Lebel, 2011). Shamgar-Handelman (1986) explains this articulately in her description of the widow being turned into a client who is obliged to maintain unique behaviors in exchange for her public status and entitlement for support from the bureaucratic-establishment arena.

A number of social, political, and institutional processes took place in Israel in the late 1990s (including a toning down of the glorification ethos of ‘fallen soldiers’), and as a result of pressure exerted by a large number of IDF widows, the political arena began being exposed to the voices of social representations that protested against the republican equation, on one side of which are financial benefits and symbolic inclusion in the ‘IDF widows’ group and the ‘Israeli family of bereavement’, and on the other, the widows refraining from remarrying (Ben-Asher & Lebel, 2010). It should be noted that keeping a new intimate relationship secret is inconsistent with the professional understanding, which was indicated in a 1970s study (Amir & Sharon, 1979), that marriage and starting a new family are an important component in the widows’ rehabilitation.

The new winds and changes in the social discourse in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century gained public expression in the mass media. Thus for example, one of the widows who led the IDF widows’ struggle to amend the Fallen SoldiersFamilies (Pensions and Rehabilitation) Law, declared: “In Israel’s reality, IDF widows did not go on demonstrations, but we found roundabout ways that became the accepted norm and were done openly, not in hiding. I know of more than one widow who was told by her rehabilitation worker: Hallo, don’t be, pardon me, an idiot and lose all your rights” (Kol Yisrael, Reshet Aleph, May 3, 2006, 15:00; see also Heruti-Sover, 2006).

It seems that the social worker, a representative of the state, found herself instructing the widow how to set the boundary between private and public. Privacy was found to be an effective practice for organizing the incompatibility between the national identity, which demanded that the widow remain in her current status, and the rehabilitation policy, which viewed forming a new intimate relationship as an appropriate and positive act in the widows’ rehabilitation process. Thus, the establishment, which has the ability to grant benefits and enforce social norms, was influenced by conflicting interests: the continued existence of the ethos concerning public servants, and assisting in the widows’ rehabilitation. Creating norms associated with the non-transfer of private information concerning an intimate relationship, in other words setting a boundary of privacy, enabled the coexistence of these conflicting interests (Paryente & Orr, 2010; Ben-Asher, 2003).

The two cases described above illustrate how privacy is not only a social representation, as argued by Oetzel and Gonja (2011), but a system of representations functioning as a social mechanism. It is in society’s interest to have boundaries of privacy between the identities, for they allow different and even conflicting expectations to be placed on individuals, each of which society views as possessing value in itself.
Preserving the Boundaries of Privacy in the Face of Information Technology and the Internet

It is virtually impossible nowadays to engage in the issue of privacy without mentioning the place of information technology in this context. Commercial companies mine for information in private databanks for commercial use, concurrently with the activities of individuals themselves, who breach the boundaries of their privacy on public Facebook walls, and other social networks and media. Births or marriage proposals are broadcast live, and conversely, suicides or divorce disputes – everything is seemingly wide open and permissible. Most consumers are prepared to share their personal details with others if they know they can reap some kind of benefit. The main functions for which people are prepared to relinquish their privacy are access to transport channels (flights, trains, and buses), going into public sites (stadiums, airports, and so forth), border control, and access to internet accounts. Another example of an interest in disclosure can be found on Facebook: individuals who disclose personal information gain high social capital, since the attention of surfers is gained according to the degree to which individuals are prepared to reveal personal information. The better you are at telling heartrending stories, the more you gain in ‘The Pain Olympics’, and the greater the social identification you receive from friends on the web.

It seems that in this clash of titans, the boundary between public and private, between the desire to share and the need to protect against exposure, is unclear, and is reexamined each time anew according to changing situations. Birnhack (2005, 2010) defines this state of technology as freedom, and sometimes even as anarchy. Yet he also claims that although technology threatens privacy, it also develops the means to protect it. Technological reality always precedes imagination, and the social codes restricting technology when it is used to mine and cross-reference data, and extract new information about people’s lifestyle and behavior, are usually defined retrospectively. The following example, which will also be explained by means of Social Representations Theory, illustrates the fragility of the boundaries between private and public in the modern technology era.

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