Privacy as Social Mechanism for Preserving Identity Inconsistency

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The present article discusses how the boundaries of privacy are created – the information the individual allows to be disclosed, and the system of social pressures that appears in the form of sanctions or rewards in the negotiation over the extent and timing of disclosure. This is a complex system that functions in a dialectic of interrelations that apply pressure in two directions: the individual on society, and society on the individual. Sometimes the individual wants to breach the boundaries of privacy that society has set for him, whereas society imposes gatekeeper mechanisms on him in the form of boundaries; and sometimes society (or bodies acting within it) tries to use force to breach the boundaries of privacy the individual has set for himself.

Social representations simultaneously refer to the actions of the individual and the actions of the group, and consequently simultaneously belonging to several social groups means the coexistence of discrete and at times conflicting social representations. As long as the representations are not confronted with their dissonance and inconsistency – oftentimes due to privacy – they can coexist. The issue emerges in conflict situations wherein the individual has to choose a mode of action from several incompatible possibilities. At times the preferences are clear, but at others it is difficult to predict which identity will be chosen, or which identity is the more important.

Unlike previous perceptions whereby the individual possesses a ‘true self’ and a ‘false self’ (Winnicott, 1965, 1971; Holinger, 2009), and the role of the ‘false self’ is to protect the ‘true self’ by concealing it, we contend that the purpose of being able to simultaneously live with different identities that are concealed in certain situations, is not only to protect the individual from society, but also to protect society’s hegemonic character, which is presented by means of shared social representations.

Most of the studies on privacy in the past have examined it from the perspective of the rights of the individual. The innovation proposed in this article is in viewing privacy as a social mechanism, as an arrangement that works to preserve the existence of different identities and social order. Whereas the legal approach addresses privacy as an independent value, our approach is that privacy is a social mechanism that is constantly being redefined in accordance with changing social circumstances. Goffman (1959) asserts that secrets possess a dual character in society: they include the facts that are concealed, as well as their very concealment. He draws a distinction between strategic secrets associated with intentions, like secrets that businesspeople or the military keep in order to prevent the other party from being prepared, and ‘internal’ secrets that belong to the individual as a group member.

Goffman understood the importance of secrets: controlling secrets defines the group, and also serves as a tool. He did not, however, draw a distinction between situations wherein keeping a secret is only in the group’s interest (salespeople and customers), and situations wherein keeping a secret is in the interest of both the keepers of the secret and the audience. Goffman uses an analogy of the explicit presentation that includes actors, audience, and behind the scenes.

With reference to the concept of privacy presented in this article, audience and actors alike demand the preservation of the secret. If the illusion (the stage sets) collapses, the audience will be adversely affected as will the actors themselves.

The first two cases we presented describe privacy as a mechanism that serves social interests, and its functioning as occurring in the face of incompatibility between conflicting hegemonic identity representations. Thus, the soldier with the homosexual identity also preserves the identity of the solder as a ‘macho man’, as well as the identity of the civilian who chooses his sexual orientation. In the example of the IDF widows who lost their husbands in national military activity, it is evident that society wanted their rehabilitation, and at the same time also wanted to see them as ‘living monuments’, a reminder of the heroism of the fallen soldiers, and the state’s gratitude for the sacrifice made by the individual for society. The fact that the laws on homosexuals serving in the US Army, and on IDF widows remarrying, were changed is an indication that just as the social representations that define identities are dynamic, thus too the boundaries of privacy as they are expressed in law change in accordance with complex social circumstances, and what was once private can become public.

The Target case illustrates how a commercial company’s interest in matching its products to the customer and his needs (a legitimate interest that at times even possesses social and economic value without there being a contradiction between them) unintentionally violates the interest of privacy. Birnhack (2010) presents a similar example in his description of the technological development of the cookie, which made surfing the internet very easy, but also became a means of tracking and violating privacy. Rostholder (2009) contends that it is the tension between the individual and society that creates the need to decide on the line where the public domain ends and privacy begins. We believe that this tension is immanent and cannot be decided, and should be accepted as stemming from a dynamic social reality in both the social and technological spheres.

The innovation proposed here is in viewing privacy as a mechanism for maintaining inconsistency between identities. A variety of identities is required in modern, liberal Western society, identities which are often contradictory, non-coherent, and clashing, although they need social legitimacy as well. The privacy mechanisms society creates thus enable the individual to maintain the necessary separation and hold conflicting identities, and consequently protecting privacy is not only in the individual’s interest, but in society’s as well.

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