After posting that piece on “The Public Interest” according to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who stated “Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear, absolutely nothing,” and who was then taken to task for it by The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, I decided to do a bit of research into the historical meaning and etymology of the word “privacy”. It seems the meaning of the word “privacy” is being unilaterally and arbitrarily redefined.
This itself may be the real issue of the sought after “debate” about surveillance and the powers of the techno-corporate state — who controls meaning?
I repeat, Mr. Hague and those who make similar arguments that “law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear, absolutely nothing” are being perfidious and disingenuous. Since much of our legal language and political conceptions descend from Roman law, how did the Romans understand the relation between public and private (both Latin words)?
The Latin verb “privare” is a strange one. It has an essential ambiguity. On the one hand, it means to deprive, steal or rob. It also means to free, liberate, or release. So you can see, perhaps, where Marx’s charge that “property is theft” has an historical ring of truth to it. It appears to be implicit in the very meaning of the word “private”. Is “private enterprise” liberation? Or is it organised pillage and theft? The meaning of “privacy” is ambiguous in that respect, for it may well be both. “Privatise” is theft from the commonwealth or public. The word “private” is connected to the word “pirate”, although to the pirate, “privatise” is, in a sense, “liberate”.
The word “privatus” means “apart from the state”, so the “private” soldier was, in that sense, apparently a citizen soldier who was not part of the state apparatus — not part of the standing or professional army. “Privatus” has a host of other meanings. My Latin dictionary includes the following: “personal, individual, peculiar, isolated , withdrawn, ordinary (language)”, but also as noun form, “civilian, privacy, retirement”.
But given the ambiguity of the word “private”, it can be considered also something criminal and anti-social, implying concealment, hiding, segregation, keeping or secreting away secrets, a theft, a robbery.
There is a close connection between the meanings “privatus” as “apart from the state” and the meaning of “individual”, therefore.
But to hold and maintain oneself “apart from the state” is itself ambiguous also. One of the meanings of the verb form “privare” is “to set apart”, and “to set apart” is also the meaning of “exile” — ex-silium. The suffix “silium” is connected with “silence”. So, exile is silencing. What is called “internal exile” today, is silencing, as radically enforced “setting apart”, or isolation from the res publica, and as the extreme form of privatisation.
The hermit is a voluntary exile, who goes freely into the silence and isolation. The internal exile is an involuntary hermit, whose silence and isolation is imposed.
When surveillance is universal and ubiquitous, then the meaning of “private” as distinct, separate, and “apart from the state” is nullified. And therewith, also the meaning of “individual” too. In terms of the “new normal”, privacy is concealment. But then, so must be individuality, for the concepts of private and individual are very closely related.
That’s the import of Mr. Hague’s argument. One can no longer maintain one’s status as “apart from the state”, because mass surveillance abolishes the very meaning of “private”. But, consequently, also of the very meaning of the “individual”.
Alright. If that is the case, and that mass surveillance basically annuls the whole meaning of “privacy” as the “individual”, and reinterprets privacy as “concealment” or “hiding”, then we have here that insight Jean Gebser had into our situation over 60 years ago, when he wrote,
The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavor.
Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections have already been broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient” — Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 1949, p. 3
Therein lies the issue of “ironic reversal” at the extremity, and the self-negation of the Modern Era. Privacy has become equated with concealment, individuality with secretiveness, secretiveness with ciminality. One is expected to declare and expose oneself totally and transparently to the Eye. But in doing so, one loses oneself completely.
As Nietzsche put it, in his definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”.