11 January 2018
Black And White
Should we live in the shadows?
By John Watson
Black and white. Night and day. Brightness and shade. Transparent and opaque. Ever since God divided light from darkness in the fourth verse of Genesis, contrasting terms have been used to separate what is open and clear from what exists in the shadows. On the one hand, daylight, exposing weaknesses which we would all rather keep private from an uncomprehending and unfair world. On the other, privacy, a shelter which allows us to keep things hidden and to manoeuvre in the dark. It is a warm and comfortable place, a little damp and musty perhaps, a warm cellar in which unclean things can flourish away from the prying eyes of the outside world, and yet a space in which we can develop as human beings.
So here we are, at the beginning of 2018, trying, as always, to strike the balance between the claims of these two perfectly legitimate pressures. Where does the light of exposure need to be shone? Where do we need space in which we can just be ourselves? Let us look at some of the frontiers over which this war has been fought in the last year or so.
An obvious starting point is public affairs. Here, “transparency” is the watchword. What happens when Grenfell Towers burn down? Or when there are allegations of multiple child abuse? Or when people die in mid-Staffs hospitals? Why, there is a public enquiry, of course. What is the purpose of those enquiries? To expose what went wrong and help identify those responsible. Does that impinge upon their right to make decisions in public? Of course it does. Still, the public interest in the truth is paramount so privacy must take a back seat.
What then of people’s personal affairs? Is it right that they can keep their tax returns private or should there be some sort of public access? There is no doubt that the publication of the Paradise papers (a jarring reminder that confidential information does not always remain secret) has made taxpayers more chary of using offshore structures designed to avoid tax. So too have HMRC’s powers to “name and shame” serial tax avoiders. But at what cost? Information on complex matters can be dishonestly presented in order to produce sensational copy, and that was done in relation to some of the material in the Paradise papers. Then too, the relationship between tax payers and the authorities is supposed to be frank, and frankness is undermined by the possibility of exposure. The Norwegian system under which all tax returns are public has a certain freshness about it, but resulted in much prurient searching until the rules changed so that the name of the searcher became public too. Even then there are questions as to whether disclosure of earnings will open social divisions. We really don’t want to hear “I don’t talk to that boy. His father hardly earns anything at all,” echoing round the school playground.
What about minor criminal misbehaviour, to take another example? The trend here is towards privacy and concealment, with “spent” convictions and with groups like “Hacked Off” anxious to keep sexual peccadilloes behind a wall of silence. It is often easy to have sympathy with this and many people were uncomfortable at seeing Damian Green, a man who, whether you share his politics or not, was making a perfectly honest contribution to the Government, destroyed because of pornography on his computer which would have been entirely legal when downloaded. Yes, yes, I appreciate that it was the lies which brought him down, but he wouldn’t have had to tell lies if the truth would not have had the same effect. Would not a screen of privacy have been a good thing here? And indeed it was something to which he was entitled as the police officer responsible for the revelations will hopefully find out in a very painful way. Still, there is another side to it too. If the public were more used to detailed information about peoples’ weaknesses, attitudes might be more generous and Mr Green would not have had to be so concerned about them.
One can argue the pros and cons of all these issues exhaustively, and most of the time the protagonists will line up by reference to their position on a specific circumstance rather than general principle. Still, there is a general point, and it is neatly summed up by that great American judge Louis Brandeis:
“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
In an area where we tend to see through a glass, darkly, this statement is a mirror which can often give us perspective.
Take the current tide of sexual abuse allegations as a start. Over the years, abusive behaviour has been hushed up, in private, in businesses, in the House of Commons, at the BBC, in Hollywood, in fact just about anywhere you care to mention. The result? It has mushroomed under the cloak of privacy afforded it so that, when that cloak was withdrawn, many of us were unable to believe what lurked beneath it. Privacy here is seen at its worst – a feeding ground for corruption and vice. Few people would want to see it reinforced in this area.
Then let us go over to the universities where activists drive to ban unpopular views from “safe spaces”. What is the likely result of that? Will those views disappear with everybody gradually centring on a consensual norm? Or, in these days where the radical right and left are again making themselves heard in Europe, will offensive ideas go underground and, like sexual misbehaviour, grow quietly in the dark and emerge strengthened and invigorated by their hibernation? Anyway, what are offensive views? Who decides? Is the decision made in the open with the reasoning exposed to public vigilance, or is it made in the “safe” and musty atmosphere of secret cabals? If the aim is to prevent discussion of prohibited ideas it has to be the second, doesn’t it? That puts our safe spaces friends down with the sex abusers and tax avoiders. I do hope that I’m not being unfair to them?
Brandeis’s words are essentially a practical guide, but there is another aspect to all this. We are faced with two sorts of society. One bans discussion of the things it fears and pretends that they do not exist. It is hard on the shrinking violets, who lose the warmth in which they would perhaps strengthen and grow and are instead exposed to the winds of reality. Then there is a society whose members stand up and face the wind, seeking and facing the truth, accepting the risk of being misunderstood and fighting for what they believe in. To which would you rather belong?