If you were invisible

13 August 2008

Invisibility has always been a powerful metaphor for what happens when we step outside — or are forced outside — our own group. When someone becomes “other.” It’s such a common experience of adolescence, and it lingers into adulthood. It’s everywhere in fiction and memoir, television and film. Someone is not like us anymore, or she never was, and we ostracize her and she becomes invisible to us, dead to us. She’s simply not there, even though someone who looks just like her is trying to fumble her locker open with tears in her eyes.

And we become invisible when we are not “real” in other ways. Minority people are invisible as individual human beings to the mainstream culture. Information that the systems of power don’t want revealed stays hidden. And go read How to Suppress Women’s Writing for a cogent look at all the ways to make art “disappear.”

And then there are the invisible monsters. What we can’t see frightens us — the ghost, the seemingly-supernatural serial killer, the shark in dark water. Invisibility is powerful when it’s used to hurt. One way to make a human monster in fiction is to make them literally invisible, and then watch — they get up to all kinds of evil nasty stuff, because they can. They spy. They sneak. They learn things about us that they aren’t supposed to know. We are vulnerable.

And of course invisibility can be cool, too. Harry Potter’s cloak, using the Force to pass undetected, the good guys slipping through the cracks in order to confound evil and carry the day. Because in fiction, the invisibility that is such a weapon against outsiders in the real world becomes the way the outsiders win in the end.

Invisibility is a complex notion for humans, like telepathy and magic. Lots of fodder for story.

But what if you could really be invisible?

What would you do?

I know, I know — if this were available to folks, there would be a whole new list of ways for evil to play out in the world. I’m not interested in hearing how being invisible would improve the effectiveness of murderers and rapists and creepy stalkers, okay? But I am interested in your ideas about what ordinary folks might do if they thought no one could see them. Would they run naked through the streets at lunch hour? Would they have public sex? Would they sneak out of high school past the security guard and then have to sneak back into class later and convince the teacher they were there all the time? Maybe celebrities would use it to get in and out of clubs and courthouses.

What would you do if you could be invisible? What do you think other people would do? And would it always be like it is in fiction, dehumanizing, turning us into uncaring soulless monster creepy folk? Or would there be some good?

I think invisible public sex is the most interesting personal use I can think of right now, in terms of pure fun that hurts no one (or maybe it just shows my lack of imagination, who knows?). And the creepiest personal use I can think of came to me the other night… Nicola and I were sitting on the back deck as the sun went down, drinking beer and talking about being invisible. It’s very private back there, no one can see us. And then I imagined an invisible neighbor or a stranger leaning against the deck railing, just listening to us, feeling the particular power of invasion and secret knowledge. And even though we weren’t saying anything particularly personal, I suddenly felt so vulnerable.

If we could all be invisible, would any of us ever be able to trust again that we are alone? That we are unobserved? Will we ever have a moment that we truly trust is private?

I’m good at purposely forgetting the spy satellites and the systems that monitor all our phone calls and emails and that is probably scanning this innocuous little blog post right now. Those systems are out there — I can’t touch them, I can’t control them, and they aren’t really about me. But someone standing on my deck, watching me — that’s personal.

So invisibility is a cultural weapon, as long as it’s metaphorical, emotional, psychological. When it becomes real — well, then the invisible become very powerful indeed. I have to say that it gives me pause.

Comments

26 Responses to “If you were invisible”

  1. Barbara Sanchez on August 13th, 2008 9:26 am

    Some of the best stories and bon mots I have ever heard, I overheard because the tellers were unaware of me, like eavesdropping in restuarants(inadvertantly and then very advertantly). However, I have a touch of hard earned paranoia, and I don’t like the idea of someone eavesdropping on my conversations. I work with people who are mentally ill, and sometimes other people discuss them in front of them as though they’re not there. There are all kinds of invisibility as you so rightly point out.

  2. Patti on August 13th, 2008 11:02 am

    I guess if you’d asked that question a year ago (when I lived and worked in a very conservative state), then I would’ve used my invisibility for revenge against the people who treated me badly, both at work and in my neighborhood. Now that I have moved where many people are open and accepting of me (I am gay), then I don’t have those feelings of revenge anymore. So I guess I have one original idea and one borrowed from you. My original idea involves this house that I walk by every day with my dog. The car port is terribly messy, and the yard is overgrown and strewn with bikes and toys. Since this mess drives me crazy, I would clean up their carport, mow the yard, and get the whole front yard under control. On the unoriginal side, I think the public sex idea is great.

  3. Anonymous on August 13th, 2008 1:16 pm

    Many moons ago I wrote a ss and submitted it to Bending the Landscape about a woman who came into possession of an invisibility pill. She used her new found invisibility to break in and take back her heart (literally, it was in a jar on the shelf) from the one who no longer loved her. Needless to say, it didn’t make it into the anthology, but I received a nice little note from NG who said she liked it because it made her think.
    Having invisibility at our disposal and how we would use it, says, more than anything, who we are.

  4. Janine on August 13th, 2008 3:10 pm

    Good question. I haven’t thought about that one in a while.

    When I was a child, I was constantly shooed away by my adult family members (I’m the last of 8) to “go play outside” and let the adults talk. It got to be pretty insulting the older I got. I would have loved to be invisible so I could hear the family talk about history I wasn’t around to experience.

    Now? Some days I want to be around people but not interact with them. I might be invisible then. But the BEST idea I have is to be invisible so I can sneak into the library (or even an art museum) and spend the night there reading any book or learning all the history I want at my own pace. Remember The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?

    Your question got me thinking about feeling vulnerable. What if two blind people are conversing outside enjoying the heat and sounds in their backyard? How can they know they’re alone? Must they take extra precautions, or let it go?

  5. Dave on August 13th, 2008 4:36 pm

    As for getting snooped on, this brings me back to the story I always mention in these contexts, like discussions of surveillance, which is Damon Knight’s “I See You.” In a decade of thinking about this story, I have decided that the real issue is not one of privacy but of asymmetry of power. What made Damon’s story so brilliant is that he took a dystopic sounding premise and created a utopia out of it. What made it a utopia was equal access to the technology for all.

    If someone could snoop on you, but you had a way to not only snoop back but know they snooped, the asymmetry goes away. In his story, the creepiness factor is addressed head on where he says that it’s a rite of passage that everyone goes back and watches themselves get conceived. Think of the broken taboos contained in that. Damon’s society is a lot like the cliche about Texas and Montana et al: a completely armed society is a polite society. A world in which you know for a fact every statement you make can be overheard by anyone is a world in which you don’t talk a lot of shit you won’t stand behind. It would be a world without trolls, a utopia in just that!

  6. karina on August 13th, 2008 5:13 pm

    I agree with Dave. If every one of us had access to invisibility, we’d assimilate it just as we’ve assimilated other technologies, such as instant communication, the internet and so on. People may even welcome such a change. Politicians wouldn’t be able to cheat their fellow citizens so much, etc. Some video-bloggers have already wired their apartments with cameras and mics for live 24/7 feeds. In the early stages of societies, there were no walls, no porches, no closed doors.

    When I was a teenager, my mom hired someone to follow my siblings and me around, take pictures and report back what we did and who we met. She also recorded all our phone conversations. One of my “friends” was a “hired ear”. It took us years to figure out what was going on. Those were my “bad self” days (to borrow NIcola’s expression). The experience was hell for everyone involved. I try not to think about the things our mom may have found out about us, or how wrong it feels that she could justify spying on us. Now, my mom’s pretty laid back and respectful, no longer the control-freak of those times. The older she gets, the cooler and wiser she becomes. And I’ve grown into a very well behaved and responsible wife, so I doubt my daily life would interest anyone outside this household.

    Still, after that prolonged exposure, the paranoia that everything I do or say is being recorded somewhere has never left me. Who knows, it may turned out it is so. What Dave says about not talking “shit you won’t stand behind” is a constant in every conversation I take part in. Whenever I give into gossip (which can be very intellectually stimulating), I feel compelled to seek out the person being referred to and say, “This is what I said about you the other day. I’m sorry I didn’t wait for you to be present before I said it.”

  7. Kelley on August 13th, 2008 5:40 pm

    This is all fascinating. Thank you all so much for this interesting conversation, and I hope it continues. It’s making me smile to read what people would do with their individual powers….

    And it’s making me think (nods to Anonymous). I’m not convinced that invisibility would be — will be? — a Good Thing for society, regardless of how it might improve individual behavior. I have very deep-seated notions of individual privacy…

    But I’m listening intently to what everyone has to say, and it’s definitely making me consider things differently.

    Huh.

  8. Janine on August 13th, 2008 7:22 pm

    I think invisibility, as fun as it could be, would be more work and worry than it’s worth.

    Sure, maybe we’d assimilate. Maybe we’d re-arrange our lives and what we say and when and to whom, but that sounds like a society based on fear and paranoia. Haven’t governments already tried “invisible snooping”? (That was rhetorical.) I hate to say it, but I think humans are too easily swayed by fear. I think fear would rule us before technology had time to keep up with the consequences of invisibility.

  9. Jennifer on August 13th, 2008 7:52 pm

    Yes, I can think of a lot more bad things happening with the invisibility cloak than good. Maybe only rich governments would have it.

    I’m curious about that public sex thing; is that for convenience – for doing it whenever the mood strikes? It seems like most people who enjoy public sex like it because they CAN be seen. Of course there’s always sound…

    The only thing I think I’d probably really do is walk around naked more often – weather and obstacles permitting. Or maybe look in occasionally on people I worry about, but would rather not have to interact with because they are so clingy or whatever.

    Mostly though, I’d rather be seen/heard than be invisible.

  10. Robin on August 14th, 2008 7:42 am

    My first thought on this is odd! I thought that even if I were invisible God would still know what I was doing/thinking (I can take the girl out of the catholic, but not the catholic out of the girl!) – so my own conscience dictates. And, that is surpisingly reassuring to me.

    I’m thinking of all kinds of things – not the least of which is social cohesion.

    Great question Kelly . . . and yes, great conversation.

  11. Anonymous on August 14th, 2008 9:18 am

    Now Robin has really hit on something!y. Hmmm…If we could choose to be invisible with a cloak or a pill or whatever, it might lead to us to having our own way all the time, which is perhaps the draw to this idea of nobody seeing what we’re up to.Unfortunately, there is always at least one person who knows what you are doing and what you have done 100 percent of the time. Invisible or not, there is one person nobody can rid themselves from completely. (nope, it’s not God)

  12. Jennifer on August 14th, 2008 11:07 am

    Yeah, I thought of that too. Not so much because I would do things I wouldn’t think are ethical, but because I think I get in my own way sometimes.

    In more ways than one, I struggle with myself sometimes; it might be nice to have a pill that would let me (my historical self) be invisible to my current self. Free of my own tired old conceptions/misconceptions/expectations about myself — for a little while. That is tempting — an easy way of accomplishing something I have to work at.

  13. Robin on August 14th, 2008 2:12 pm

    Privacy is the crux of freedom. Without it, or confidence in it’s existence, well then, I can’t imagine what life would be like. Faith in others (social cohesion) is very grounded in our sense of privacy. A simple example, part of the reason I trust my close friends, partner and family members is that they would not read my diary.

    For clarification, my first thought about it (that God was watching) struck me as very odd because I don’t believe in god at all. Which, is why non-religious based morality is so critical . . .

    I revel in getting in my own way . . . to discover what it is to be me . . . sometimes the only way I find out is to stumble over myself. However, as an idea, I think I would like it more to be able to take a pill and as you say Jennifer, have a chance to not have my own psychological history!

  14. karina on August 14th, 2008 3:11 pm

    Whoa, this discussion keeps growing. How interesting. Everyone seems to assume that there this such a thing as privacy in our culture. Having worked in IT, I’m quite aware of just how much information you can get on somebody if you only know who to ask. And it isn’t that expensive, either. So I’m already thinking that each one of us has invisible entities living inside our homes, walking us to the mall, keeping tabs on our likes and dislikes, who we’re friends with, who we choose to ignore.

    We’ve already assimilated those invisible watchers. I’ll go even further and say that we’ve embraced them to the point that privacy would come at a cost. Am I ready to cut up my credit cards and relinquish those “free” trips Airmiles afford me? Nope. So I let corporations know just how many rolls of toilet paper I bought last week. Am I willing to stop reading this and every other blog? Nope. So I’m comfortable with the idea that Kelley can find out (if she simply asks her tech person) exactly how many people visit her blog every day, what computers and browsers we use, who is our Internet provider, in what city do we live and the individual number that identifies our computer and links it to our home addresses. Is my cellphone on? Yup. Someone knows exactly where on Earth am I standing. What about Facebook, MySpace, et al? Got them. An pretty accurate record of who I work or study with, the events I’ve attended this past year, etc. I live in an apartment building, so each time I use the card that opens the front door, a computer logs my exits and entries. It knows when I walk or take the bus, or when I choose to drive my car. Most of my family and friends live in another country, so a significant number of my most personal conversations take place over the phone and third parties could listen in.

    Now I’m chuckling at myself. How do I rank on the paranoia charts? The thing is, I once read the Paranoid’s Manual, and the first rule said that, “No matter how paranoid you are, you can never be paranoid enough.” I’m too lazy to try and excel at something I’ll never be good enough at, so I’ve just come to terms with being watched. I think it’d be fair if we all had the same power some self-appointed few already exercise. I believe the internet wasn’t meant to be handed to the masses. A lot of control freaks high up the food chain are probably really upset that things got so out of hand. Individuals can reach individuals without having to go through the filtering process that had been so carefully institutionalized. I agree that if we could all be invisible, there’d be a lot of mischief and mayhem in the beginning. But once the novelty wore off, we’d use it with moderation. And Robin, I wouldn’t read your diary either. I still have some personal boundaries well set around respect and reciprocity.

  15. duffy on August 15th, 2008 4:22 pm

    I would be SUPER NINJA !! Protector of all and death to the Evil ones!

    In my dreams, only. I don’t like the idea of being invisible. It seemed to me I had become invisible in the 7th grade and stayed that way aal through those wonderful high school yeras. And I too, like Barbara, have worked with persons with mental illness and they truly do become invisible. Especially when they’re homeless and no one wants to see that phenomenon in their very own streets.

    Basically, I don’t like and don’t trust invisibility. Especially since the military has been working on this tecnology for a long time and I get the shakes thinking about an invisible military.

    duff

  16. Kelley on August 15th, 2008 4:50 pm

    This is all really interesting, so many different ideas.

    Things are starting to crystallize for me around notions of privacy, and my belief that privacy is mine to have, not others’ to give me. I don’t want to have to bet my privacy on other people’s good manners or good intentions. Manners are not a universal truth — they vary wildly depending on so many cultural factors. And if people’s “good intentions” veer over into doing something for “my own good,” well, privacy is usually the first thing to go.

    And I do understand that my privacy is already violated in a zillion different ways by my own government. I don’t discount that at all. I think it’s wrong. And I also do not take it personally in the same way I would if my neighbor got invisible and snuck into my office and watched me while I was working.

    Is that a rational or consistent attitude? Well, no…. the government ‘s intrusions can hurt me a lot more than my neighbor’s. So it’s not rational — but I think it has something to do with sphere of control. I have little hope of controlling my government, but I do see my neighbor as within range.

    And yet, I love some of these ideas about cleaning up people’s yards and checking in on folks (and Super Ninja!). Random acts of invisible kindness. That wouldn’t be so bad.

  17. Duncan on August 16th, 2008 2:52 pm

    At the risk of going too far from the invisibility topic, isn’t “privacy” a fairly messy term, though? I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read Michael Warner’s book “Publics and Counterpublics.”

    Something may be nobody else’s business even if it happens outdoors in plain sight. If two men or two women walk down the street holding hands, for example; or if someone simply doesn’t like someone else’s outfit or haircut. You can disapprove, of course, but is okay to walk up to the offenders and confront them with your disapproval? Most likely you’d be told to mind your own business. If a heterosexual couple walk down the street holding hands, or even making out, they are largely invisible even though they’re in plain sight. Most people, including many gays, won’t notice them.

    I recently read a novel, Lost Men, by Brian Leung. The American-born narrator goes back to China with his father, and as they’re moving through the back streets of a city he sees a man wearing nothing but his briefs, bathing himself out of a basin. “Where’s his decency?” the narrator asks his father indignantly. “Where is yours?” his father counters; “no one else is looking.” And, the narrator realizes, no one else is. (Which reminds me of something I have trouble adjusting to, despite several long visits to Korea: men’s restrooms are cleaned by (usually middle-aged) women. I still jump when I’m standing at a urinal and a woman walks in with mop and cloth, but no one else does.

    That’s another kind of invisibility, of course, the invisibility of service people, especially women. But back to “privacy”, I remember hearing on TV as a kid that “in private life” Miss Taylor is Mrs. Mike Todd. Or whoever. Marriage belongs to the private sphere, but it happens in public: one wears a ring to flaunt one’s private life; the engagement, the issuing of the marriage license, and the wedding take place in public spaces. I’ve often argued with closeted queerfolk who insist that their private life is nobody’s business, but who also wanted to get legally married. That will entail coming out publicly (in the newspaper, yet!). I blogged some more around this topic at http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com/2008/07/tales-of-closet.html

    We use “private” to mean a lot of things, then. It sometimes means “secret” (in fact I think that is its original meaning, as in “privy”), but remember the Victorian erotic memoir “My Secret Life”: to be married is private, to commit adultery or hire prostitutes is secret. Sometimes it reflects a different division, between “public” and “private,” but as Warner showed that’s a boundary that is far from clear. One other neat thing I got from Warner: he quoted an early 19th century writer, one of the Beechers, I think, who was outraged around 1820 or 1830 that a woman would be a public speaker, perhaps for abolition: she should have stayed home. (What struck me was how Talibanic his tone was.) So sometimes “public” means men’s sphere and “private” means women’s and children’s. … I need to reread “Publics and Counterpublics”, I think.

  18. Kelley on August 17th, 2008 5:33 pm

    Duncan, this is all very interesting, and doesn’t seem off-topic to me. I also really enjoyed your blog post about privacy today.

    Privacy and invisibility are linked, for sure. Kissing cousins, at least. I like your story of the moment in Lost Men, because of the direct link: sometimes the decent thing to do is to allow each other to be invisible — I do not see you in this moment, and therefore this moment did not happen. We allow each other our dignity and self-respect in those moments.

    And then there are the times when that kind of social invisibility and emphasis on “personal privacy” turn into weapons. You said on your blog, “It’s not what other people know about me that makes me nervous, it’s what they think they know, and what they’ll feel entitled to do about it.” And when those actions are in the private sphere, yeeps…. here we go down the path of domestic violence, as one example, which has always been supported by “it’s a private matter” as well as by the cultural refusal to see a person’s bruises.

    This is a real Tardis topic, isn’t it? So much bigger on the inside…

  19. Duncan on August 18th, 2008 7:44 pm

    Thanks, Kelley, I think this discussion is very interesting too. I agree with what you say about times when it is important to allow an other to be invisible, but I think the incident from Lost Men is not of that kind. I’d say the man’s nudity in the street is more like the scanty attire permissible at the beach. Someone from a culture that taboos nudity very strongly would feel the same way at an American beach that the narrator of Lost Men felt about the man bathing in the street. But the people in swimsuits aren’t being immodest, even though they might be embarrassed to be seen in public wearing only underwear that might cover them more than their swimsuits do. Everyone sees the exposed skin, but it’s not inappropriate at the beach or at a pool.

    Anyway, yes, a topic like this just unpacks into an amazing complexity. I’ve never seen Dr. Who, believe it or not. The image that occurs to me is the hyperdimensional luggage Rufo unpacks in Heinlein’s Glory Road. Folded up, one person can carry it easily, but it unpacks into several trunks’ worth. And then refolds.

  20. Kelley on August 19th, 2008 3:12 pm

    Ah, Duncan, I understand the beach analogy. Fair enough. And now, of course, we are getting into a slightly different variant of culture invisibility, which is blending in when one is visiting a different culture. The “when in Rome…” approach. I associate this with courtesy. I think it’s polite not to confound the mores of other cultures just so I can assert my “American” right to be me.

    For example — when I visited Mérida in Mexico, I didn’t wear shorts or tank tops on the street because it was considered immodest for women. It was inappropriate. And I had no desire to be “visible” in an offensive way.

    My, my. What we do and do not show (literally and metaphorically), and what we do and do not see, goes very wide and deep.

  21. Kelley on August 21st, 2008 7:15 am

    This conversation may be coming to its natural end, but I just came across this post and conversation at Wil Wheaton’s blog. I’ve linked to his commentary rather than the original essay (he provides a link to the original) because I think the comments conversation at his place is more interesting.

    This post is about privacy, but since that’s come up here a few times, I thought some of you might find it interesting.

  22. Duncan on August 21st, 2008 9:08 am

    Thanks for that link, Kelley. I don’t think that the conversation there adds much to what we’ve all been saying here, though. There seems to be a lot of confusion there as to what “privacy” is, as shown by this (presumably rhetorical) question from one commenter, “Does someone having sex in the back corner of a public department store deserve the privileges of privacy?” Is privacy a “privilege,” or as others were saying, a “right”? I don’t think it’s either one, really. To answer that commenter’s question, someone having sex in the back corner of a department store *is* having sex in “private”, just like someone having sex in their room in a public hotel. And a department store is a private place, as you’ll find if you try to hand out political leaflets there without permission. I’m thinking about registering at Wheaton’s site and putting in my 2 cents’ worth.

    About the beach thing, I agree with what you say, but I think it’s more interesting to turn it around, as I did: not “should I wear less than the natives wear?” but “can I force the natives to wear as much as I do?” That’s why I put it in terms of someone from a ‘conservative’ country being scandalized at an American beach. Someone might feel that his “privacy” was being invaded by all these immodest women running around showing skin.

  23. Kelley on August 21st, 2008 9:30 am

    What interests me about all this is how varied definitions of privacy are.

    When I was learning ASL, we had to do a project on semantics. We picked several words that had resonance in Deaf culture and then conducted interviews with both deaf and hearing people about what those words meant to them — not the dictionary definitions, but what they believed those words connoted, what emotional as well as literal meaning they carried.

    And it was astonishing to find out how wide the differences were, not just between cultural groups but between individuals who seemed to have more in common.

    So, I think you and I have different ideas about what “private” means. I’m not advocating for one idea or the other, just interested at how the differences play out. I don’t think that having sex in the store is “in private.” And so on some level we just don’t agree on terms. That’s cool with me, it makes me think more carefully about my own definitions.

  24. karina on August 21st, 2008 10:51 am

    Yes, we each have different ideas and ideals about privacy. Of the ones I’ve read so far, I tend to side with Bruce Schneier. I don’t think that security is an excuse for people in positions of power to take away our rights. But I do still question our Western notion of privacy. Is our need to be private part of what allows the Institutions of Fear to prevail?

    I watched God Grew Tired of Us three days ago and this post on invisibility came back to me. The movie is about the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan: 25,000 kids (ages 3 to 13) who fled villages during civil war, traveled barefoot across the sub-Saharan desert, and formed a huge surrogate family in order to survive. Just a look at their camp allows you to conclude that what we think of as privacy doesn’t operate there, and this is a positive trait of Dinka culture.

    The documentary follows some of the “Boys” who are relocated to the US. In a NY Times interview, Christopher Quinn (the director) says, “The one thing that all of the guys who came to the United States were really surprised by — they ended up in this isolation that I don’t think they were prepared for. John’s roommate called me up one day about a month after they arrived. He was sitting in the apartment by himself, and he said, ‘This is the very first time I’ve ever, ever been alone.’ The most significant thing that I learned from Dinka culture is the importance, the real necessity, of family. Family not in the nuclear sense but family in this big sense, of you should always engage with your neighbors and make sure they’re O.K.”

    (John is one of the Lost Boys who went to the US and later returned to Africa to build a clinic.) “John told me that if somebody got sick in his village, 12 or 18 guys would carry them to the hospital, 75 miles away. Half would lock arms and carry the person, then they would rotate, so they could always keep running.”

    This tribal way of life echoes my thoughts when I said that, in the beginning, human societies had no walls, no closed doors or windows. We huddled close together for protection. Even now, we should be able to rely on our neighbors for security, not be afraid of one another. I remember a friend telling me that she was reluctant to walk around in her rich-people neighborhood, because she was sure that if she fell down and broke her leg, she could scream her lungs out and no one would come out of their homes to help. Cellphones have become walking companions. We feel terribly isolated, yet fear intrusion. I think that paranoia is also part of the Institutions of Fear that manipulate people into upholding systems that have consistently harmed lives across the planet.

    This is why I thought that invisibility for the masses (not a cloak, more like an X-Men mutation and in the spirit of Damon Knight) could give us ground to knock down at least some of our fear of one another. But reading this thread, I realize it creeps people out more than it makes them curious to see what would happen.

  25. Duncan on August 22nd, 2008 9:00 am

    I think it’s not so much that we have different ideas about what privacy is, as that the word has lots of different meanings, and for any serious discussion of an issue, all the participants need to be aware of that. If A is using a word in one sense (privacy as secrecy, for instance) and B in another sense (privacy as it has come to be defined judicially in the US in the past 40 years or so), they’ll just talk past each other. (Which is what’s happening in that other thread much of the time.) Or if A equivocates meanings from sentence to sentence. I’m not saying that the meaning(s) you’re using are wrong, Kelley, because they’re not wrong, I’m just saying that the different meanings are there and we need to be aware of them.

    Real-world example. Gay person B opposes sodomy laws because they violate the Right to Privacy. Antigay person A says, if you’re so concerned about privacy, why do you have to tell everybody that you’re gay and hold hands in the streets?

    Have you ever read Raymond Williams’s book Keywords? It’s a sort of topical, historical dictionary that shows how important concept words like “culture,” “art”, “democracy,” have evolved historically and still carry older along with newer meanings. It’s a great book which can either be read straight through or used as a reference, and I think everyone who’s interested in such things ought to read it.

  26. Kelley on August 22nd, 2008 8:57 pm

    Fair enough. It’s definitely important for people to define terms — we don’t do it enough, and so many of us end up thinking we’re talking about the same thing, but really having different conversations “at” each other.

    I haven’t read Keywords, I’ll put it on the library list. Thanks for the recommendation.