Privacy, Schmivacy — The Paradox of Privacy in a Land Where Everyone Wants to Know!

St. Mary’s Wetlands — Fish and Wildlife Service

In the early days of America, huge swathes of land separated one settler from another. Trees, mountains, creeks, canyons, and prairie spread across vast acreage. For those arriving from Europe’s teaming, stench-ridden cities — I always cringe when picturing the unfortunate pedestrian passing by as someone dropped a load of night waste out of a second floor window — the quiet, beauty, fresh air, and frankly, lack of people was a huge attraction.

Living in isolation - that hermit on the island, mountain dweller in a cabin, or Bedouin in a goat hair tent — sounds attractive when a person is beleaguered by the complexities of life. Yet, looking at any map, the propensities of the human animal are apparent; as a social species, humans like to live in company with others. In America, this was the case as far back to the pilgrims. Almost immediately upon making landfall at Cape Cod in 1620, enclaves developed.

Even as the desire for protection, commerce, amenities, and companionship tempted pioneers and puritans to cluster more closely into hamlets, towns, and villages, there were specific limits on togetherness. Houses tended to be solid and substantive with ample space, if not extensive acreage, between residences. David H. Flaherty points out in his Privacy in Colonial New England (1972), “The population in the early years was still so small that no person could escape the physical surveillance of others without special efforts.”

Embarkation of the Pilgrims — Wikimedia Commons

As a consequence of legitimate fears that personal information might be used to persecute or inhibit freedom, laws were created to enforce an illusion of privacy. Long before wiretapping and hacking, eavesdropping was an punishable offense. Though the meaning of the word eavesdropping has long been associated with listening in on another’s conversation, it actually means positioning oneself under the eaves of a house to catch conversations made audible by an open window, door, or vent. The legal issue with eavesdropping is not simply that it is covert or done without the speakers permission, but also that overhearing lends itself to subsequent rumors and devilry.

William Blackstone by Thomas Hamilton Crawford — Wikimedia Commons

The great legal mind, William Blackstone, wrote “Eaves-Droppers are persons who listen under the walls or windows or eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales, and they are said to be a common nuisance, and indictable and punishable by fine, and to find surety for good behavior.” Sometimes a fine was deemed insufficient and these slanderers and liars were sentenced to wear a cleft stick on their tongue. Ouch!

In addition to a prohibition on eavesdropping, the early patriarchs clamped down on female gossip as well. Women, and this rule was only for women, who vented or ranted about other persons in town with regard to their habits, flaws, or ill-considered behaviors could be labeled “a common scold” and called to account for that reason.

Still, not even Blackburn’s grave and costly definition of eaves droppers, or the injunctions upon females presupposed that townsfolk would not gather an abundance of data about their fellows. Eyes and ears operate 24/7, scanning the village pathways for movement and change.

Suzanna Hightower has another new dress. That fabric must have been dear. Why does her father allow her to display herself thus?

John Brown, whose wife is away nursing her mother, is laughing by the well with Mary Evans.

Wilber Enright has been partaking of the rum again. Look how he stumbles down the road.

Coming from kingdoms where information, such as words spoken aloud, religious practices, and speculation about the universe augered ill, Pilgrims and other early settlers rigorously guarded against the spread of information even when they couldn’t ensure a shortage of community knowledge. Curiosity might rule the village psyche, but knowledge-based abuse of one’s neighbors was not tolerated.

Standing as an ironic pillar in the face of privacy fears, for the Plymouth Colony and others, the community itself set strict limits on behavior as dictated by a rigid Christian ethic. The Legal Heritage of Plymouth Colony, by George Haskins, explains, “At Plymouth, as in the Bay Colony, the individual was essentially a member of the community, so that there was no aspect of his life, not even his private conduct, which was free of the control of the law insofar as the law was designed to further effective organization and good order in the community.”

These societal clashes, between the desire to control, the compulsion to know, and the urge to hold secret, continues to confound us. In the 400 years since those earliest Americans arrived and wrestled with these various contentions, the triumvirate of opposing forces surrounding privacy and personal information has yet to find balance. Barring a return to that island, desert, a mountain top, or a complete digital disconnect, perhaps we have to reconcile an insatiable appetite for data among people, communities, and organizations and a primordial, “Dear Diary” craving for secrecy.

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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