The lives we lead are not our own: Why privacy is valued

14 Mar



Aton Chekhov, in one of his most famous stories, pauses from character development to discuss privacy.

The passage comes in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” about a young woman and an older man having an adulterous affair that they have kept secret.

“The personal life of every individual,” he wrote, “is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

That was written in 1899, long before the act of “liking” something would send data on your habits and behavior to thousands of marketers. The Internet has become a place where we share its wonders and benefits in exchange for our privacy. We do so either without complaint, or else unknowingly.

Chekhov didn’t have to worry about such things. Nevertheless, he studied the nature of the private life and believed “every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night,” and that everything in the open was false.

A person who, for career or avocation, looks closely at something will share this notion. For as they investigate one thing they invariably see other things not meant to be seen.  Investigate the assassination of President Kennedy and find that there is a cult in Texas wearing underwear made of aluminum foil. I made that up. Real examples would be stranger.

Last night I read the Chekhov passage on privacy. This morning in the newspaper I noticed stories about:

  • A “cannibal cop” convicted of conspiracy to abduct, roast and eat women.
  • An ex-principal charged with possessing child porn.
  • A bookkeeper who stole nearly $650,000 from her employer over several years.

This was just one section in one newspaper in one day.

I agree with the Russian writer that we don’t project much truth in our daily comportment, but it is a little frightening to think that people we consider normal  harbor great inner darkness. Perhaps it’s the complexity of our DNA and the innumerable variations of its structure that produce humans destined to act or think in so many different ways that there is no normal and that everything imaginable – and unimaginable – gets covered.

We are going to be learning a lot more about this, what with cameras everywhere now and odd folks freely indulging themselves on the never private Internet.

All of us are bound to long for the days when those phony exteriors Chekhov spoke of hid the harsh truth of our species.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

4 Responses to “The lives we lead are not our own: Why privacy is valued”

  1. nameerdavis March 26, 2013 at 6:02 am #

    Interesting subject and you lead us somewhere with mention of dna. It doesn’t take long, living in densely inhabited cities to realize that public socially acceptable behaviour is a veneer on instinct.I iI’m particularly taken by the understanding of our genome as a set of competing urges, genes in competitive standoff, and leaving the “Individual” as a less than unified set of behaviours.


  2. June 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    This is such an articulate, excellent and far-ranging website – I really appreciate your rational thinking as evidenced in your prose. And no question the Internet is really the modern Pandora’s Box – I think the impact is such that no one person or book or institution has been able to grasp its enormity. It is destroying businesses, creating new ones and changing our perceptions of ourselves. Sometimes a walk in the woods is the best antidote. I try to focus on the big picture of it all, sometimes simply thinking – well, at least I’ve been privileged to be on earth at a time of such change.


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