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The difference between Privacy and the more murky term Private Life

22.08.2014

Raj Meetarbhan has rightly justified L’Express publishing photos of the Prime Minister dancing with a Labour Party agent at a private party, on the grounds that people need to know who this public figure’s close friends are, especially when they are rising business stars. In fact, his friends do include beneficiaries of Labour’s “democratization of the economy”, which is synonymous with “crony capitalism”. His relationships are obviously of public interest because the closer they are, the more the favours accorded are being accorded by the politician to himself.

Mr. Meetarbhan and others have also argued for “free expression”. People have a right to know. The press has a job to inform people on matters of public interest. Agreed.

Confusion over two concepts
However, there is another fundamental issue at stake, one that the Francophone tradition has masked with feudal pudeur until women became more emancipated. When the French Press was found guilty of covering up decades of predatory sexual behaviour towards women by Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), it finally became clear, even in French media academies, that there are two different concepts with two completely different meanings that have been confused, conflated, and treated as having the same meaning: “the right to privacy” and something rather sinister called “a private life”.

Let’s look at the difference, which reveals a third reason to support the L’Express right to publish information about the hidden lives of powerful public figures.

What is the “Right to Privacy”?
“The right to privacy” is something primarily concerned with protecting the individual from the State. The State cannot just come and search you or your house. In general, a warrant from the Court is necessary. The State cannot just take peoples’ fingerprints, as Rama Valayden pointed out last Wednesday on the radio. In general, a Court Order is required, or was, until the introduction of the new controversial biometric ID Cards. The State cannot open your mail, listen to your telephone conversations or read your e-mails, without a Court Order.

This “privacy”, in a wider sense, has come to mean all the things we do in our homes, in our private time, that are genuinely of no interest either to the State, or to anyone else in society. This includes sitting down to a meal, taking a shower, going to the toilet, watering a vegetable patch, sleeping, playing with children, watching TV, doing housework, taking a drink, making love, or whatever. Clearly, it is normal for society as a whole to respect this privacy, and to respect it for everyone, be they powerful or not, be they public figures or not. In Kreol, people have coined a word for this: “prayvesi”, taken from the English. Mauritians, in their wisdom, were not satisfied with the catch-all term “lavi prive”. There is nothing in “privacy” that makes us ashamed. However, “lavi prive” nearly always implies someone is deeply ashamed, himself, of this part of his life.

What does the Murky term, “Private Life” cover up?
Private “life” means leading an entire other life. This, in turn, implies weaving an ongoing web of lies around a continually hidden “life”. Often the “lavi prive” is that of a male, often a powerful, public figure.

How did this concept of “private life” come about, and what is its destiny?

The power of patriarchy during slavery, then indenture and now modern capitalism, has continued to grant males the privilege of leading double lives, and of calling one part “private life”, a term, in turn, deliberately confused up till now with the “right to privacy”.

This “private life”, when we look at it honestly, is the defence used by men when threatened with exposure of that part of their ongoing lives of which they, themselves, are ashamed.

Four kinds of “private life” un-masked
There are four kinds of “private life” most often hidden this way:
1. There are men who pass themselves off in polite society as pillars of moral rectitude, when in fact they maltreat their wife and children “in private” – by abusing them, shouting at them, cursing them, beating them, sexually abusing them or using other methods of domination like sequestration or deprivation. It is an entire private “life” that they lead – over months, years, even decades. “Battered women” are the tip of this iceberg.
2. There are men who also pretend to be respectable heads of their household, often preaching family values, but who “keep a mistress” (or two) in secret for a whole “private lifetime”, again behind the backs of society, their own children, wife and family. This causes untold suffering for the mistresses and wives, alike.
3. There are yet other men who, again respectable and moralistic, visit sex workers regularly over a “life”, paying money to abuse women, again behind the backs of everyone they themselves respect. Women and young girls who supply this “private life” to respectable men also suffer inordinately.
4. Other men, projecting a public image of Mister Clean, are predators, often over decades, in “private”. They force themselves on women, as DSK did, in secret, as part of “private life”. They harass women at work or wherever they have power over them.

These four examples of a “double life” are still fairly common male behaviour. (Some women now partake of this patriarchal power, mirroring male behaviour, en passant. ) They assume patriarchal impunity. They are masked by the term “private life”.

However, none of these “private lives” are a private matter at all.

This kind of double life concerns society as a whole.

Men living “double whole lives” should be routinely encouraged by their own friends and, in the case of public figures, by the Press as well, to act more honestly and openly. Obviously anyone standing for public office should not be able, with impunity, to lead a private life of which he is so ashamed that he hides it from everyone.

The harm done by hiding behind “private life”
Let us spell out what exactly is wrong with the concept of the sanctity of “private life”.
1. The men who live “a private life” end up living a web of lies, for years. They thus become duplicitous by habit and potentially mendacious. Society prefers honesty. It makes life happier for all, including the men concerned.
2. These men expect other people (battered wives, mistresses, sex workers, raped, harassed and abused women) to live their lives in the dark because of a more powerful person’s “secret”. But, in the 3rd millennium, women can no longer be expected to lurk in the shadows of someone else’s “private life”.
3. These men expect their close friends and their drivers, caterers, domestic workers, paid musicians, police officers, bodyguards, all of whom are inevitably “in the know,” to, in turn, maintain this web of lies. The time when this kind of generalized collusion with predatory males is “normal” is fortunately running out.

In fact, a “private life”, or “secret life” is just not good enough for a democratic society.

All societies yearn for truthfulness, openness and frankness, and abhor duplicity. Society cannot be expected to collude with hiding women and children in the shadows (as in the tragic cases of two women Francois Mitterrand “kept”, with their children, in secret); nor can a host of other people, often menials, be expected to fall into a conspiracy of lies, over time, to mask the truth. The layer of hypocrisy is just too thick. “Integrity” from the Latin meaning “wholeness” is the exact opposite of “double life”. We need to nurture integrity in ourselves, our friends and family, and in our representatives in politics.

Why public figures need to be open about mistresses
Any public figure, including the Mayor of London, President of France and Prime Minister of Mauritius, must be made to know that it is in the public interest whether or not he has a mistress, or mistress-and-child. Why so?

1. Otherwise, any issues of conflict of interest in contracts, tenders and nominations, are blurred too much.
2. Any “declaration of assets” becomes a farce.
3. Because “private life” implies that the man feels shame, it opens him up to blackmail – by the woman/women concerned, by those in the know, by spies, fortune-seekers, policemen or the Press.
4. Anything the man and his mistress accidentally get caught up in – from an outbreak of fire where they have a secret rendezvous, to a road accident in a place they are not supposed to be, even being witness to a crime – traps them into endless lies that may have dire consequences, if they persist in keeping their “private life” secret.
5. This in turn risks adding to “hit and run” cases, the loss of important witnesses, “false testimony”, and all sorts of things that nobody wishes to encourage.
6. If the man is married, it is all the more important that his “double life” be made public and thus resolved, one way or another, into one “open book” instead of the public half that electors judge him on being a cheap charade.
7. When we vote for people, we want to know what kind of person they are by knowing what kind of whole life they lead.

So, there will in future probably be a struggle for the right to more “privacy”, especially relative to the State, while the very term “private life” will, hopefully, die out as women become further emancipated. We hope men will have learnt to come clean, clear up the lies, and live a “life”, however they wish, but as one public “whole”.

Lindsey Collen for LALIT, 21 August, 2014