Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – email@example.com
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Among the various issues thrown up by the release of the Panama Papers, one that has got me thinking is the issue of privacy. There has been a clamour in the UK for politicians to make their tax statements public, and one defence to this is that politicians, like others, are entitled to privacy.
Privacy or secrecy? What’s the difference between keeping something private and keeping something secret? There is an implication, I think, that keeping something private is OK, is appropriate, it is an entitlement. On the other hand, keeping something secret carries undertones of guilt or of wrong-doing – that this secret thing really ought to be revealed. Others have a right to know.
If (hypothetically) a senior UK politician is evading taxes, does a resident of Australia have a right to know? I don’t think so – but a resident of the UK does. If I have a serious illness does the bloke in the local shop have a right to know? Of course not, but quite possibly my employer does, if it affects my work. If my next-door neighbour were having a affair, do I have a right to know? No, I don’t think so – but I think his wife does.
If this distinction is right, the difference between something being private and it being a secret depends not only on the thing itself but also on the person it is being kept from. There is something important here about the degree to which revealing the truth might affect the relationship between the two people, or companies, or organisations. Some information is relevant to the relationship, some is not.
So if I say something is “private” I am suggesting that the information is not relevant to you, the listener – but of course that is only my opinion – because you don’t know what I’m not telling you, you can’t form a judgment yourself. So it may be that something I regard as “private”, you might regards as “secret”. And of course, people can have bogus arguments about this – I may argue that something is private simply because I don’t want to tell you. You may argue that I’m keeping a secret simply because you want your curiosity satisfied.
And so this whole area is very cloudy. If you get together with a new partner, how much do you need or want to know about their past life? And how much are they willing to tell? Are their old friends just friends, or have they been something more? How many sexual partners have they had? Have they ever taken drugs? Are they maintaining privacy or keeping secrets?
Our relationships – whether with politicians, shop-keepers, neighbours or partners – survive within a band of trust. That band may be a broad or a narrow one, but as long as things stay within that band, the relationship will work. Once things move towards the edge of that band, things tend to get rocky.
On the edge of that band of trust live the borders between privacy and secrecy.