Last month the NSA’s surveillance programs got a lot of press attention. A common refrain was that Americans deserved criticism for their lack of concern about privacy. A political cartoonist that I really respect, Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Constitution, portrayed two Americans as flashers exposing themselves to Uncle Sam. This is a typical attitude.
But it occurred to me that, throughout history, many of the personal problems that people suffered from were directly linked to secrecy; to the need to hide anything that wasn’t socially acceptable at the time.
Homosexuality is an example. Just a couple of generations ago, how many men and women suffered for their entire lives because they had to hide the fact that they were homosexual? Now you can post photos on Facebook of yourself cavorting on a beach with your same-sex lovers, and your friends, of all sexual orientations, will cheer.
The “It Gets Better” campaign, begun in 2010 by columnist Dan Savage in the wake of a number of LGBT youth taking their own lives after being harassed, has inspired tens of thousands of people to share their own personal story through video. These videos reveal private information, and that’s the entire point. The openness is what provides encouragement and hope to others in difficult situations.
In a recent appearance on Bill Maher, Mr. Savage said that the gains that have been made in gay rights in the last couple of years is directly attributable to the fact that gays and lesbians stopped hiding:
Bill Maher: “There really has been quite a surge this year for gay. The dominoes are falling. There’s never been a better time…I’m on the waiting list myself. Do you take a lot of credit for that?”
Dan Savage: “No. I think anybody who is gay, lesbian, bi, or trans who’s out can take a huge share of the credit for it. All of us, by coming out to our family, coming out to our friends, coming out to our co-workers, really changed the world. That’s why we’ve seen such rapid progress. Forty, fifty years ago nobody was out and it was really rare for people to be accepting of their openly gay children because it was really rare for people to have openly gay children. And by people coming out, post-Stonewall riots, and telling their truth and living with integrity, at a time, thirty or forty years ago, when it was a lot riskier, that changed people’s hearts and minds.
Do we really want to return to an era when everyone was alone with his or her fears? Alone with the worry, “I’m the only freak, everyone else is normal”?
On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs we reveal our thoughts and desires. We express who we are in a fullness that has never before been possible to the average person. We don’t have to hide ourselves anymore, and most of us are celebrating that fact in a burst of openness. This isn’t exhibitionism (although there is plenty of that). This is extremely healthy.
The “solution” to the NSA spying scandal that many pundits prefer seems to involve Americans going back into hiding. I reject that. Instead we should demand that our government protect our information from exploitation, either by the security-apparatus of the state or by business interests for the purpose of profit.