Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Justice Louis Brandeis and the Right to Privacy

In this age of Facebook and Twitter, where private thoughts are subject to the global panopticon (and so is this blog) - I put forward the work of one of America's most distinguished Chief Justices, a man who has fought for the Right to Privacy.

From the fifth paragraph of this Harvard Law Review article from 1890- by David Warren and Louis Brandeis-

Of the desirability--indeed of the necessity--of some such protection, there can, it is believed, be no doubt. The press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery. To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle. The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury. Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be made the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in a lowering of social standards and of morality. Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.

Now we have Facebook and Twitter and endless venues for idle gossip, most of which is easily accessible to the government and to large corporations and far from the sight of its subjects. With the encouragement of intrusion into privacy and the growing demands for people to conform to the new 'entrepreneurial' model, we have a system that controls individuals and turns them into flat, incomplete human beings. As Brandeis and Warren said, this triviality has destroyed all robustness of throught and delicacy of feeling.

I wonder if human nature itself is a casualty of the modern world.

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