Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Ethics of Secrecy

I came across this entry dated June 1988. In my journals, I see a common theme of trying to work out logically what I was feeling or how I was supposed to feel or react to others around me. I believed research helped me as I tried to figure out the "rules" of society that I could not understand.

The conflicts we experience when it comes to choosing when to keep a secret or reveal it or to pry into someone else's secrets or to leave them be are rooted in the experience of what it means to be human: needing both to share and to hide, both to seek out and to beware of the unknown.

By studying how one learns to deal with secrecy you can discover the path you can take to become aware of one's self among others.

Let's define secrecy:

a) An intentional concealment (to keep a secret) Hiding or Concealment is the defining trait of secrecy. Secrets are set apart from non-secrets in the keeper's mind. There are several other traits also present in secrecy (not always present all the time) they are...sacredness, intimacy, privacy, silence, prohibition, furtiveness, deception. These influence how we think about secrecy.

b) Also a neutral definition of secrecy. If the secret and the sacred are too closely linked in one's mind all secrecy will be seen as inherently valuable and to keep them is one's duty. Negative views of secrecy stem from beliefs that...
  1. Why conceal something you're not afraid to have known?
  2. Secrecy means impropriety (There's no place for secrecy in a democracy)
  3. People conceal what is shameful or undesirable.
To view secrecy with any degree of neutrality we must assume that a degree of concealment or openness accompanies all that humans do or say. We must evaluate circumstances rather than an initial evaluative stance.

How can we differentiate between secrecy and privacy?

If secrecy is intentional concealment then we can say privacy is the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others - physically, mentally, spiritually. Privacy is a claim to control access to one's own personal domain.

Privacy and secrecy overlap when efforts to control access rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide and secrecy hides much more than what is private.

How do people protect their privacy?

1. Physical Space (Territory) differs culturally.
2. Information about personal matters and attention to them or to one's person - if medical history were published in local paper or if you were under constant surveillance by satellite.

Secrecy guards against others coming too near, learning too much, observing too closely. It guards the central aspects of identity and, if necessary, plans and property. It serves as an additional shield should protection of privacy fail or break down.

There is a need for secrecy just as there is a need for fire. It is like fire can enhance and protect life yet both can stifle, lay waste, spread out of all control. Each can also be used against itself, both can guard and invade, nurture and consume.

Conflicts over secrecy are conflicts over power: the power that comes through controlling the flow of information.

Power Struggle

To be able to hold back some information about oneself - or - to channel it - and thus - influence how one is seen by others gives power.

Also - the capacity to penetrate similar defenses and strategies when used by others.

Power requires not only knowledge but the capacity to put knowledge to use, but without knowledge there is no chance to exercise power.

To have no secrecy is to be out of control over how others see oneself. It leaves you open to coercion.

To have no insight into what overs conceal is to lack power as well.

If you lose control over your own secrecy, you would not be able to flourish. In psychosis, your secrets flow out like water over a broken dam and if you are isolated, it leads to painful self-exploration.

Four claims in defense of secrecy for human autonomy

In seeking control over secrecy and openness a person attempts to promote their sanity/survival:

1. IDENTITY Control of secrecy and openness needed in order to protect identity: The sense we identify ourselves with, as and though. Secrecy protects vulnerable beliefs or feelings, inwardness and the sense of being set apart including memories and dreams; of being someone who is more and is capable of more than meets the eyes in the future.

Without perceiving the sacredness in human identity, individuals are out of touch with the depth they might feel in themselves and respond to in others.

2. CHANGES/PLANS Growth or Decay. Progress or Backsliding. This could be an instance such as pregnancy. A secret at first and told to an increasing circle of people.

3. ACTION Such as a surprise party or as in a chess game.

4. PROPERTY Hiding valuables and personal documents.

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