Opening Reading: The Pasture, Robert Frost
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.
Sermon: Invasions of Privacy
It has been several weeks since college freshman Tyler Clementi’s privacy was invaded by his room mate Dharun Ravi, who invaded his roommate’s privacy by secretly recorded Tyler’s intimate moments with a boyfriend. Ravi not only recorded it but he broadcast the recording over the internet, mortifying the eighteen-year-old who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Ravi, and an accomplice to the crime, Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy — prosecutors are considering whether to upgrade the charges to a “hate” crime.
Such an invasion of privacy can be so extreme that it is literally mortifying, which is to say, it results in death, as the word suggests, from the Latin mortificāre to put to death, from Latin mors death + facere to do. The need for privacy and the embarrassment and humiliation is extremely powerful; it can be deadly!
News of Clementi’s suicide in response to having his privacy invaded called attention to the rash of recent suicides by teen-aged gays and lesbians, and to cyber bullying in general, so we find ourselves paying closer attention to all kinds of invasions of privacy. One can’t help thinking about it – to ponder the human need for privacy and the powerful depths from which that need for privacy comes, and the devastating consequences when it is invaded.
Privacy is a legal issue, but it’s also a religious issue – or, if you prefer, it’s a spiritual issue in the sense that inner peace is a spiritual issue, while war is a political issue.
Invasion of privacy issues have been much in the news lately. But there’s nothing new about it.
Indeed, the concept of shame, embarrassment and the need for privacy is introduced in the first chapters of the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve ingest the forbidden fruit and consequently realize that they are naked and, the story says, ‘they were ashamed.’ So they covered up what we euphemistically refer to as ‘their private parts.’
The function of the book of Genesis is to describe in myths and fables what it means to be human.
The first two humans on earth, the story says, were naked and not ashamed, then they disobeyed, ate the forbidden fruit and they were embarrassed…they felt shame. Guilt.
Mark Twain quipped, “Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to!”
I recall a middle school teacher giving a writing assignment on ‘my most embarrassing moment.’ By then hearing voices on the party telephone line was certainly not my most embarrassing moment – I remember responding to that assignment in the privacy of my own mind, saying to myself, “If it was so embarrassing when it happened, why would I want to re-embarrass myself by telling everyone about it?”
So I wrote about the embarrassment I felt as a child when I picked up the telephone on our party line and heard people talking, not knowing whether to say ‘excuse me’ or to quietly hang up the phone. It wasn’t long before everyone was getting a private telephone line. Imagine having a party-line telephone line, now. We don’t even share a phone line, much less a line with two or three others who could listen in to our conversations.
Privacy, according to Webster, is “The quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others; free from unsanctioned intrusion: a person’s right to privacy.”
The Supreme Court decided, not long ago, that privacy is a Constitutional right. The case was close to home — Griswold v. Connecticut. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case about the marital right to privacy, a decision that overturned a Connecticut law against the use of birth control – the case was decided in June of 1965.
Estelle Griswold, Executive Director of New Haven’s chapter of Planned Parenthood had been arrested for providing information about birth control to married couples.
The Griswold case was a landmark Supreme Court decision, 7 to 2, ruling that the Connecticut law against the use of birth control was unconstitutional – an invasion of privacy. They said that the Constitution protects the right to privacy, even though the Bill of Rights does not explicitly mention privacy. The seven judges ruled that it is implicit in the ninth amendment and the due process clause in the fourteenth amendment.
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Legal historians say that, “When the Bill of Rights was first proposed, the major argument against it was that by specifying some rights that the government was not free to violate, there would be the implication that the government was free to violate any rights not specifically protected in the Constitution. The Ninth Amendment,” they say, “was written to address this concern.”
In Griswold v. Connectitut, Hugo Black and Potter Stewart disagreed with the other seven Justices saying that the right to privacy is not to be found in the Constitution. Stewart called the law ‘uncommonly silly,’ but nonetheless ‘constitutional.’
The Griswold decision was cited eight years later in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
The U.S. Constitution does not specifically guarantee the right to privacy, but it is built in to the human constitution, to what makes us human; we require or need privacy, to one degree or another.
Some need more, some less, but it’s required. If you want to live in the White House it would be best to have a high tolerance for the lack of privacy. To be in a meaningful relationship requires giving up some privacy.
Most of us freely and gladly give up our privacy in order to build a meaningful relationship – to be in relationship requires that we reveal ourselves, and we do so to avoid a sense of isolation, we do so in order to feel a sense of connection with another person or group of persons.
A good example happens here on most Sundays, when individuals come forward to light a candle and tell us about something that’s happening in their lives. We need privacy but we also need to be in relationship and to share our inner lives.
Robert Frost hits that nail directly in his poem, Revelation:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really finds us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
Robert Frost must have known the passage in the book of Isaiah 45:15 “Truly you are a God who hides himself.”
Privacy allows us to feel safe, to feel an inner sense of peace – to savor some solitude. So, as the poet says, ‘we make ourselves a place apart.’ We need it.
But solitude has its limits; it’s a close cousin to isolation, and isolation can sometimes be associated with punishment, as for example, the practice of shunning, which is found in some form in most religions and social groups.
In Judaism the practice was call Cherem – the highest form of censure – the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. Spinoza is a famous case.
In Catholicism it’s called excommunication, also practiced in some form in most Christian denominations.
Spinoza has the dubious distinction of being excommunicated from the Christian community as well as from his Jewish community. (Islam has it’s own form of shunning.)
“But oh the agitated heart,” Frost says about anyone who is so isolated…”till someone really finds us out.’ He doesn’t say ‘till everyone really finds us out.’ He says ‘till someone really finds us out,’ until we feel known, until we feel real, authentic.’
“Those who hide too well away must speak and tell us where they are.”
(I’m reminded of playing hide and seek with my grandchildren when they were three or five years old. If they hid ‘too well away’ they would say ‘too-da-loo,’ or if I was hiding ‘too well away’ they would yell, ‘say too-da-loo Papa!’ Maybe Robert Frost played hide-and-seek with his children or grandchildren: ‘those who hide too well away must speak and tell us where they are.’)
Frost titled his poem Revelation, playing with the word which is used in religion and theology to indicate the act of communicating with the supernatural. But he puts a human spin on it, indicating the need we have to reveal aspects of ourselves to one another: ‘but oh the agitated heart till someone really finds us out.’
Twelve-step groups are characterized by self-revelation; step five says, in part, “Admitted to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Confession is not only good for the soul, but necessary for mental health.
Revelation, to be effective, must be voluntary – revelations gained by coercion or an invasion of privacy have the opposite effect. Forced revelations destroy something precious in us, something sacred, if you will; trust; forced revelations can destroy an otherwise sound relationship.
The privacy issue has gotten more complicated in our time with security video cameras all over the place…in stores and elevators, rest rooms, on street corners, highways and hotel lobbies, on trains, busses and planes, and in our homes.
We want the security they offer, but there’s a price to pay: that price has to do with the loss of privacy.
Now there’s a debate about the use of the full-body scan or pat-down body search at airports – a Christmas gift from the man with a bomb in his underwear last December 25.
Those of us with titanium hips are used to being ‘patted down’ at airports. Yes, of course it feels a bit invasive – a bit unnerving – and it takes a little extra time, but it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay for the security it provides against the terrorists who want to steal more than a pound of my personal privacy – they want to take my life!
Some say that the full-body scan or pat down at check-in is an invasion of privacy – it’s a big issue for some who have a low threshold of tolerance for invasions of privacy, someone, for example, who was a victim of sexual abuse.
We understand, and sympathize. But security checks at airports remind us that we’re at war – men and women are fighting and dying to preserve our nation, but we’ve built a barrier between us and our wars – we haven’t been asked to pay for them or to contribute in any way because it’s too politically sensitive. It’s a form of deception.
Our privacy is invaded in more subtle ways: for example, the selling of our name and telephone number or email address to marketers who profit from knowing about our buying habits.
The online invasion of privacy has emerged as an important issue. A few years ago we had an opportunity to sign up to be put on a ‘do not call’ list to avoid unwanted invasions of privacy in our home by telemarketers – 90% of those who got on that list have reported at least some relief from those dinner-time invasions of privacy.
Now there’s a push for a ‘do not track’ feature that would let those of us who use the Internet to tell Web sites to stop surreptitiously tracking our online habits and collecting clues about age, salary, health, location and leisure activities – information used for commercial purposes.
Privacy issues have become more complicated even if the issue goes back to the two naked inhabitants of the fabled Garden of Eden, long before the invention of photography.
Speaking of photographs, and the paparazzi, our privacy is invaded by unauthorized use of a photo image.
There is an invasion-of-privacy story in the news about college athletes who have been bringing lawsuits against video game companies that use their images on their animated players. The athletes claim that their private property is being used – their image — without permission.
In some cultures it is a serious invasion of privacy to take a photograph of a person – it’s like stealing a piece of their soul or spirit.
On the other hand, last year’s ruling about keeping certain political contributions private has opened up a different can of worms – millions of anonymous dollars have been pouring into the coffers of our elected officials by lobbyists who wish to remain anonymous.
A Times editorial last week said, “According to tax records unearthed by Bloomberg News, the health insurance lobby secretly gave $86 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2009 to try to prevent the health care bill from becoming law.” The $86 million amounted to 40% of the Chamber’s annual budget and it was used to run ads against the bill without tainting the insurance industry.
The editorial says, “Lobbying and political contributions can be perfectly legitimate practices, but only when the public can see who is pulling the strings.”
These anonymous contributions have been brought to us by the 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in elections.
President Obama called it “A major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
A Thanksgiving Day editorial about Tom DeLay’s conviction for money laundering says, “After a year of increasingly depressing news about the unbridled, unaccountable influence of big money in political campaigns, a Texas jury stood up for honesty in campaign finance on Wednesday and convicted Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, of money laundering. Unfortunately, there are now many new ways for politicians to commit acts similar to those for which Mr. DeLay was convicted, all of them perfectly legal.”
Another privacy story that made the front page of the Times, with photo, a couple of weeks ago had a headline: I.R.S. Sits on Data Pointing to Missing Children.
The report tells about the search for abducted children, usually in a custody dispute, who are listed on tax returns but the I.R.S. won’t give out the information to those searching for the child listed as a tax deduction.
The privacy laws related to I.R.S. were enacted in response to the misuse of tax information during the Watergate era. About 200,000 family abductions are reported each year – about 12,000 of those have a child missing for more than six months, many of them known by the I.R.S.
Then there’s the issue of invasions of privacy that occur at airports when a laptop computer is confiscated without a warrant – not to check it for explosives, but to search the hard drive to look at work papers, financial records, e-mail correspondence and Web site visits.
Thousands of lap tops have been subjected to such searches – the Supreme Court has not confronted the issue, yet, but the lower courts have ruled that agents at the border “need not meet even the low threshold of reasonable suspicion to justify a warrantless lap top search.”
An editorial in the Times a week or two ago concludes: “The challenge, as ever, is to strike a balance that grants sufficient leeway to protect the nation’s borders without allowing the intimate details of people’s lives and work to be searched, seized and copied on a whim.”
Privacy is one of the most difficult and far-reaching issues of our time.
The military’s “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy is another example of the invasion of privacy being debated today.
The chilling case of Tyler Clementi – the ultimate invasion of privacy and the ultimate response…suicide – is a reminder of the deep need for privacy and the powerful possibilities when our privacy is invaded.
Privacy is a huge issue; hardly a day goes by that the Times doesn’t have a story about some aspect of privacy; the tabloids, of course, have made an obnoxious specialty out of invading privacy, sending out a mercenary army of paparazzi to invade privacy of folks who already suffer from the lack of privacy.
The issue is complicated by the fact that celebrities require a high level of public exposure. Some European countries now require the celebrity’s signed agreement to use a photo for publication.
Tyler Clementi would not have given his agreement. His privacy was invaded in the extreme. We share little invasions of our privacy, so ‘we make ourselves a place apart, behind light words that tease and flout, but oh the agitated heart till someone really find us out.’