Canada’s Privacy Commissioner said this week that privacy has suffered in the “post-9/11 environment” from a “voracious appetite for personal information and surveillance that has sprung up.” I’m not sure I knew we had a national Privacy Commissioner (Jennifer Stoddart). Maybe she was keeping it private. Well, that won’t last much longer.

Let me ask a silly question. Why care? Isn’t privacy antique, almost Victorian? People don’t get sweaty about it. They say: If you’re not making trouble, why do you care who knows? As if the only thing you might want to shelter is a plan to blow something up. Reality shows, like those that depict daily life 24/7, have contributed. In fact to the extent that being famous or on TV is valued, people cultivate weird or eccentric “private” behaviour to help them onto the show. Your private life could be your ticket to fame.

But this misses the nature of privacy. Twenty years ago, The Globe and Mail ran a front-page story (under the fold, I grant) that said my dining room had been bugged by CSIS spooks so as to record editorial meetings of This Magazine, in case violent plots were being hatched. It was ludicrous. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service issued a denial, contrary to its own policy on denials. A TV reporter called her news desk and said, “These are just your basic middle-class Toronto do-gooders.” But when a CBC morning host asked in a jokey way how it felt, I heard myself spit, “It’s sickening. Try to imagine how you’d feel.”

The public realm is clearly limited; roles in it are defined. You are a worker, a boss, a citizen, a Leafs fan, a model-railroad builder. The private realm though, is multifarious and shifting. It’s quicksilver. You explore your roles as parent, kid, friend, sibling, and your relationship to yourself. It’s where you grow and flail, where the singularities of being you tend to flourish, unlike the more generic qualities that abide in the public you. What might look flashy or quirky in public, often just seems shallow in private. I’d say, as a rough rule, any private life that can be happily exposed in public, probably isn’t very rich or interesting. Just calculated.

But the lines keep blurring. I’m thinking of Pam Coburn, the Toronto official who met the press in City Hall Square, to talk about her romance with a married underling. Her kids stood at her side. It’s the setting that was odd: people passing on the way to get licences or pay fines, or catch the subway.

I went to a book/movie launch in a bar where a mother and daughter talked about separating when the kid was 12, then reconnecting when the film was made, about which the kid wrote a book. People elbowed past each other, ordering drinks, hustling work. The intimate reveals continued to flow, no one seemed baffled by it.

Ian Brown wrote feelingly in The Globe and Mail on himself and his son. It was a book excerpt. But a book is sheltered and private. A reader picks it up by choice and in seclusion. In a paper, strangers are passing by on their way to the horoscope or the scores. Privacy, it seems to me, is about making these distinctions. At some point the intensity and truth of the private gets imperilled.

I’m also bothered by the cellphone blabbers in public space. It’s not so much that they interfere with the privacy of others, as with their own. When do they get to talk to themselves, to continue the endless internal dialogue that people used to have while walking down a street, and which may be a precondition for decent conversation with others? How well can you relate to the rest of the world if you cut way down on time with yourself, those moments when you settle in alone and feel . . . at home?

These misunderstandings of privacy (as a means to celebrity!), along with privacy’s devaluation, make it awfully easy to undermine and restrict, as the Privacy Commissioner warned. Meanwhile, we develop a sense that a line has been crossed, which in the past meant more than it does now. In turn, it’s easier to cross other lines, like torture.

This week, the U.S. Senate massively voted to prohibit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners held by the U.S. military. President George W. Bush says he’ll veto that bill.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.