What’s the Harm?
As the revealed extent of indiscriminate surveillance and data mining by the U.S. government slowly deepens and widens, the old Cold War defense is rearing its head again: “If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to fear.” There are all sorts of broad philosophical problems with that kind of argument, but this morning I’m reflecting on the claim practically, from a personal perspective.
Ten years ago, while I was writing for Irregular Times, I also had a full-time job with an employer I won’t name in a position I also won’t name. All I’ll say is that my job required that I take on a “value-neutral” position while at work and when interacting with those who paid for services with my employer. As you know if you read Irregular Times regularly, I’m not a value-neutral person; I have strong beliefs about what is morally right and wrong, and I express them here at Irregular Times.
Ten years ago, I thought I had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t discuss this website at work, I didn’t discuss my work at the website, my nom-de-keyboard here at the time consisted of my first initial and middle name, and I assumed that this would protect me. It didn’t. Some people who don’t share the values I express here decided to investigate me after I refused their demands that I temper my writing to less offend them. Using a combination of references to places I had visited and a “whois” search, they made the connection to my workplace and started barraging my supervisor with quotes of particularly controversial statements I’d made at Irregular Times. “Did you know that one of your employees is saying this?”. “Why does he think he has something to hide?” The first wave of these challenges was dismissed; the second and third were not. Although my supervisor tried his best to be supportive, this initiated a review of the content I’d written in my private life, there was a subtle stink at work, and it was a good thing that I was already planning to move on to a new community and new work. I didn’t quite lose my job… it’s more that we mutually agreed I would be “transitioning out.”
Like most people I’m not made of money, so of course I looked for more work, and while doing so I had to think very carefully about how to prevent this sort of professional calamity in the future. Should I stop writing for Irregular Times? Change the content of what I wrote? Try to convince my fellow writers to join the online mainstream and embrace the majority sentiments of the day?
I seriously considered these options before rejecting them. Instead, in my latest position — which I’ve never named here and am not liable to — I’ve taken pains to inform my supervisors formally of my outside activities from the first day of my work, even though it isn’t (and never has been) any of their business on paper. At the same time, I have switched to using my first name in writing so that no one can raise a claim that I am “hiding” myself or being “secretive.” It’s my hope, rather than my conviction, that such an approach will prevent further threats against my employment and by extension the livelihood of my family.
Disclosing my out-of-work activity to my employer hasn’t entirely stopped inquiries from coming in, because developments in technology have made it easier for people to find and follow connections. Last year, while I was writing about the corporate-party presidential effort Americans Elect, a political operative long employed by one of the major parties called me a few times at work after connecting some sparsely strung-out dots. Because he said he appreciated my efforts, the operative indicated he had no inclination to cause a stink at my workplace. I was also shown documents (unfortunately on the condition that I not share them) indicating the Americans Elect corporation had someone do a bit of poking my way. This is the cost of having something to say, and I’ll have to live with the uncertain possibility of someone causing trouble as long as my adult life continues to involve more than one kind of role.
When people toss out the phrase “If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to fear,” they appeal to the sense that the things we might “hide” are matters of criminality or shame… but there are other sorts of matters we might “hide” for practical reasons, or perhaps simply keep separate because we have decided there are appropriate and inappropriate venues for our speech and behavior. Are there aspects of your life most of us keep separate? Of course there are. When you’re in a business meeting, you don’t expect your mother to bust in and start calling you by the nicknames you had as a toddler. When you’re sitting down for dinner with your spouse and children, I imagine the subject of your favorite sexual positions won’t be shared with helpings of pot roast. These pieces of information are nothing to be ashamed of, but each has its domain. Respect for such distinctions allows us to act more freely within each of the separate — not shameful, not “hidden,” not criminal, and certainly not terrorist domains of our lives.
In this context, do I fear a large, powerful institution (be it business or religion or government) that starts riffling through my private, password-protected communications, that quietly assumes for itself the right to connect the dots between the separate domains of my life, and that (as we’ve recently learned) believes it appropriate to start sharing what it finds with other agencies for their own purposes? Yes, I do fear that — even though I have broken no law or committed any act of which I am ashamed. I remember what happened when people breached the walls between different domains of my life, and I remember what the purpose of that breach was — to try and control my behavior and speech.
When surveillance leaves no way for us to live away from scrutiny, when all lines of distinction in our lives are blurred by spying eyes, we will be faced with the choice between sharing everything about us with everyone and sharing nothing with anyone. The first alternative is forced exhibitionism. The second alternative is coerced conformity. What’s the harm? That’s the harm, and that’s why we need to raise a stink now, before the price of objection rises far too high.