Privacy, Protestantism and Print Culture

The revelations about government snooping and spying on our lives raise the question of how far we are entitled to have a private life, which the state is forced to respect and which it cannot breach with impunity. I believe that privacy is a foundational freedom. What do I mean by that?

Let me quote from the European Declaration of Human Rights, Article 8, which comes in two parts. Part one states “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” So, where this respect is denied – as, for example, when the government monitors all of our e-mail traffic – then our legitimate human rights have been undermined. Of course, the real meat of arguments about privacy come when different rights start to conflict with each other, and this is why there is a more substantial second part to Article 8, which states “There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” So, in terms of the Declaration, the right to privacy is balanced against the various needs which a state might have for preventing crime, terrorism and so on.

However, notice that the second part includes a clause about ‘morals’. In terms of the case law, it has been established that homosexuality, for example, is a protected freedom because the actions of two consenting adults in private do not have a sufficient impact upon the wider society as to justify a curtailment of their right to privacy. The question is how far the state’s legitimate concern in preventing terrorist acts justifies the establishment of a surveillance state.

Another relevant example relates to home schooling, that is, when a particular family decides to pursue the education of their children through means other than that provided by the state. This is, of course, the predominant mode of education throughout history, up until the last one hundred years or so, but in our present society it is customary for education to be provided centrally. In the United Kingdom it is legal for parents to choose to educate their children in their own homes, and this seems consistent with the fundamental right to a private family life that Article 8 enshrines. Yet in Germany such a choice is illegal, and the state actively breaks up the families which seek to pursue such an independent path. The grounds given for such action in Germany are that certain teachings are illegal – a legacy of Germany’s own twentieth century experience – yet that seems remarkably flimsy justification for the destruction of home and family life.

If we consider the nature of what it is that the state is wishing to monitor through the establishment of the various surveillance networks on the internet the key element for me is simply that it is about the monitoring of words. That is, all the activity that takes place on the internet is more or less intellectual – it is a forum for the sharing of ideas, of free speech, of open communication. That sharing may well include things which are inherently dangerous, such as the recipes for making certain sorts of bombs, but there are no actual bombs blown up in an e-mail.

For the state to justify the invasion of privacy that has taken place, therefore, it has to argue that the existence of certain sorts of words are sufficiently important, that they matter ‘extremely’. As a religious observer, I can’t help but think that this is a tremendously Protestant attitude. After all, it is in countries that have a predominantly Protestant culture that the written word is given such importance. It was through the understanding of words that salvation was found; Holy Writ was the vehicle for eternal life. In countries with a less Protestant emphasis there is a far greater concern with actual actions, not simply the discussion of actions. Words do not matter so much. It is not an accident, of course, that this new emphasis coincided with the introduction of new technology, a technology that gave the written word much greater prominence.

This, I believe, is the direction that our culture is travelling in, as it traverses our own post-Christian environment. I believe that in our own lives we are placing less emphasis upon particular words and far more upon how people’s choices and attitudes show in actual behaviour. It is less important what people believe, it is more important what they do. In our present case, too, new technology is having an impact, and the internet is allowing for a much greater exchange of ideas and – when it works – a fuller mutual understanding and acceptance of difference.

In this conflict between the state and the various whistleblowers, therefore, it seems to me that the state is trying to preserve a particular understanding of what matters, and it is sacrificing our privacy on a Protestant altar. In just the same way as Luther was able to use new technology to dismantle the power held by an oppressive and corrupt institution, so too are the Assanges and Snowdens using our contemporary new technology to expose the corruption at the heart of our own arrangements. The overmighty state is reaching in to our private lives – our family lives and correspondence – and not only does it have no no right to do so, it cannot hope to achieve the aims that it intends. Nobody expects the English Inquisition. It is acting from an obsolete script, and it cannot but fail. Let us hope that it doesn’t cause too much suffering in its death throes.

One thought on “Privacy, Protestantism and Print Culture

  1. Love your link between Luther and Assange – made my eyes go wide. Wonder how far the analogy goes. Will there be a neoliberal Council of Trent?

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