Here’s the floorplan for a typical theater (this particular one drawn from Asheville, NC). Of course, the stage and seating are the prime features, but the backstage is crucial. Without a place for the actors to get offstage, the play is ruined (unless you’re in some sort of insufferable “art” production, pushing the boundaries of the medium just to show how clever or shocking you can be). Just imagine if there were no backdrop behind the stage, or that it was transparent. And what if the green room had only three walls, with one side open to the audience. And if the restroom and dressing rooms were mere kiosks so that the audience could watch it all—actors in their underwear; reviewing scripts; smoking and chatting. It would vitiate their performances.
Turns out, there is major application here to our own lives, to our own personhood. Indeed, the word ‘person’ derives from the Latin expression (persona) for the role one plays in a drama, and it’s tied to masks. An actor adopts a persona when, for instance, he takes up the laughing comedy mask rather than the horrified, tragedy mask. And though it may sound distasteful to say, we do the same thing in the public presentation of ourselves (given the way we’ve made “authenticity” and “transparency” to be fetishes), if we don’t have a selection of persona at our disposal for dealing with the world, then we’re toast, and we can do a lot of damage to others as well. Of course, Jesus was emphatic in his contempt for the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, repeatedly calling down woe on those “hypocrites” in Matthew 23. They wore masks of piety, but they were rotten and dangerous beneath them, (the word coming from the Greek for “judge from under”). But this was treacherous mask wearing.
Let me suggest that there is another kind that is characteristic of thoughtful adulthood. A baby cries when it feels like it; an adult can be pleasant when he’s crying inside. A thoughtful pastor doesn’t shake his head and say, “Oh, no, this doesn’t look good,” when he first visits a parishioner laid up in ICU, having been in an auto accident. Neither did the EMTs who first came upon the fellow, exclaim “Yikes!” on the roadside. And one of the serious life skills we learn in school is that of appearing/being attentive when we’re exhausted or bored? Call it “phony” if you will, but these seem to be instances of maturity, fellow-feeling, decorum, and professionalism.
But what if you had to be perky and attentive all the time. What if a camera were trained on you in your home with the feed broadcast in Times Square? Could you relax? And what if everyone could see you at every moment, whether with a bad-hair wakeup, a sneeze that left major residue on your upper lip, or . . . well, you can let your imagination run. The point is that we need to have time and place to retreat from public observation and judgment so that we might recoup our powers and recalibrate our behavior.
Think of David in 2 Samuel 12. God’s judgment on his adultery and murder was the death of the child who issued from his treachery. As long as the child’s life hung in the balance, David, prayed with tears, fasted, and slept in sackcloth on the ground. But when the child died, he cleaned himself up, began to eat again, and went to the temple to worship God. He reasoned that there was nothing else he could do, so he had to get on with being king before joining his departed son in the grave. Was he a counterfeit griever since he could set his pleas aside? No, for there is, as is said in Ecclesiastes 3, an appropriate time for contrasting behaviors on the stage of life.
This issue of the deleterious effect of stolen privacy has become more compelling in our day of increasingly dazzling technology. Writing for the DC District Court of Appeals in the 2013 case, Klayman v. Obama, Judge Richard Leon ruled that the government’s “three hop” gathering (the phone contacts of the contacts of the contacts of the “person of interest”) of “telephony metadata” (who called; who was called; and when; and for how long) was out of bounds, inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment, which outlawed “unreasonable search and seizure.” Ah, but what’s the problem if you have nothing to hide? Okay, then let’s let the police go through your house whenever they please, looking for nothing in particular, but ever alert to what might turn up.
Just imagine the wreck you’d be if you were day by day open to “Where did you get this?” and “What’s this for?” to the whims of those commissioned “to protect and to serve.” Ah, but we should sleep like babies if we’re innocent of any wrong doing. Right? But there’s a big problem. For purposes of argument, let’s say that we all do a thousand things a day, and that we’re not particularly proud of at least one of them. Perhaps something muttered in traffic when the driver at the head of the left-turn line isn’t paying attention when the light changes; or when, in that same turn lane, we pick our nose (a common activity captured in a photo book some years back). If someone is watching everything you do, they could capture that image and shoot it out through social media, to your mortification.
Furthermore, context is crucial. Our denominational press once asked me to consider writing an article on modern day bestiality, and I had to wonder why they would pick me out of the millions in our fellowship. (Turns out, there was a resurgence of it in Illinois, where I lived, and the legislature was considering reinstating the prohibition, which they had tossed aside when repealing “sodomy” laws.) I did a little research, and soon found that there was a sub-culture built around “zoophilia.” Now, just imagine that one who wished me ill had perfect access to my search history, and he went grandly public with the report that I was looking into bestiality. Well, yes, but not because I was aroused by it. “Riiiight. Suuuure.” And then the burden of proof would be upon me to justify myself. And one cannot craft a life carrying around such burdens as might be gratuitously piled upon you by those who wish your ruin.
So our constitutional default is to honor privacy and to punish those who invade it—not only for the good of the state, but also for the dignity and viability of the individual citizen. After all, he or she is a “person,” and it is crucial that they be allowed to choose the circumstances and manner of their appearances. Unless, of course, their activities seem quite likely to be nefarious. Yes, there’s a place for police surveillance and wire-tapping, but you’d better have a warrant (and not just one whipped up by your foes as a fancy tool of persecution).
As Harvard’s Sissela Bok put it, “With no control over secrecy and openness, human beings could not remain either sane or free.”