Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Respect for privacy

Mrs. Butter B, you would never be banned -- even if I knew how to do it. For those of you who are confused by that, please read her comment on the last post. And if you want this post to make sense, please read it anyway, 'cause I'm going to respond.

The last post was a bit incoherent. I've mentioned on the blog before about a committee I'm on whose work is confidential. Quite a bit of what is going on has become public knowledge (through no action of my own) so I can tell you in broad outlines what is going on. I'm on a committee that reviews disciplinary actions taken or proposed against tenured* professors where I work. If the college president thinks you plagiarized something, he can suspend you without pay, or fire you for that matter. In either case, you can appeal your case to the committee I'm on. If we decide that you were right and he is wrong he is supposed to "take time to seriously reconsider his decision." **

The committee goes decades without having to meet. It is meeting now and I am on it.

The case is on my mind a lot. I think about the evidence and arguments, about the decision, about how to write the report of the decision, about what, if anything, we can tell the students some of whom are quite upset.

And what I find is that making conversation with colleagues and friends feels deeply artificial. My mind will not always be preoccupied with this, but so long as it is, I have have to struggle to make conversation. So I find myself retreating into silence. I am working at home as much as possible. I'm not blogging.

And it reminded me of the weeks in which Carl did not want us to tell anyone he was gay. I was pre-occupied then. I don't dwell on my kids sexuality much these days. It is a part of who they are, but that is it. In the beginning though I did think about it a lot. I thought about what the house-hold rules were supposed to be. Should I allow him to have boys in his bedroom if he promised they were not dating? Should I forbid a clearly straight boy from going into his room to study with him because the "no boys in the bedroom" rule seemed right? I was feeling new feelings too. I was fearful for his safety. I was embarrassed that I was embarrassed when he talked about the cute boy in English class. I wondered if, as his parent, I should be taking responsibility for making sure he had appropriate sex education and I wanted to run for the hills. A counselor of his told me about a technique for safer oral s*x and just the thought of explaining that made me too embarrassed to ... anything.

So I read anything I could find about the experience of being gay in America. I did everything I could think of to get over being embarrassed, including watching Queer As Folk with him. I subscribed to The Advocate and got him a subscription to Out Magazine. I started being more informed about gay issues. I started caring about them passionately.

And then I would run into a friend who wanted to know how things were going with Carl.

And I had nothing to say. Nothing I could say. At the time EVERYthing in my mind seemed to be about homosexuality. I found myself retreating into silence and asking them to talk about their lives. Sometimes it worked. Usually they figured I was hiding something and would make a guess. They were always wrong, but I had to decide whether to let them believe the falsehood they had created or tell them it was false and hope they didn't make another guess.

I started isolating myself. I stopped calling my mother. I avoided my friends.

Then I realized how unhealthy all this was and we spoke with his counselor about why I needed to be able to talk about it. I had to come out to my friends.

It was during this time that I realized that the military policy of "Don't Ask; Don't Tell" was impossible. I kept asking people to do a thought experiment. Imagine working somewhere for years and not letting them know you were married, or had kids, or attended church, or whatever else is most important to who you are. How can you do that? I know some people can, but they are unusual.

Now, that last post was a little strange, and Mrs. Butter B points out that people often ask questions they should not ask. Strangers ask questions about how we came by our children in front of our children and that is just not acceptable.

But I think that Mrs. Butter B and I are talking about slightly different things, or maybe about two sides of one thing: privacy. I also think are likely to agree on something: privacy should be respected and that means not imposing or invading it.

Of course there are limits to this too. There are private things that it is wrong to share (no flashing) and there are secrets that are wrong to keep. Trying to figure out general rules for that though is just too complicated for me right now. You all are more than welcome to tackle that project though.

*Nontenured professors can theoretically also appeal. However, nontenured professors are "at will" employees. Since they can be fired without a specific cause being given, there would generally not be anything for the committee to review in an appeal.


  1. Ummm, I agree. Fully.

    Interestingly enough, the quandary I daily face isn't just privacy, and the right to have it, its Tolerance.

    Tolerance for my choosing to remain mute about my life, my children's struggles, my internal perplexions, and tolerance for your choosing to come forward, to come out, to share what is a very natural part of your life.

    People always want it their way- they want enough info that they can find a reason to dislike someone else, discredit them, but not so much info or relationship that they feel compelled to actually care.

    Ggggrrr. Mankind has me miffed this morning.

  2. Hi. I am a new reader and I just wanted to say thanks for a couple of great, thoughful posts. I actually linked to your story last about Identity and I planned to write my own post about it. I just haven't had time this week.

    I didn't find the previous post odd. Both that one and this one made me consider that I also have been mute lately ... because the things that I am going through right now take time to explain properly ... and most people are not interested in that level of understanding or the time required to get there. Along the lines of Mrs Butter B's comments ... I refuse to boil down some very major stuff (the experience of which most people I know remain blessedly ignorant) into two sentence sound bites. Past experience tells me that the responses that I get when I attempt to do that for people is almost always either useless or unhelpful or even toxic.

    Unfortunately so many difficult experiences are socially isolating for that reason. But as you mentioned, it's no good for your ability to cope to be isolated.


  3. I don't know if any philosopher's defined it this way, but I like to use a friend's definition of a lie--it's not a lie if you have no right to the information. The example she gave was if her neighbor was in her house having sought shelter because she was afraid of her husband. If the neighbor's husband comes over and asks if she is in the house, it's not lying to say she isn't because he has no right to know where she is. If the police came over, however, to ask questions about the call she had made after she fled, then it would be lying to say she wasn't there because the police do have the right to know.

    What I typically do in situations such as you have described is to say something along the lines of "That information is private and I cannot discuss it with you." This comes up a lot with our adoption--we've decided it's M's story. If she cares to share details in the future, it's up to her. Otherwise, it is not our right to tell anything about the story. So no one knows how much contact with have with her birth parents, when we were matched, whether or not we met her birth parents, why they made an adoption plan, or whatever else might be involved. (Unfortunately, we told my parents, intentionally, one additional detail and now we have to remember that they are the only one's who know! Should have stuck with one story for everyone ;-) ). It works quite well--some people ask because they are interested in or curious about adoption, so I'll happily describe the range of possibilities. Otherwise, I just change the topic.

    Interestingly, most people I know aren't even aware we adopted her. It's been strange now as I'm telling that we're getting another kid and then explain I'm not pregnant. I've even had one person say, "Oh, I wondered because I knew you'd had M." I didn't bother to set her straight since it didn't really matter to anyone. I'd be more vague (IE say "we're having", except then people think I'm pregnant and I'd end up explaining it anyway.

    So, anyway, I don't like the definition you provided. By being silent, it seems like you are admitting that whatever they think is correct. Using the example above--I think the husband would interpret silence to mean that his wife was there and then what would happen?

  4. There are secrets that create an enormous burden when said secret impedes you from being you...it's like it oozes in some weird way and affects people w/out even realizing it. I too retreated and held silent (almost like in a prison) until the person released me (once she let hers out I was no longer bound).

    To me this is different from the privacy invasion issue which we, as a Transracial family, are so well aware of (what is wrong w/ people thinking they can ask such personal questions?!!) or even outright lying-

    Privacy invasion: I take it on a case by case.
    Lying: I've done it to protect.

    But protecting a secret and not wanting to lie when asked questions and trying to psychologically balance it all plus worrying about what has been said or how you will be seen once the truth comes out...ugh...that is hard. I almost resented having to be the dragon at the castle's door w/ my friend's secret.

  5. I've lived under Don't Ask, Don't Tell on a base with an ex girlfriend and what sucked about it the most was that everyone knew, but since we weren't allowed to talk about it, everyone but us got to decide what it meant. They got to maintain whatever misinformed views they had because we were forbidden from sharing our reality with them.

    But everyone knew anyway. That's what made it feel very oppressive. They controlled our story by not letting us contradict their version of it.

    Does that make sense? It wasn't just like keeping something important a secret. It was like being exposed and judged with no recourse to self-defense.

    As a transracially adoptive family I don't feel quite the same way. I don't want rude questions asked in front of my kids, and yet I do have that same feeling of wanting to tell the truth from my perspective and put ugly myths to rest. I don't mind if people to ask questions when my kids aren't around. I won't necessarily tell them everything about my specific family, personally, but I'm happy to correct their misinformed opinions about adoption more generally.

  6. Wow, I had no idea that so many people felt the same way as I do. The posts above, along with yours, Yondalla, pretty much sum up my life's existence now.

    This has actually been rather therapeutic, thanks everyone!

    (Not so miffed now at mankind, at least that which exists inside my computer screen!)

  7. I think both conversations, (Yondalla and Mrs Butter B) both solidify reality for many of us, depending on our own philosophy and reality.
    Privacy from strangers, and open hearted acceptance from those close to us.
    And I do think it is one of the reasons why some people blog. To be able to tell the truth when they can't otherwise, because the price is too high.
    Great conversation!


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