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Blurring of Private and Public Speech Threatens Candour

Privacy has never been more vigorously protected by legislation than it is today and yet it is clear that the distinction between private and public worlds is rapidly eroding.

Recent examples of people embarrassed publicly by statements they made privately include Saskatchewan Tory MP Tom Lukiwski, who apologized to the House of Commons and the Canadian public after the discovery of a 16-year-old videotape showed him making offensive remarks in a diatribe about homosexuals. Then there is U.S. Presidential candidate Barack Obama who, thinking he was speaking privately, spoke of how people in economically disadvantage towns "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Obama's comments, recorded by a "citizen journalist" were labelled as elitist by his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who said they raised questions about the strength of Obama's character.

These are the latest high profile examples, but it is not unusual these days to hear of incidents in which employees, for instance, are disciplined for making disparaging comments about their employers to friends, only to realize that the forum or blog they were communicating through -- Facebook, for example -- is public and open for viewing by anyone, including their boss. Or that their comments were captured on a security video or just by a friend having fun with their cellphone. More personally, most of us have either experienced or sympathized with someone who wrote an e-mail in haste only to realize later that the words had become immutable, cast in stone for eternity. No number of apologies would ever erase the scar.

Our past traditions were fairly clear in terms of defining private versus public. The former is something either never shared with others or, when shared, is confined to a small group of trusted friends. Words spoken publicly are for the purpose of influencing large numbers of people and create the public record upon which we expect to be judged.

Traditionally, while we were raised to choose our words carefully when speaking in public, we haven't expected to be judged on what we say privately. This left us free to rant, muse, grumble, gripe or speculate among friends or with spouses. It also allowed us to speak of our fears and uncertainties, vent about our employers or employees and share our dreams with people whom we trust implicitly. This is also known as intimacy and it is a feature of life that is threatened by the blurring of private and public.

Intimacy -- the sharing of private thoughts -- will die if we all must live in fear that at some point down the road these thoughts, fears or comments will be revealed by a "gotcha" journalist (citizen or otherwise) or an estranged spouse or other former friend turned enemy who is more than happy to embarrass us with our own words. Faced with this fear, it is quite possible that we will simply retreat into a world in which our private thoughts are only ever shared with ourselves. That, in turn, would threaten the very nature of our humanity.

This threatens not only our private dialogue, but also our public conversation. There was a time when Parliament was home to eloquent debates and when political parties argued about real ideas. In the present world, it seems reduced to celebrity, talking points and gotcha games.

It doesn't have to be that way. We can learn to distinguish between private and public and recognize that private acts or thoughts are those that shouldn't be recorded. We can be more conscious that the Internet is not a private place. And, perhaps most importantly, we can learn to articulate our thoughts and express ourselves honestly in ways that will allow us to be understood in context. Equally, we can learn to listen or read the thoughts of others in the same way.

But developing thoughts is a group activity and requires institutions. These days, it seems the institutions most capable of assisting people with this and preserving the societal intimacy that comes when there is clear distinction between private and public thought are think-tanks and editorial forums. The former provides the space for the grinding of ideas; where the grist of our thoughts is milled into something substantive and palatable for public consumption. The latter offers the vehicle for the disbursement of these ideas in op-eds such as these and, through letters to the editor and rebuttals, reaction to them.

If we can't put it into words, we can't really understand ourselves what we are thinking, let alone have others benefit from our insights. Words matter. They matter so much, in fact, that we need to treat them with a little more respect. We need to understand the difference between private words and public words, not to excuse offensive ideas, but to preserve the capacity to understand what offensiveness means, not to mention such noble concepts of beauty, wisdom, and truth.

Ray Pennings is vice-president of the Work Research Foundation,
a think-tank specializing in the study of Canada's social architecture.