The Rev. Dr. Stanley Sears, Minister
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
Submitted to the Auburn Citizen for August 6, 2011
If there is any good coming out of the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and its egregious invasions of privacy, it is that people are feeling shock and revulsion. Nearly 14 years ago, Princess Diana was killed in a car wreck because her driver was trying to escape paparazzi photographers. Now, we have learned that Murdoch’s reporters were hacking into the British royal family’s cell phones and email accounts. Perhaps this is part of the price of celebrity, or part of the job description for members of the royal family. However, a line of decency was crossed when it became known that his reporters got into the voicemail of Millie Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim, deleting voicemails so that her family held out false hopes that she was still alive. It was also disturbing to hear that while he was Minister of the Exchequer (a cabinet position similar to our Secretary of the Treasury), Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, received a call from one of Murdoch’s editors, telling him that she knew that Brown’s infant son had cystic fibrosis. At the time, Brown believed that only his wife and the doctor were aware of this information. Even if we have never been in a similarly vulnerable position, the thought of someone violating our privacy at such a time strikes us as callously insensitive and invasive. Perhaps our society would do well to ask: why is there even a market for such “news/gossip” items? Rather than seeing this as simply “the Murdoch affair,” I view the public uproar as evidence of society’s reaction to our collective loss of a sense of privacy. When reporters (or anyone else) invade our private space, we feel violated. Although Constitutional “originalists” argue that there is no right of privacy in our US Constitution, it is certainly embedded in our social mores. We saw proof of this in the nation’s collective grumbling when the Supreme Court upheld the right of members of the Westboro Church to turn up with their vile signs at the funerals of service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rationale was “freedom of speech.” If a family member has given her or his life for our country, one of the last things we want is someone making a mockery of their sacrifice with homophobic placards. This is particularly the case when they never even knew the deceased, and are doing it simply to gain publicity. While such freedoms may be constitutionally defensible, they are not behaviorally defensible among members of a so-called civilized society. The nineteenth century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, once wrote that our liberty should extend up until the point that it deprives another person of her or his equal right to liberty. In other words, in an optimally functioning society, we would allow each person to “do her or his own thing” without getting uptight about our differences, as long as we are not causing direct harm to another person. This is, obviously, one of the reasons why the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is indefensible, and same-sex marriage will eventually become as accepted as interfaith or interracial marriage. Implicit in this is a “right to privacy.” Indeed, privacy is something that most of us want to take for granted. We want our identities to be safe; we want to be able to use the internet without worrying that someone will steal our financial or personal information; and we want to be able to make phone calls without having someone remotely taping and then publishing our discussions. However, this is not always the case. While there is much talk about our government as being overbearing and intrusive by religious and political conservatives, throughout our nation’s history, the victims of this intrusiveness have been so-called minorities. J.Edgar Hoover, the long time Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was notorious for his abuses of privacy, which he used as blackmail. Ironically, after his death we learned that Hoover’s personal life was at least as titillating and provocative as any of the people he tried to blackmail. Think of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who, up until 2003, faced criminal prosecution in many states, where anti-sodomy laws were still on the books. Think of women who, in many communities, face the gauntlet of protesters on their way into Planned Parenthood clinics. Does one lose a right to privacy for seeking medical attention? In at least one state, Kansas, the Attorney General wants to have the names of women seeking abortion counseling as part of the public record. How would you feel if you were in her position? How would you feel if your medical records were available for anyone to view? Empathy is the ability to understand and feel another person’s experience. It is our ability to empathize that enables us to appreciate the need for boundaries, and to feel safe phones, or in our doctors’ offices. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a freedom say that we “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and we encourage use all of the powers of their minds and their hearts to formulate their own theological beliefs, rather than having me or anyone else tell them what they must believe. In other words, we practice “freedom of religion” within our congregation. We have a congregation of people who do this holy and soul privacy of their proverbial “rooms,” as William James said. This is why privacy is a religious value, and needs to be promoted and defended.