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Category: Law and Humanities

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Garcia Marquez - Chronicle of a Death ForetoldI am deeply saddened by the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the world’s best contemporary authors. His magical realist style brims with life and zest — and his descriptions are unique and unforgettable. His most famous work is the magisterial One Hundred Years of Solitude, but my personal favorite is Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

I teach this great work in my law and literature class. It is a novella about a murder and its legal consequences that takes place in a small town. What is amazing about the book is that it is quite short — it is really just a long short story — yet unlike most works of its length, it focuses on not just the microcosm of one character but the macrocosm of an entire town, with an enormous array of characters. So much is packed into this short work, and I marvel at how each time I read it I discover interesting new details. The novella reminds me of a Breugel painting, a canvas filled with so much detail, so many interesting things going on.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold begins with one of Garcia Marquez’s signature openings, so gripping and enriched with unexpected details that it is impossible to stop reading:

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.

The book is written by a narrator 27 years after the murder, pieced together by various interviews, memories, and documents. Chronicling memories that have faded, stories that diverge and contradict each other, the narrator writes in part like an investigative journalist piecing together an expose and in part like a detective investigating a crime. The narrative isn’t told in a linear way but in various fragments that are pasted together like a collage.

We know who will be murdered on the first page, and we find out the culprits very early on. And yet, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a murder mystery. What it shows, as the narrator recreates the final days of Santiago Nasar’s life, is how each and every character played a role in the murder. Some were indifferent, some were too absorbed in their own pursuits to pay much attention, some were vindictive, with hidden malice, and some just didn’t take things seriously. So many are to blame, yet most played but a small part, and others who played larger roles acted in part based on societal pressures.

But beyond the individual characters, the ultimate indictment is against the town itself and its norms. This is a collective crime. We see how norms of race, class, and gender all combine to create a bitter stew, how many characters feel trapped by traditions and beliefs that lead them to act in unsavory ways. The indictment is thorough — the individuals and the very fabric of their society all interact to produce this tragedy.

I teach this work in my law and literature class to show how puny a force the law can be, and how the law can be too myopic in its focus. The law in this story fails to address the roots of what happened; it just focuses on a few branches and ignores most of the tree.

I marvel at this work every time I read it — the beauty of the prose, the vividness of the description, the brevity of the story that has enough detail for a book ten times as long, and the ability to capture a whole town and its culture and values in so many dimensions — without becoming too abstract or didactic.

If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend it to you. It is gripping, challenging, fascinating, and insightful. It is a true masterpiece, and can be read in just an afternoon. Often overshadowed by Garcia Marquez’s great novels — One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of CholeraChronicle of a Death Foretold, despite its brevity, is as rich and sweeping.

Cross-posted at LinkedIn

[If] you read some fantasy, the magic is omnipresent. In Harry Potter the magic is omnipresent, a primarily magic universe. They got magic for everything there. Every time you turn around there’s a new magic thing that’s popping up. A magic hat or a magic sword or a spell to solve something. Because magic is so omnipresent, you don’t have to [resort] to mundane ways to…solve a murder mystery. “Who murdered Joe? Well we’ll just give him the truth spell and he’ll tell us who murdered Joe,” or “We’ll just cast this other spell and open the veil of time and we’ll be able to see who murdered Joe.” If those options exist then it’s very difficult to write a traditional John Grisham type novel or a detective novel or anything that depends on evidence and all that because there are all these magical ways of getting it.

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Lawyers in Westeros

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner's office?

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner’s office?

This is Part 2 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For the audio file, click here.

 HOFFMAN: Are there lawyers in your books that are just in the wings off stage that haven’t yet appeared?

MARTIN: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really considered that until I started reading those links that you sent me. There are certainly laws but are there special classes of advocates who make their living by interpreting those laws? My inclination is probably not because the laws my books are administered by lords. In some ways it’s government as much for men than law. We like to say our government in the United States is a government of laws not men. In some ways the Seven Kingdoms I think is the reverse. There is basis of a law but also a lot depends on who is interpreting it and who is sitting in the Lord’s seat, who is sitting on the Iron Throne and how they settle these disputes.

HOFFMAN: Well those are ultimate questions but I think in two places one could have imagine lawyers and one of them again will be this church trial because there were church lawyers in the ecclesiastical church system there were lawyers who specialized in canon law. And the second one was at least twice I can think of in the books there’re trials by combat. And I don’t really know what the other alternative would be but I assume would be trial by jury – the path that Tyrion did not choose both times. And I was thinking –

MARTIN: Well he does choose in the first…in the second…second of his two trials, he is being tried – it’s not by jury – it’s by lord. There’s no jury of his peers, no twelve people that are randomly picked but there are three lords sitting on his case and hearing the evidence.

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ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 04.01.14

Welcome to the first Law and Humanities ROUNDUP post. Here are some items I hope you will find of interest.

LSA

The Law and Society Association (LSA) Meeting, one of the most important conferences in the area of Law and Humanities, takes place May 29-June 1 in friendly Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year’s theme centers on the role of law and legal institutions in sustaining, creating, interrogating, and ameliorating inequalities. The 2014 Program invites participants to explore and consider three questions:

  • How can Law and Society scholarship contribute to unearthing and understanding inequalities?
  • How can Law and Society scholarship contribute to the critical interrogation of discourses of equality and inequality and help to reveal what is at stake in these concepts?
  • What impact can we expect these scholarly contributions to have on the persistence of these inequalities and on public discourse about them?

You can check out the preliminary program, register, and find hotel information here. Early registration ends April 15 (with 50 percent refunds available through that date. You cannot obtain any refunds after April 15).

If  you have always thought about writing legal fiction, check out this announcement from Alafair Burke at Hofstra Law.  Professor Burke, who writes the Ellie Hatcher novels, along with two other best-selling lawyer authors, Lee Child (who writes the Jack Reacher thrillers) and Marcia Clark (author of the Rachel Knight series) will be judges of a crime fiction competition being offered by Hofstra Law and Mulholland Books. The rules are simple, and include this one: Your story must feature a lawyer as a main character. Read the rest of the rules here. Deadline for entries is May 1, 2014.

UCLA English professor Eric Jager has published another interesting title: Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (Little, Brown), available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats.  Here’s the description of the book from the publisher’s website.

A riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris, by one of the most brilliant medievalists of his generation. On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans was murdered by a band of masked men. The crime stunned and paralyzed France since Louis had often ruled in place of his brother King Charles, who had gone mad. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the city’s chief law enforcement officer–and one of history’s first detectives. As de Tignonville began to investigate, he realized that his hunt for the truth was much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. A rich portrait of a distant world, BLOOD ROYAL is a gripping story of conspiracy, crime and an increasingly desperate hunt for the truth. And in Guillaume de Tignonville, we have an unforgettable detective for the ages, a classic gumshoe for a cobblestoned era.

Dr. Jager’s previous book, The Last Duel, about trial by combat in medieval France, (in this case, over whether a noblewoman’s claim that she had been raped was true), was nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award and adapted for a BBC documentary in 2008.

 

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Trust is What Makes an Expectation of Privacy Reasonable

A few weeks ago, I defined trust as a favorable expectations as to the behavior of others. It refers to a behavior that reduces uncertainty about others to levels that us to function alongside them. This is a sociological definition; it refers directly to interpersonal interaction. But how does trust develop between persons? And is that trust sufficiently reasonable to merit society’s and the state’s protection. What follows is part of an ongoing process of developing the theory of privacy-as-trust. It is by no means a final project just yet. I look forward to your comments.

Among intimates, trust may emerge over time as the product of an iterative exchange; this type of trust is relatively simple to understand and generally considered reasonable. Therefore, I will spend little time proving the reasonableness of trust among intimates.

But social scientists have found that trust among strangers can be just as strong and lasting as trust among intimates, even without the option of a repeated game. Trust among strangers emerges from two social bases—sharing a stigmatizing identity and sharing trustworthy friends. When these social elements are part of the context of a sharing incident among relative strangers, that context should be considered trustworthy and, thus, a reasonable place for sharing.

Traditionally, social scientists argued that trust developed rationally over time as part of an ongoing process of engagement with another: if a interacts with b over t=0 to t=99 and b acts in a trustworthy manner during those interactions, a is in a better position to predict that b will act trustworthy at t=100 than if a were basing its prediction for t=10 on interactions between t=0 and t=9. This prediction process is based on past behavior and assumes the trustor’s rationality as a predictor. Given those assumptions, it seems relatively easy to trust people with whom we interact often.

But trust also develops among strangers, none of whom have the benefit of repeated interaction to make fully informed and completely rational decisions about others. In fact, a decision to trust is never wholly rational, it is a probability determination; “trust begins where knowledge ends,” as Niklas Luhmann said. What’s more, trust not only develops earlier than the probability model would suggest; in certain circumstances, trust is also strong early on, something that would seem impossible under a probability approach to trust. Sometimes, that early trust among strangers is the result of a cue of expertise, a medical or law degree, for example. But trust among lay strangers cannot be based on expertise or repeated interaction, and yet, sociologists have observed that such trust is quite common.

I argue that reasonable trust among strangers emerges when one of two things happen: when (1) strangers share a stigmatizing social identity or (2) share a strong interpersonal network. In a sense, we transfer the trust we have in others that are very similar to a stranger to the stranger himself or use the stranger’s friends as a cue to his trustworthiness. Sociologists call this a transference process whereby we take information about a known entity and extend it to an unknown entity. That is why trust via accreditation works: we transfer the trust we have in a degree from Harvard Law School, which we know, to one of its graduates, whom we do not. But transference can also work among persons. The sociologist Mark Granovetter has shown that economic actors transfer trust to an unknown party based on how embedded the new person is in a familiar and trusted social network. That is why networking is so important to getting ahead in any industry and why recommendation letters from senior, well-regarded, or renowned colleagues are often most effective. This is the theory of social embeddedness: someone will do business with you, hire you as an employee, trade with you, or enter into a contract with you not only if you know a lot of the same people, but if you know a lot of the right people, the trustworthy people, the parties with whom others have a long, positive history. So it’s not just how many people you know, it’s who you know.

The same is true outside the economic context. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that of those teenagers who use online social networks and have online “friends” that they have never met off-line, about 70 % of those “friends” had more than one mutual friend in common. Although Pew did not distinguish between types of mutual friends, the survey found that this was among the strongest factors associated with “friending” strangers online. More research is needed.

The other social factor that creates trust among strangers is sharing a salient in-group identity. But such trust transference is not simply a case of privileging familiarity, at best, or discrimination, at worst. Rather, sharing an identity with a group that may face discrimination or has a long history of fighting for equal rights is a proxy for one of the greatest sources of trust among persons: sharing values. At the outset, sharing an in-group identity is an easy shorthand for common values and, therefore, is a reasonable basis for trust among strangers.

Social scientists call transferring known in-group trust to an unknown member of that group category-driven processing or category-based trust. But I argue that it cannot just be any group and any identity; trust is transferred when a stranger is a member of an in-group, the identity of which is defining or important for the trustor. For example, we do not see greater trust between men and other men perhaps because the identity of manhood is not a salient in-group identity. More likely, the status of being a man is not an adequate cue that a male stranger shares your values. Trust forms and is maintained with persons with similar goals and values and a perceived interest in maintaining the trusting relationship. But it is sharing values you find most important that breed trust.For example, members of the LGBT community are, naturally, more likely to support the freedom to marry for gays and lesbians than any other group. Therefore, sharing an in-group identity that constitutes an important part of a trustor’s persona operates as a cue that the trustee shares values important to that group.

What makes these factors—salient in-group identity and social embeddedness—the right bases for establishing when trust among strangers is reasonable and, therefore, when it should be protected by society, is that the presence of these factors is what justifies our interpersonal actions. We look for these factors, we decide to share on these bases, and our expectations of privacy are based on them.

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Does Apple Reject That Education Has To Train Skills?

Apple’s Your Verse ad campaign poses an odd and maybe cynical offer to us. Don’t pay attention to the call of law, business, or medicine. Be a poet. Be a creator. Contribute your verse. What are we on American Idol? Or as Monty Python put it maybe all we want to do is sing. Apple panders to the look at me right now world. The film is about free thinkers. Maybe that is the same as being a poet. And as Kevin J.H Dettmar argues at The Atlantic, the film is “a terrible defense of the humanities.” He points out that the film celebrates enthusiasm over any critical thought” “Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm.”

Having gone to a prep school, I am less upset by the film than Dettmar. But then I may project my experience onto the film’s gaps. Even before prep school I went to a grade school where the boring “Latin—Agricolam, Agricola, Agricolae, Agricolarum, Agricolis, Agricolas, Agrilcolis” was part of the curriculum in eighth grade. That teacher happened to have done his own translation of Caesar’s Road to Gaul. He’d re-enact charges of legions and evoke swords. In high school we had many inspiring teachers. They kicked our butts for fake enthusiasm. Larry McMillin once asked me a question about Shaw’s Man and Superman. I came up with some ramble. He said “That’s not Shaw. That’s just Desai,” in his Southern gentlemen’s voice that somehow had scorn yet support. Support. For what? He called me out but made me see that I could do more. How?

Rigor. To the waste bin with brownie points for showing up. Be gone empty claims of it’s good, because I said it. Learn the fundamentals. Master the material. As Phillipe Nonet said to my class in college when someone started a sentence with “I think”, “That you think it, does not matter. It matters what it says.”

It turns out that free thinking is much more difficult than Keating realizes. The rigor of learning the fundamentals allows us to be liberated. Liberal arts are about freedom and how we are unmoored from habit. But knowing the foundations is how you might see where they may not operate anymore. So sure contribute your verse. But if you want it to be a good one, let alone a great one, let alone one that might allow you to eat, put in the work. Grab everything you can from college and post-graduate schools. Contrary to recent pushes from big law (note that with 30-505 margins the big firms can absorb training costs), law schools training people to think in sharp and critical ways are providing an education that connects to the law and much more. But that requires diligence, drudgery, and didactic moments. Those happen to turn into gifts of knowledge, skill, and the ability to learn on your own. At that point, your verse might be worth something.

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Why Some Risk Sending Intimate Pictures to “Strangers” and What It Says About Privacy

It is, as always, an honor and a pleasure to speak with the Co-Op community. Thank you to Danielle for inviting me back and thank yous all around for inviting me onto your desks, into your laps, or into your hands.

My name is Ari and I teach at New York Law School. In fact, I am honored to have been appointed Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy this year at NYLS, an appointment about which I am super excited and will begin this summer. I am also finishing my doctoral dissertation in sociology at Columbia University. My scholarship focuses on the law and policy of Internet social life, and I am particularly focused on online privacy, the injustices and inequalities in unregulated online social spaces, and the digital implications for our cultural creations.

Today, and for most of this month, I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between strangers, intimacy, and privacy.

Over the last 2 years, I have conducted quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews with almost 1,000 users of any of the several gay-oriented geolocation platforms, the most famous of which is “Grindr.” These apps are described (or, derided, if you prefer) as “hook up apps,” or tools that allow gay men to meet each other for sex. That does happen. But the apps also allow members of a tightly identified and discriminated group to meet each other when they move to a knew town and don’t know anyone, to make friends, and to fall in love. Grindr, my survey respondents report, has created more than its fair share of long term relationships and, in equality states, marriages.

But Grindr and its cousins are, at least in part, about sex, which is why the app is one good place to study the prevalence of sharing intimate photographs and the sharers’ rationales. My sample is a random sample of a single population: gay men. Ages range from 18 to 59 (I declined to include anyone who self-reported as underage); locations span the globe. My online survey asked gay men who have used the app for more than one week at any time in the previous 2 years. This allowed me to focus on actual users rather than those just curious. Approximately 68 % of active users reported having sent an intimate picture of themselves to someone they were chatting with. I believe the real number is much higher. Although some of those users anonymized their initial photo, i.e., cropped out their head or something similar, nearly 89 % of users who admitted sending intimates photos to a “stranger” they met online also admitted to ultimately sending an identifiable photo, as well. And, yet, not one respondent reported being victimized, to their knowledge, by recipient misuse of an intimate photograph. Indeed, only a small percentage (1.9) reported being concerned about it or letting it enter into their decision about whether to send the photo in the first place.

I put the word “stranger” in quotes because I contend that the recipients are not really strangers as we traditionally understand the term. And this matters: You can’t share something with a stranger and expect it to remain private. Some people argue you can’t even do that with a close friend: you assume the risk of dissemination when you tell anyone anything, some say. But, at least, the risk is so much higher with strangers such that it is difficult for some to imagine a viable expectation of privacy argument when you chose to share intimate information with a stranger. I disagree. Sharing something with a “stranger” need not always extinguish your expectation of privacy and your right to sue under an applicable privacy tort if the intimate information is shared further.

A sociologist would say that a “stranger” is a person that is unknown or with whom you are not acquainted. The law accepts this definition in at least some respects: sometimes we say that individuals are “strangers in the eyes of the law,” like a legally married same-sex couple when they travel from New Jersey to Mississippi. I argue that the person on the other end of a Grindr chat is not necessarily a stranger because nonverbal social cues of trustworthiness, which can be seen anywhere, are heightened by the social group affinity of an all-gay male environment.

Over the next few weeks, I will tease out the rest of this argument: that trust, and, therefore, expectations of privacy, can exist among strangers. Admittedly, I’m still working it out and I would be grateful for any and all comments in future posts.

I’ve heard people say books are getting more ‘gritty’, meaning more violent and less stylised in general. The realism there might be in terms of warrior not shrugging off their wounds and being fine the next day etc. Researched realism and detailed city/country mechanics are not something I was aware of a movement toward. To me nothing is added by, for example, the author working out a grain distribution network. I’m interested in story and character, not mechanics.

— Mark L.

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Law and Hard Fantasy Interview Series: Mark Lawrence

Broken-EmpireI’ve sporadically run an interview series with fantasy authors who generally write in the burgeoning genre of gritty / hard / dark epic fantasy.  (I’m, obviously, a fan.)  The series began with this book review post, and continued with interviews of George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss.  The series continues today as I interview Mark Lawrence.  Mark is the author of the Broken Empire trilogy, and the forthcoming Red Queen’s War.  His work has been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic (Mark was raised in the U.K., where he works as a research scientist).  He was gracious enough to respond to my email queries, which follow after the jump.

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Trust is a Funny Thing

Last time, we discussed briefly that Erving Goffman’s social theory gives us an interactional perspective on privacy as a social relationship of trust and discretion. But trust, like love and life, is a funny thing. Trust is sometimes confused with naivete (Marshall 1976) or hallowed by optimism (Millman 2001), but trust, and its corollary, discretion, are what makes social interaction possible. I would like us to think about privacy this way: trust and discretion are what online best practices should encourage; trust and discretion, not an individual right, are what society should actively protect.

This is not a common denominator approach (Solove 2001). I am not arguing that everything we traditionally think of as “private” is trust and discretion. Nor is this a pure social network approach (Strahilevitz 2005). I am not arguing that we should protect privacy based on the suggestion from social science research that individuals tend to share or disclose otherwise private facts about themselves when they assume that the disclosed facts will not jump from one social network to another. Professors Solove and Strahilevitz are correct in their warnings and recommendations. But I believe that protecting disclosures where trust and discretion exist add value to both of their important contributions in the following ways:

First, intimate sharing among strangers is a fact we cannot — and the law should not — ignore. Professor Strahilevitz’s masterful work, A Social Network Theory of Privacy, does a good job surveying some of the social network research about sharing. But that research is in its relative infancy, as we all acknowledge. What is missing is a detailed understanding of the type of information shared with different groups of friends, particularly bare acquaintances and strangers. I hope to contribute to this understanding with the quantitative and empirical portions of my dissertation. The beta version of my surveys seem to suggest that highly intimate — determined on a subjective scale — information is often shared with veritable strangers. If sharing with strangers exists, it seems like tilting at windmills for the law to try to erect barriers that we know will fall, at best, or create perverse incentives for social sharers and private industry, at worse.

Second, trust can exist among strangers (Macy and Skvoretz 1998) and further research into the social determinants of that trust can give us the tools we need to determine when it is reasonable for judge or jury to protect the privacy interests of certain actors. Much of the social science literature about trust among strangers is in the game theory context (Macy and Skvoretz 1998, Buchan 2002, Croson 2002, Grabner-Kraeuter 2002, etc.). The quantitative studies in my dissertation have the potential to help us understand privacy among strangers outside the decision-making and consumer context, but inside the friend/social sharing context. It is, for example, too simple to say that people “sext” because they don’t believe in or understand or think about or care about privacy. Nor is it enough to say that we engage with strangers in the physical world and online because we think our social networks are separate. I would like to prove that trust and discretion exist among strangers online when sufficient information exists to act as social cues for trustworthiness, with the most important cue being embeddedness, or connections to other individuals for whom the trustworthiness decision has already been made. That decision may, at times, be related to the target’s position in your social network. But more likely, embeddedness is an overarching factor for which social network position is a proxy, or social network position is but one in a series of cues for embeddedness. In either case, the social science evidence does not require us to stop at social network position. We need to take another step.

Much of this work is decidedly in the work-in-progress stage. I have appreciated the comments so far and look forward to any comments, questions from the CoOp community.

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What Can Erving Goffman Teach Us About “Privacy”

I hope those celebrating Yom Kippur had a an easy fast.

We’ve already seen a few clues into the famous sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. As I discussed last week, Goffman seemed to fall into the trap of burdening his vision of “the private” with a negative moral judgment: we do things in secret because to do them in public would be embarrassing, discrediting, or worse. The private sphere was assumed to be the place where we literally let our hair down, literally let out our gut, and literally curse our our bosses. (And I am using the word “literally” correctly here, not according to the frustrating new definition, which will literally — ahem — make your head explode!).

In a series of short posts, I would like to flesh out what else we can learn from Goffman regarding the sociologists’ assumptions about privacy. It’s worth looking at Goffman, not only because of the seminal role he continues to play in sociological theory (if not methods) but because his theories are part of the culture and zeitgeist in which privacy scholars from the legal and philosophical worlds also live.

Goffman is famous, in part, for his back stage/front stage distinction in his discussion of micro- and macro-social interaction. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman (1959) analyzes social interaction through an extended theatrical conceit, comparing individuals to actors on a stage. He separates the front stage, where the performance of social interaction occurs (p. 107), and the back stage, where individuals can drop the façade of performance (p. 112). And he describes them as places, or “setting[s]” (Goffman, 1959, p. 107). The back stage is a place of hiding (Goffman, 1959, p. 113), so that devices like telephones, closets, and bathrooms “could be used ‘privately” (p. 112). It is also cut off from the front stage by a partition, passageway, or curtain (p. 112). The backstage, then, is defined by providing the performer with a private space—like a home, a green room, or a bathroom—to do certain necessary things away from an audience.

This sounds like a perfect tool for supporting spatial assumptions about privacy. But that would be taking Goffman too literally.

Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the idea that Goffman is a moralist who has a limited view of privacy as a place for deviance. My previous post certainly offered strong evidence of that. But, again, that might be taking Goffman too literally. More importantly, it misses what I feel is his greatest contribution to the study of privacy from a sociological standpoint.

Consider Goffman’s (1972) explanation for why staring and “intrusive looks” (p. 45) are, to use his words, “invasions of privacy.” Staring, Goffman (1963) writes, is not an ordinary or appropriate social interaction: it discriminates against the target and puts him “in a class apart” (p. 86). You stare at zoo monkeys, not people, so the invasion of privacy must either be a threat to the victim’s dignity as an end in himself, per Kant, or a breach of some implied duty that individuals owe one another. Goffman, true to his sociological roots, argues the latter, calling it a duty “civil inattention” (p. 85). This has groundbreaking implications for the study of privacy.

Civil inattention is a form of polite recognition of strangers, manifesting itself in nods of acknowledgment alongside a respectful modesty not to intrude where you do not belong. Staring at a physically injured or deformed bystander is the antithesis of civil inattention. In this example, the target might consider his injury “a personal matter which [he] would like to keep private” (Goffman, 1963, p. 86), but the fact that it is visible makes it publicly obvious. This obvious injury “differs from most other personal matters”—namely, those personal or private things that go on in the private sphere—because everyone has access to the injury regardless of how much the target would like to keep it secret (Goffman, 1963, p. 86). We are told not to stare precisely because the behavior’s abnormality disrupts the normal course of social interaction. It has been known to cause fear and flight (Ellsworth, 1972).

And so, as bystanders in general, we owe a duty to other individuals to treat them with discretion. Every interaction includes bystanders’ social obligation to protect social actors so that their interactions can continue. We have a “tactful tendency … to act in a protective way in order to help the performers save their own show,” Goffman (1959) writes, using his theatrical conceit to analogize to everyday social interaction (p. 229). We show extra “consideration” for novice performers, i.e., the young, who, because of the likelihood of mistakes, could damage ongoing social interaction by lapsing, forgetting how to behave, or brazenly engaging in asocial behavior, like nail-biting, nose-picking, or staring (Goffman, 1959, p. 323, 132). This tact is simply another word for discretion and respect: the knowledge that he is a beginner is appropriately set aside and ignored so that the performance can continue despite his mistakes. We also owe a measure of “tactful inattention” to neighboring conversations and nearby individuals to guarantee the “effective privacy” of others, a principle colloquially encapsulated by the phrase, “keep one’s nose out of other people’s” business (Goffman, 1959, p. 230). Privacy invasions, therefore, are not simple intrusions into personal territory or the disclosure of negative behaviors; rather, they are socially inappropriate behaviors that violate the trust and discretion we owe others.

Privacy-as-trust and discretion is also captured in Goffman’s early essay, The Nature of Deference and Demeanor (1967). Deference conveys respect “to a recipient or of this recipient, or of something of which this recipient is taken as a symbol, extension, or agent” (p. 56). In doing so, deference certainly imbues others with value and dignity; but that is merely a byproduct of the overarching purpose of creating a path for interaction. Rules of deference and respect constitute “rules of conduct which bind the actor and the recipient together” and “are the buildings of society” (Goffman, 1967, p. 90). In others words, they cue others as to our potential as interaction partners. This is the role of privacy. It creates a sense of confidence that allows people to share.

Teasing out this argument is how I would like to spend the remainder of my posts for the month. It highlights the central theoretical contribution of my dissertation.

And with that “Who-Shot-J.R.”-style cliffhanger, I leave you… for now.

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Deviance in the Sociologist’s Assumptions About Privacy

When last we spoke before the Jewish New Year (Shanah Tova, u’metuka to all who celebrate and G’mar tov as we approach the Day of Atonement), we had only begun to touch on the sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. In that post, I used the example of the sociologist Robert Maxwell’s assumption when he was studying sexual practices and social mores that “private” automatically referred to a “secret” or “hidden” space. I do not think, and did not mean to imply, that Professor Maxwell set out to study privacy per se; rather, it is clear from his discussion and his notes that the private world was a hidden world separated by walls. That’s why he studied wall construction permeability when he wanted to determine the pervasiveness of sexual norms.

The limitation to spaces is only one problem with the traditional sociologist’s assumptions about privacy. Another has to do with secrets. An entire branch of sociology focuses on secrets, which may indeed be a subset of the entire world of so-called private things. But too often, sociologists burden their discussions of private secrets with a normative moral weight: that is, a secret is private, or must be kept private, because it is deviant.

In his seminal article, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, Georg Simmel concluded that privacy is a “universal sociological form” defined by hiding something. It is universal in that we do it all the time: If all relationships between people are based on knowing something about each other, keeping certain facets of ourselves hidden can define those relationships. This does not necessarily mean that the person who knows more about us is more correct in his assessment of who we are; rather, different pictures of us are true for different people. Secrecy, therefore, allows us to do things and maintain relationships we would not otherwise be able to in a world of complete knowledge.

Simmel’s theory has one distinct advantage over any conception of privacy based on spaces: his discourse on secret societies can help us understand when a secret has ceased to become private. Privacy-as-separation fails in part because it is too strict—privacy can be eroded when one other person gains access. For Simmel, a secret can maintain its private nature, its inherent secrecy, throughout a group of people when keeping the secret is part of the identity of that group. Members of secret societies “constitute a community for the purpose of mutual guarantee of secrecy.” They define themselves by engaging in rituals and through separation from the rest of society. This does not just happen in cults; social cliques turn their backs on others or deny conversation to outsiders and groups of friends maintain each others’ secrets all the time. In all cases, the group is defined by what it knows and it expresses its privileged status by closure.

A mentor mine, the sociologist Diane Vaughan, connected this conception of secrecy with intimacy in her study of how couples break up. “We are all secret-keepers in our intimate relationships,” Professor Vaughan argues. Secrets can both enhance relationships, by smoothing over differences or by creating the intimacy of co-conspirators, and contribute to their collapse, by allowing plans to be developed without open inspection, intrusion, consent, or participation from others. And Erving Goffman would agree that this type of secrecy is an important element of privacy. “If an individual is to give expression to ideal standards during his performance,” Goffman writes, “then he will have to forgo or conceal action which is inconsistent with these standards.” In this view, privacy is the concealment of things that contradict an individual’s public facade: the “private sacrifice” of some behavior will permit the performance to continue. This is what Goffman’s famous back stage is really for. It is not, as a spatial theory of privacy would suggest, a room, stall, or secluded place; rather, it is the locus of private behavior, of secrets. For example, servants use first names, workers laugh and take breaks, and management and employees may eat together and converse informally. In some cases, this culture is associated with a space; but it is what we do in the backstage, the secrets we hide there, that defines it.

But the central failure of assuming privacy as something to do with secrecy is the tendency to conceive of those secrets as discrediting, embarrassing, or, to use the sociologist’s term, deviant. Deviance refers to behavior that violates the norms of some group. A tilt toward deviance, in turn, places a severe limitation on using secrecy to justify a legal right to privacy: if our secrets are so discrediting, society would rarely, if ever, see a need to protect them.

Much of the sociological discourse on secrecy and intimacy as it relates to privacy devolves into a normative moral judgment about those secrets. Despite the fact that he professes to make no such judgments, Goffman’s view of secret, hidden behaviors, for example, has a decidedly negative bias. The back stage is littered with “dirty work” and “inappropriate” conduct done in “secret” if it was fun or satisfying in some way. From this introduction of the back stage, Goffman only further burdens it with a normative twist. People “lapse” in the back stage, drifting toward indecorous behavior. They laugh at their audience, engage in mock role-playing, and poke fun through “uncomplimentary terms of reference.” They derogate others and brazenly lie and keep “dark” secrets.” Behind involvement shields, individuals do “sanctionable” or “unprofessional” things, like nurses smoking in a tunnel or adolescent horseplay outside of the view of others. Goffman also points to the little misbehaviors—activities he calls “fugitive involvements,” no less—that you can engage in when outside the public view:

While doing housework: You can keep your face creamed, your hair in pin curls; … when you’re sitting at the kitchen counter peeling potatoes you can do your ankle exercises and foot strengtheners, and also practice good sitting posture. … While reading or watching TV: You can brush your hair; massage your gums; do your ankle and hand exercises and foot strengtheners; do some bust and back exercises; massage your scalp; use the abrasive treatment for removing superfluous hair.

Privacy, then, is about concealing bad things, not just concealment in general. The anonymity provided by privacy does not merely allow someone to do something different; rather, it allows him to “misbehave,” to “falsely present[] himself, or do the “unattractive” things inappropriate in the public sphere.

One of Goffman’s major works, Stigma, is entirely concerned with negative or inappropriate behavior. That may sound like an uninspired conclusion given the title, but what is most telling is not the mere recitation of stigmatizing activities and things, but rather the implication that the private sphere is defined by stigma. Stigmas are “discrediting,” “debasing,” and “undesirable.” They are “secret failings” that make us “blameworthy” and “shameful.”

It is hard to deny the moral dimension to this discussion of private behaviors, activities, and symbols. They are stigmatizing, at worst, or dissonant with normal social interaction, at best. In either case, there is a moral dimension that burdens privacy with an attendant profanity and that profanity does violence to our ability to protect privacy thus understood: if the private sphere is characterized by dark secrets, or behaviors and activities that society refuses to tolerate, it is unclear how a right to privacy could ever exist.