Wendy Seltzer, Privacy, Attention, and Political Community

Wendy Seltzer, Privacy, Attention, and Political Community

Comment by: Stephen Hetcher

PLSC 2010

Workshop draft abstract:

In an era of information overload, some scholars (Lessig, Rosen) have characterized a facet of privacy as a response to the problem of the short attention span: Because onlookers will not spend the time or attention to get the full context of a disclosure, disclosure of some information may produce a distorted view of the subject.  Where others have spoken of privacy as deception (Posner) or a barrier to community governance (Etzioni), I explore privacy-through-limited-disclosure as a constituent of community and political organization.

To organize effectively in a modern liberal democracy, citizens must often aggregate into political groups larger than local or social communities.  Their political organizing (and even common adherence to the political system) can be threatened if differences become more salient than points of common interest — even if those differences are irrelevant to common political goals and outside the political context. Privacy from disclosure may thus be necessary to avoid distraction.

Using John Rawls’s idea of political liberalism an an Overlapping Consensus among groups with different underlying conceptions of the good, I suggest that privacy is an important component of political tolerance and accommodation.  Privacy can support consensus and restore a respect for pluralism even when we lack the time or attention to understand its roots.  As networked communications override some of the traditional architectural support for privacy, we must learn to avert our gaze from glancing disapproval, instead looking deeper or not at all