Sunday, February 15, 2009

Autonomy vs. Empowerment

Do you have a "right" to privacy?

Well, sure, you do... haven't we interpreted the 14th amendment to say that you do (see Roe v. Wade, 1973)?

But that "right" actually requires a fair amount of "privilege" to access. Privacy is often spatially located -- it is perceived to be strongest on "private property" which indicates a need for economic privilege to acquire such a space. Consequently, Nancy Duncan ("Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Public and private Space" 1996) calls privacy a "contingent right" rather than an absolute right. Furthermore, privacy is something you can attain only if you can maintain independence. Anyone needing help has proven their dependency and therefore trades away their right to privacy... anyone who requires public assistance, for example.

Can you take privacy out of private space? Well, we certainly have tried to construct a world where you can. You can drive to work in your "private" automobile, you can pee in a private stall or restroom, there are dividers around desks in library study spaces, etc... We also have a host of behaviors (flying under the flag of "good manners") that encourage us to give other people their privacy in public ("don't stare, Johnny").

Privacy is a goal for us because we link it to autonomy. If we can maintain our privacy, we think we can choose our circumstances, control our actions, determine our fate. In order to create a zone of privacy and allow ourselves to think we are autonomous from those around us, we gravitate toward homogeneous, sanitized, exclusionary spaces (in that sense, the more "private" a public space, the more comfortable we feel). They feel orderly and clearly bounded. And the less we encounter the unfamiliar, the disorderly, the heterogeneous, the less likely we are to feel our privacy has been challenged. When our privacy is not intruded upon we feel powerful -- we won't need to ask for anything, we are (we think) autonomous!

This is a rather individualistic approach to life. It is also one that we potentially need to trade away in order to reach a state of actual "empowerment" in the public sphere. To be empowered, to actually participate in democratic decision making, we need to get messy. We need to expose the parts of ourselves and our identities that we hide behind the veil of "privacy" and see these things in others. That means we need to be in messy spaces, where boundaries are challenged -- because it is only when boundaries are crossed that we can clearly see where they are. And it is only when we recognize the boundaries that we can see (and potentially change) how hierarchies of power have been built (and naturalized) into our social spaces.

I'm going back to a familiar theme: Let's degender "public" bathrooms, give up some precious privacy in order to see gender in a new way.

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