General Question

wundayatta's avatar

Where should we draw the line between public and private?

Asked by wundayatta (58367 points ) May 25th, 2011

In a previous question about privacy, I asked why people wanted privacy. A number of people said, “because it is body’s business.” To me, that’s kind of a non answer.

It seems to me that saying that some activity is nobody’s business begs the question. Why isn’t that activity anyone else’s business? Is the presumption that something is private until it becomes someone else’s business? Then at what point does a formerly private activity become someone else’s business?

Why do we presume privacy at all? We might as well presume everything is public until it falls below the level of interest of the public. Where is that point?

I suspect that there will be many different lines between public and private that people draw. People may draw different lines for different activities. If you offer examples of what you are talking about, it would help.

If you want some guidance, consider these situations:

If an undiagnosed sociopath is planning torture and murder and is collecting the instruments he needs in his basement, is that the public’s business?

If a farmer is storing pigshit on his farm next to a stream, is that the public’s business?

If a person is storing legal weapons and legal bomb making materials in his garage, is that the public’s business?

If a mentally challenged woman is having sex with no birth control, is that the public’s business?

If a parent is spanking a child, is that the public’s business? What about if the parent is not touching the child physically, but is constantly demeaning the child?

If a company is spying on another company, is that the public’s business (remember, companies are treated as individuals in the US).

If a company is using very complex financial mechanisms, is that the public’s business?

If a politician is cheating on his wife, is that the public’s business? What about if your neighbor does the same thing?

For all of these things, tell us why it is or is not the public’s business.

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12 Answers

Cruiser's avatar

Times have changed @wundayatta and my advice to my kids is nothing is sacred nor private in this day and age. No matter if it was said or done in “private” anything you say and do can become public fodder. Especially places like Fluther or anywhere on the internet for that matter. In a matter of seconds what you say or did can be PM’d, e-mailed, Twitted, Face Booked or Youtubed for all the world to see.

I have been and still get burned by this phenomenon. I miss the good old days where gossip was mouth to ear and a secret was held in high regard.

nikipedia's avatar

Affects other people = public
Doesn’t affect other people = private

geeky_mama's avatar

I agree strongly with @nikipedia.

I was writing a lengthy answer and she summed up my opinion in two neat sentences..

Also, converse to @Cruiser‘s opinion—I think we have more privacy than back in the day. (If you want it—if you don’t post your entire life online.)
Growing up I felt a lot more community (neighbors wouldn’t hesitate to call my parents to tell them I rode my bike through their tulips, for example—and they probably would have also yelled at me on the spot!) – sort of like the proverbial “it takes a village”... I was surrounded by people who knew me, knew my family..and I could wander from Judge Leech’s house to have tea with his wife and admire their Koi pond, to the other neighbor’s house to give her some Rhubarb from our garden and in exchange she’d fill me up with candies.. It’s nothing like that now. I feel like I had LESS privacy long ago—but it wasn’t all bad.
Same thing when I lived in Japan. There was NO privacy. Everyone knew everything about me in my town of 16,000 people. When you live so close to others it’s just like that..

wundayatta's avatar

@nikipedia What level of affect moves it into public?

Cruiser's avatar

@geeky_mama The big difference today is the neighbors can email your parents a video of your riding your bike through their tulips.

WasCy's avatar

Let’s turn it around a bit.

If a person you don’t know was storing torture instruments in his basement, would you assume that the person is “an undiagnosed sociopath” and should be… what? ... treated? jailed? watched? Would you make a presumption of “lack of innocence” and feel that this person has to now prove his bona fides and his lack of evil intent?

The short answer is that a lot of “private business” becomes of vital interest to the public when it affects us in the public sphere. For example, if the gun nut’s garage down the road from me is so well known as a storehouse for weapons and ammunition of all kinds that it’s a target for thieves multiple times, then that’s “of interest” to the police who have to try to recover the stolen property and be concerned with what the stolen goods might be used for, and it’s of interest to the person’s own home insurance company, who would very likely drop his coverage.

Part of the solution lies in common law under “attractive nuisance”. It’s a private matter if I use a ladder to climb to the top of my roof. It’s an activity that any homeowner can do without a second thought. But if I leave a ladder permanently set to climb to the top of my roof, then that’s an “attractive nuisance” that opens me to a whole raft of potential liability suits.

A pile of pig manure (more likely, a settling pond of the stuff) next to a stream might not be an “attractive” nuisance, but if it could be demonstrated that it was “a nuisance” when it overflows, or when the stream rises, then the farmer may be forced to take action to segregate the two better than he has, or take other means to mitigate the problem.

But there has to be “a problem” or a strong likelihood of one, not just “behavior that I don’t approve of”.

blueiiznh's avatar

It’s none of your business is a very legitimate answer for various reasons, at various times, and to various people.
If it makes the other person wonder or feel its evasive, oh well.
Some people in my opinion are too inquisitive to peoples personal lives and it is my right to say that.

blueiiznh's avatar

Maybe it would be more proper to just say “bug off”

TexasDude's avatar

@WasCy summed up my thoughts on the matter. Speaking as Fluther’s resident arch-libertarian

geeky_mama's avatar

@Cruiser —but I don’t think they would…See, I think people have grown fearful of confronting other people. I sure have! You just never know when people are going to freak out on you.

I was once attacked by a neighbor who’s teenage son had run me off a snowy road (I was 8 mo. pregnant and it was a blizzard—he wanted to pass in a no-passing zone and veered into my lane. Next he hit a parked car—and kept going!).
When I pulled into my driveway and saw that the kid who’d just pulled a hit & run one street over was getting out of the driveway kitty corner from us I trudged my pregnant, shaking self over to their house and knocked on the door. First the kid cussed me out then his mother came to the door and before I could get two deep calming breaths to talk to her she PUSHED ME (again, I was VISIBLY heavily pregnant) down their steps front steps (it was a small hill) and threatened to call the cops on me. I said: “Please do, so we can report your son’s hit and run!” and her parting words as she slammed their front door were that if I called it in she’d make our lives a living hell.
Yes, she threatened physical violence on us, her neighbors, if we reported her teenage son’s reckless driving and hit & run. They had NO intention of fessing up to the parked car he’d hit (and damaged).

After much deliberation (and crying and being scared) we (hubby and I) did call the police and reported the kid. Considering how many times in the years after we saw the cops dragging him away in a police cruiser we’re quite sure he had several other run-ins with the law..and despite some ‘mysterious’ vandalism that occurred to our house a few other times (gee? wonder who?) I’m still glad I called it in. I put myself in the place of the neighbor who might have come out to find the side of their car damaged and the mirror missing and think it was the right thing to do to let them know who hit them.

I was really happy when we moved away from that neighborhood. You wouldn’t expect that sort of crap in a n’hood of quarter and half-million dollar homes…but then I suppose you can find bad parents anywhere..

nikipedia's avatar

@wundayatta, good question, hard to draw a firm line. I think at that point it has to be decided on a case by case basis.

Midknight's avatar

Nikipedia nailed it ! Something to keep in mind also, I have witnessed first hand someone “making it their business” and they learned the importance of choosing their battles.I personally know a few people no one in their right mind would want to experiment with this issue in any way shape form or fashion.

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