Privacy and secrecy

As this year has progressed I have talked and thought a lot about privacy and secrecy, and the difference between them. It’s been the Big Idea of the year for me. I hope that you know the difference between privacy and secrecy. I hope that the people around you know it too. The more I think about it the more it strikes me that many people I have known don’t know the difference. They keep secrets and they fail to respect other people’s privacy. It’s all the wrong way round. Back in January I posted this piece, “Keeping secrets will kill you”. [Re-reading it in 2022, I decided that it should not be available for just anyone to stumble across. I have password protected it with the same set of characters I use for my drafts, versions of documents that I do not want anybody to open accidentally.] The post included these words:

I don’t have many secrets. I find them tiring, just like lies and personal conflict. But other people have shared their secrets with me; I have become the repository of their secrets. If you want to affect my peace of mind just start any sentence with “Don’t tell anyone, but …” Maybe it makes them feel better. It always makes me feel worse.

To paraphrase Baz Luhrman’s 1999 #1 hit “Sunscreen”, if I could offer you only one tip for the future, one piece of advice to take from 2016, it is this: understand the difference between privacy and secrecy.

There are many things that you can (and probably should) keep private but you should avoid doing things that have to be kept secret. The behaviour of people like Jimmy Savile is the only example I need to give here. Their criminal, exploitative, immoral actions go unpunished because people keep them secret. Their “private lives” are really secret lives.

As the year has progressed many of my conversations have included the phrase, “This isn’t secret, but it is private”. Why tell everyone about the difficulties we faced last summer in placing my son at a secondary school? Why discuss other current and (I hope temporary) difficulties with anyone who is not directly involved? They’re not secret but they are private.

During the summer I caught up with an old work colleague for the first time in a couple of years. From 2009 onwards we worked, at various times, on the same projects with many of the same people. I mentioned his name to someone I am currently working with. I would have told others too, maybe invited them along for our early evening drink near Soho Square, if I’d bumped into them. It’s a good job I didn’t. As the evening progressed he told me all sorts of things that have happened in the last few years. Some of the people we discussed are very unlikely to come out and have a drink with him anytime soon. They might never speak to him again. He hesitated before telling me the full story, understandably. As he did so I said, “I know the difference between privacy and secrecy. I can keep things private, but don’t tell me any secrets.”

What followed was a fascinating conversation. It gave me much more of an insight into his life than I had ever had before. I can’t tell you much more about it though. It’s private.

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