How much do you value your privacy? Probably a great deal. Consider all the things that you would not want to happen to yourself. You would not want anyone to read your letters. You would not want anyone looking through the windows of your house while you were at home. You would not, in this digital age, want anyone looking at your browsing history, your text messages, your emails, or indeed the photos that you may have chosen not to share.
That is why most people, though not all, are firmly on the side of the Hollywood actresses whose private photographs have been hacked and published. As one of the victims of this latest hacking scandal so tartly and correctly observed via Twitter: “To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves.”
And here we have the point: most of us are horrified by breaches of privacy. But some of us are voyeurs.
Respect for the right to privacy is essential in a civilised society. The right to privacy stems from the rights of conscience, that inner sanctuary which no human authority has the right to violate. Regimes that do not respect privacy, such as that described in George Orwell’s 1984, rightly fill us with horror. For if the right to privacy is not respected, what right will be? Soviet Russia was adept at using naked photographs of people as weapons; most who worked for the KGB did so because the KGB blackmailed them. (The successors to the KGB are probably no different.) It is commonly supposed that persons who ascended to power in Russia in the old days and who gained access to their files were horrified to find what was in them. All of us can understand why, without too much of effort of the imagination.
Those KGB agents who took pictures with secret cameras were doing it for political reasons, but they might well have been voyeurs too. Voyeurism is a sin, and it is also a species of psychological disorder: but what is particularly worrying is the way this disorder has now become mainstream. There is a huge appetite for pictures of celebrities. That is why they are stolen: because people, lots of people, will pay for them.
We certainly need to tackle the question of invasion of privacy, though just how we do so in the digital age is problematic. It is hard to police the internet. The latest superinjunction, which we are not even supposed to know about, may be discussed all over Twitter with impunity. We also need to tackle to sin of voyeurism, which seems even more daunting a task. Just how do you campaign against sin?
For the sort of campaign I have in mind is not a campaign for restrictive legislation alone (though that may be a good idea) but rather a campaign to change human behaviour. But it would take the eloquence of a Savonarola to make people feel guilty about voyeurism. And wouldn’t the public shaming of voyeurs itself be voyeuristic?
Campaigns to clean up public life have a poor record of success. Clare Short did her best to ban certain newspapers from publishing pictures of topless girls, but she got little thanks for it. We live in a culture where it is OK for men to ogle pictures of topless girls in the newspaper.
This may seem a minor matter, but it is not: it tells us a lot about our sick culture. Page Three is merely the tip of the iceberg. If only it were only Page Three; but it has gone much further than that. Voyeurs are not simply sinful, they are mentally ill. And voyeuristic societies do not prosper. We need to repent before it is too late.
The Catholic Herald comment guidelines
•Do not make personal attacks on writers or fellow commenters – respond only to their arguments.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.