Perhaps you caught some of the weekend’s silly fuss over a photo that apparently showed Barack Obama scoping out a callipygous Brazillian teen at a youth conference. If so, you probably also noted that the full video of the scene captured in the picture pretty unambiguously shows that the president was doing no such thing—though Nicolas Sarkozy’s another story. Now, this is obviously a public event concerning very public figures, but the sequence of events is nevertheless a pretty good illustration of an important point Jeff Rozen often makes about how the loss of privacy can be self perpetuating.
A big part of the value of privacy is that it creates a space in which we’re not called upon to justify ourselves. There are all sorts of things you’re willing to say and do among your close friends that you’d be far more hesitant to do in public, or on film, because your friends have a context within which to understand your words and behavior—and they know that soundbite or snapshot doesn’t define you as a person. Outside that intimate circle, one disclosure may require a cascade of further disclosures to provide that context to those who might otherwise misjudge you: The photograph gives the wrong impression, so you’d better hope there’s video handy to correct it. Not a terribly big deal for public officials, who fully expect to surrender substantial privacy when they take office, but potentially a growing issue for the rest of us as routine photography and videotaping of ordinary social interactions becomes ever more commonplace.