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Who can you trust?

Is everything everybody’s business?

by Janet L. Jacobsen

If you thrill to the tabloid tale, the shocking expose and the tell-all celebrity best-seller, consider this: how would you like all of your romantic and/or personal life publicized for everyone to see?

Now granted, most of us don’t live lives interesting enough to warrant a book advance, but perhaps somewhere your path crossed, or will cross, with someone who does become famous or infamous. Will it be a happy thing to have your little portion of their life — or their impression of you — published for all the world to see?

A recent article in The New Yorker magazine raised the question, "Is Nothing Private?" and concluded the right to keep our private lives private is eroding at the rate of a soft beach in a hard sea.

For instance, in recent rulings, the Supreme Court has held that by sharing information with someone else you relinquish all "reasonable expectation of privacy." In a 1971 case, four Justices "said that a government informer carrying a radio transmitter could secretly broadcast his conversations with a suspected drug dealer to an agent waiting in a nearby room, because all of us, when we confide in our friends, run the risk that they might betray us."

Gossip columns that used to be shocking because they mentioned that someone was seen with someone, now go into the shocking details. People previously unknown become famous by publishing books that go into the sordid specifics of their earlier life.

As the article’s author, Jeffrey Rosen observed, "It’s a little unsettling to think that every time you go on a date you have to assume the risk that your prospective partner may be scribbling notes for a book proposal." Yet that seems to be the trend, difficult as it may be for those doing the dating.

However, Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Charles Fried has written that without a commitment to privacy, "respect, love, friendship and trust" are "simply inconceivable."

Friendship and love depend on intimacy, says Rosen, which in turn depends on the gradual sharing of personal information. "A sexual memoir is the equivalent of a literary strip search, depriving the unsuspecting partner of the most basic attribute of self-definition, which is the ability to control the face we present to the world."

In day to day life, we learn who to trust by observing who is trustworthy. As Robert Post, a professor of law at Berkley points out, "If you violate your friends’ privacy, you’re not going to have many friends." But that doesn’t necessarily stop folks from blabbing big when properly motivated. Says Post, "In the social sphere there’s a sense in which we love to see the norms violated, and gossip is one way of defining community."

So what can you do? Hanging out with people who can’t write doesn’t help—they just go on tv. Never having friends or trusting anyone are alternatives.

Or you could live such an exemplary life that whatever they say about you is ok. But of course, some of us would rather be called scandalous than boring.