The news media–ultimate invader and purveyor of secrets–feasts eagerly upon two categories of secrets: governmental secrets, prominently intended to protect or harm one or the other party. and dirty “little” secrets, where dozen to hundreds of individuals are molested or brutalized in silence. For the first, think of the FBI’s trove of info about Russian actors in the 2016 election–tidbits dangled for public indignation. The second provides shock upon shock, the tale of entrenched sexual manipulation of Hollywood women offering a disgusting foretaste to Dr. Nassar’s years-long violation of young female gymnasts.
In the 1990’s I learned a simple distinction between secrecy and privacy: Private meant only the individual with the information was affected; secret information belonged to at least one other person. An offshoot of secrecy is the third party conundrum. If my friend tells me in confidence that her boyfriend raped her, am I responsible for telling the proper authorities? This responsibility extends and expands, so that the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Board and the CEO of the US Olympics must resign for not telling, not knowing, or not being interested in knowing about the sexual abuse taking place in the training facilities of the US gymnastics team.
If a man is impotent, he can keep the matter to himself as long as he is not in a relationship. Once he is, that information belongs to the partner as well. If a woman had an abortion at age 16, does that information “belong” to a future spouse or children later in life? What if she’d been psychiatrically hospitalized, imprisoned, or declared bankruptcy? What if a man or woman, now gay, has had previous heterosexual partners? What about the reverse? Must he or she tell the partner? In the interest of protecting an innocent party, should others reveal the secret if she doesn’t? What if she runs for public office? Do her children have the need or the right to know?
As the world turns, privacy diminishes. Keeping secrets, always a dicey risk, has become nigh impossible. Further, secrets wreak psychological damage upon the secret-holder. Shame, which is usually the motive for secrecy, as well as one source of the psychological damage, has been turned on its head. Current psychological wisdom holds that shame and trauma are healed when the victim talks about her suffering. If her listener is obligated to reveal the information to the police, does that help or harm the victim’s shame?
When Peter Thiel was outed by “Gawker” (“Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”) in Dec., 2007, many were surprised that he still inhabited the closet. Theil fixed Gawker alright by secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the gossip sheet for outing Hogan’s secret affair with a friend’s wife. The secret funding itself was outed–so there. Can the web of “opening a secret” get much knottier?
The flip side of the need-to-know issue is the extraordinary privacy mandated by law for all employers. An employer may not ask a job applicant’s age, medical history, or even ask previous employers why the applicant was let go. This privacy regulation, of course, does not prevent the employer from finding all of the above in Facebook, where the disclosure was the applicant’s own choice. An employer needs to know but is forbidden to ask.
Hunter Harrison was hired in March 2017, for a four-year-stint as CEO of CSX, the giant railroad company, but was dead by December. Seventy-three years-old , he refused his new employer’s request to review his medical records before hiring. CSX went along with the refusal even though it agreed to pay Harrison’s current employer $84 million dollars to buy out his contract. Shares in CSX zoomed up 60% when the new CEO., a turn-around expert, was hired, only to drop 7.6% the day the medical leave was announced, just 2 days before Harrison’s death. Does a CEO have a right to privacy? What if the company is publically traded?
It makes intuitive sense that the FBI, the military, lawyers, and courts keep secrets. In July 2003 CIA operative Valerie Plame was outed in the newspaper in retaliation for her husband’s criticizing President Bush’s weapons-of mass-destruction party line. She sued the reporter Robert Novak under a 1982 law prohibiting the disclosure of covert operatives. A handful of NY Times reporters were caught up in the story, one of whom, Judith MIller, spent 85 days in jail protecting her secret source. Novak kept secret from his colleagues that he was operating with the prosecution. Which is secret, which is private, and who has the right to know?
Did President Trump and company have secret negotiations with some Russians? Did the FBI investigate those dealings because they hate Trump? J. Edgar Hoover was notorious for using the organization he founded to persecute political opponents. The tape of LBJ prompting Hoover to wiretap Martin Luther King’s bedroom is a hair-raiser. Does revealing secret anti-Trump emails among FBI staffers even the score for the White House?
Your answer may depend upon which news media you follow. When I was young, people often kept their voting history a secret, along with their bank account, the price of their house, and any diseases, dread or simply icky, which they had. No wonder I can’t get this secrecy business straight.