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Q&A: Author Janna Malamud Smith

‘People Are Giving Up a Lot of Autonomy’

By Samantha Stone  

Last of two parts. 

In 1997, psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith published “Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life.” 

She used examples from history and literature to explore the concept of privacy and to describe why we need it. 

There’s also a dose of insight from Smith the therapist, who notes how the drive to heal can push private matters voluntarily into the public sphere. 

In the last of a two-part interview, Smith, 69, told Digital Privacy News how relinquishing privacy could invite harm.

“Private Matters” includes discussion of therapy. It’s a transaction. It happens in private. I pay you to hear about my most private thoughts and behaviors — and you listen without shock or disgust. Why does it work? 

That’s a lifetime conversation. There are a lot of technical reasons it works. 

You wrote about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as a therapy allegory. There’s this part of me that I show to the world, and that’s my respectable persona. And, then, there’s the ravaging beast I want to hide — but that’s the part that you, as the therapist, would like to get to. 

You certainly invite it into the room. 

So often, one of the things that cripples people is just the profoundness of their shame. 

“You want to have the autonomy to figure out the things that drive your own passions, the way you want to realize yourself in the world.”

Giving people experiences where they can say the most shameful things in the world — and they aren’t mirrored back as shameful — can just be hugely relieving to people. 

But what’s the link between a successful therapeutic process and its guarantee of privacy? 

It goes back to what I was saying about autonomy and choice: To be a realized person, we believe as a culture … that you want to have the autonomy to figure out the things that drive your own passions, the way you want to realize yourself in the world. 

One of the ways therapy would work would be to help a person try to realize those parts of himself. 

Your chapter on “presidential privacy” characterizes (former Democratic President) Bill Clinton as willing to trade private facts about his life for political popularity. Ultimately, by forfeiting bits of his privacy, he opened the door for everyone to violate it later. 

Like answering that damn question about “briefs or boxers?” You can’t have it both ways. 

You can’t flash and then say: “I didn’t show anything. How dare you call me on this?” 

“Giving people experiences where they can say the most shameful things in the world … can just be hugely relieving to people.”

He created, either with the advice of consultants or on his own, a kind of narrative of his own life — revealing his human side — that did become really problematic. 

You wrote an additional chapter after 9/11, because you had the opportunity to do that when your book came out in paperback. 

I thought 9/11 and the internet were the beginning of change, the scope of which would be almost inconceivable. 

If you look at things like Homeland Security, we’re still only beginning to discover the malicious, malignant surveillance of American citizens allowed after 9/11. 

The book was written back in — it seems like in the days of ancient Greece: The revolution of surveillance for money — the trades we’ve all made with Facebook, with Google, having these amazing things at our fingertips in return for our privacy. It’s just staggering. 

People don’t really appreciate, collectively, the terrible risk of all we’ve given away coming back to be used against us. You see example after example where people are destroyed. 

We’re seeing all over the world what a tendency group life seems to have to move toward some kind of dictatorship, to use an old word. 

Something totalitarian, something fascist — let’s say. 

So, we’re headed for a dark future? 

If you look at human history, most people have been enslaved most of the time. 

Right now — between what we’re doing to people financially, by allowing so much money to be in so few hands, and what we’re doing to people through all kinds of surveillance, and what people are allowing because of fear of the catastrophic speed of change — people are giving up a lot of autonomy. 

“People don’t really appreciate, collectively, the terrible risk of all we’ve given away coming back to be used against us.”

If we value experiments with other ways of living, where people aren’t reduced to servitude and oppression, then privacy has a role to play — in terms of protecting the potential for autonomy. 

Samantha Stone in a Nevada writer. 

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