Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ghosts and Privacy

JMH asked,

Do you believe in ghosts?
A touchy subject in Gettysburg, my friend, where even the urinals in the men's rooms are supposed to be haunted. Do I believe that the non-material spirits of those who have passed are still walking among us? No. Do I believe that these essences somehow are able to affect material objects making clanks and bonks in the night? No, those mysterious screams that are heard around midnight are the remaining echoes of the cries of Hanno's logic students. Are there so many similar accounts of experiences that some explanation needs to be given? Sure, but I wouldn't count on the spooky to be real.

In a sense that is slightly stronger than metaphorical, however, I do believe in ghosts. The ramifications of lives lived will ripple in odd and unusual ways, surfacing and changing the path of events even after our deaths. Just as we find ourselves later in life saying things without thinking that our parents said, so too, many effects are transmitted through the living and parts of us carry on beyond our own demise. For those of us who teach, how many examples have we borrowed from our own teachers? How many mannerisms have we unconsciously acquired? Academia is a small world, and we can all play the academic version of the Kevin Bacon game pretty easily, for example, my teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher was Albert Einstein. Is something in what I don't realize I'm doing in the classroom an odd tic picked up from Einstein? If so, wouldn't that mean that the ghost of Uncle Albert is in some sense alive in the room?

Which of those parts of us will be transmitted beyond our material incarnation? We don't know, and they may or may not be the ones we would hope. That, I suppose, is part of what makes life so interesting.

And it leads to our next question, a really good one from Effie Jones,
If a person leaves no specific instructions in a will, is it still wrong to read their private correspondence, or their journals? Let's assume that person had a known desire for privacy.

I wondered the same after the book on Mother Theresa hit the shelves - her private correspondence with her confessor was published for the world to see (worrisome, as confession is meant to be private, plus she did state in her lifetime that she did not want her letters released). I think of Kurt Cobain's journals as well.

Does the 'good' of what we learn from outsize lives outweigh that person's desire for privacy?
If we think of privacy strictly in terms of rights, then the case seems to lean towards making the material public since once the person dies, there is no longer someone to have the right to privacy unless the papers were explicitly transferred into someone else's possession through a will. But this, I think, illustrates one of the problems with relying only on the notion of rights. There does seem to be some sort of respect that we should maintain for the person, even after his or her passing.

But what does this respect entail? If the papers hold details or claims that could be harmful to others who are living, then that seems to be a separate case. Let's simply assume that what is contained in the papers are merely personal, reflections, historical details, and the like. In this case, is the only possible harm to our understanding of the person, to his or her reputation? If so, do we have the right to shape our historical image? This seems not to be the case. If it is a matter of embarrassing truths causing us to be remembered in a way we would prefer not to be, then it seems like truth may be more important than vanity.

But suppose it is not mere vanity, but that you know you would become a symbol and such revelations would not allow for the same power that would contribute to the advancement of something positive that you dedicated your life towards. I think this could be argued perhaps in the Mother Teresa case, that displaying her clay feet with their clay warts and bunions could lead to her example being less inspirational and therefore less influential on creating more potential good. On utilitarian grounds, then, should we avoid it?

Suppose we have good reason to believe that the private writings will be misinterpreted. Without the writer around to give context and explain intent, these writings could be misconstrued and used in harmful ways. Of course, this sort of question is precisely what scholars discuss for a living. If one is a public figure, then they seem the rightful subject of scholarly study and if we are to understand the world around us better, shouldn't we have as many data points as possible. In this case, wouldn't the sequestering of the material be a harm to humanity at large. Should we lose a depth of understanding of what really happened in our history to protect someone against embarrassment who can no longer feel embarrassment?

Man, Effie, that's a good question.