Is there ever a time when the public DOESN’T have a “right to know”? With the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange last week, the topic of government secrets, hacking, and the ethics of secrecy once again gets into the open. To some he’s a hero for exposing official and corporate misconduct; to others, he’s a traitor for endangering the lives of diplomats, spies, and soldiers around the world.
Going beyond this one individual, the larger question is, as always, when should secrets be kept? In the professional world, lawyers and doctors are bound by strict secrecy when it comes to their clients’ and patients’ lives. We generally see that as a good thing. But what if a patient has a deadly contagious disease? Doesn’t the public health trump privacy? If a lawyer hears his client plan to commit a murder, wouldn’t he be complicit in that killing if he didn’t reveal it?
In more mundane governmental situations, secrecy is common. Our school board routinely holds secret meetings to discuss staff hirings and firings. So do the city and county commissions. Is this a bad thing? Secrecy in the corporate world is how business is done: after all, who wants to share their technology or business plans with their competition?
In simpler days, the other side of the equation used to be investigative reporters for newspapers, radio, and television. It would fall to them and their editors to make the decision whether to publish what they found out. It would have been interesting to listen in on the ethical debates that took place in the back rooms: should they reveal FDR’s paralysis, or would it demoralize the war effort? Should JFK’s affairs be made known, or is the presidency too “regal” to be tarnished? Is MLK’s plagiarism worthy news, or should it remain unpublished?
These days, it seems nothing is too important or too salacious to be held back. No politician is above reproach, no family member, even children, inviolate. If nothing current is interesting, comments made decades ago as teens resurface for embarrassment value. I suspect even Mother Theresa said or did something in her youth that might tarnish her sainthood.
With the advent of the Digital Age, everything we say or do is now permanently available for future critique. The challenge is for the critique-ers to make a moral decision as to the validity of that information. If I ran for office, would those ethnic jokes I swapped with my seventh-grade friends come back to haunt me?
It’s intellectually lazy to accept everything at face value. Asking folks to decide for themselves what’s important is just too much work for most. And so we allow oceans of unedited, unfiltered rubbish to flow past our eyes and ears, trusting it all to be important and worthy of being public. Maybe it’s time to turn the faucet down a little.