Facebook, privacy, pluralism and belief

By Graeme Smith
October 26, 2012

Somewhat in the manner of the guest who arrives at a New Year’s Eve party at five minutes past midnight, I have recently joined Facebook. My previous abstention was not ideologically motivated, so there has been no conversion, just the arrival of a new practical need. A project will benefit if I have some sort of Facebook presence.

I have to say it has been a surprisingly positive experience. At first I was a bit daunted by the prospect of asking people ‘to be my friend’. Facebook were keen to nominate a whole raft of people who would be pleased to sign up as Graeme’s friends, but I was not so sure. Their optimism clashed with my memories of primary school, the last time I think I actually asked anyone to be my friend.

So to begin with I attempted a few safe bets, those who would have shocked me by saying ‘no’. This was successful and therefore, newly emboldened, and with an ever increasing list of proposals from Facebook, I began to stray further and further afield. And the responses were heart-warmingly positive. I now have 43 friends, not quite the 3-400 hundred of some of my students, but far more than I realised I had prior to the whole ‘asking’ business. Primary school was never this good.

Of course not all of these happy band of 43 are straightforwardly friends. One of them is my father. Don’t get me wrong, I get on very well with my father, we are alike in many ways and enjoy the same sorts of conversations and hobbies. But he is my father rather than my friend. It would be odd if ever, at say a party of the 43, I introduced him as my friend Gordon rather than as my father.

Likewise some of my new Facebook friends are really people who probably should be thought of as colleagues, associates or acquaintances. I am kind of in their gang, but it could all change if we move classes. And there are some of these new friends who I haven’t actually met face to face. But I am assured this is all fine and normal, the point being that Facebook leads the way in a new type of social interaction, a new social media, a virtual, network society with a novel set of rules for human interaction.

This range of friend types, corralled under one banner, leads to another problem. Now I have all these friends what am I going to say to them. The diversity of friends, from work associate to family member, means they are going to be interested in different things. Those who are keen to know what my son (who won’t be my friend) got in his GCSEs are not as interested in the latest post from the jourbal Political Theology’s blog (entitled 'There is Power in the Blog' – yes this is a plug!). Nor will those who want to see the latest articles on the Obama – Romney debates be that interested in my last attempt to plod around 10 kilometres of the Warwickshire countryside.

More than that it feels a bit odd to tell work colleagues about hobbies and to show people I have never met our family snaps. In other words the umbrella term friends seems to have blurred part of the distinction between my private and public life. Even if I limit access with the privacy settings, and assume the sheer size of Facebook, around about a billion users, together with my obscurity, means few will look at my posts, still a bit of the barrier between the public and the private has been lost. The clear distinction between private Graeme and public Graeme is a little less clear.

And this loss of privacy is a concern. Not because I am anything more than annoyed, and a bit intrigued, by Facebook’s attempt to sell me new trainers, a holiday, phone contract, or health insurance. Plenty of sites do this. Nor is it because I fear ever increasing commercial and possibly State surveillance of my private life, although I probably should.

Rather it is because the existence, protection and celebration of a ‘private life’ is the main pillar of a functioning pluralist society. I take pluralism to be a basic ethical good. For pluralism to work there must be diversity. And for diversity to work we need privacy, that is a personal space in which we are allowed to hold beliefs, with or without reason, which differ from others and quite possibly the majority.

We live at a time when important groups in society, especially religious groups, want to limit or remove the possibility of such a private life. These communitarian groups seek to invade the private space of individual belief with the ‘truthfulness’ and ‘rightness’ of their religion, ideology, or culture. They do this by general attacks on Western democratic liberalism, by suggesting the liberal notion of the individual lacks substance, and by questioning the legitimacy of diverse beliefs. What resists these groups and holds back these trends is the assertion of the fundamental good of pluralism and the fundamental necessity, for pluralism, of privacy. Ultimately pluralism is defended by the assertion of our right to religious freedom.

This said, of course not all religious and ideological communitarian groups want to deny freedom of belief. Some hold in tension the limits of their knowledge of the truth with their recognition of global diversity. Nor am I claiming all is well with Western liberal democracy and some extreme forms of individualism. There are many serious problems which are caused or worsened by social and community fragmentation.

But any such problems will pale into insignificance compared with the disasters that will follow any limitations on the basic right of freedom of belief. Despite the promises of heavenly or earthly paradises made by ardent followers of this or that religious or political system, all will become hellish if pluralism and therefore privacy are not protected and enhanced.

So, please do look me up on Facebook, and do think about becoming my friend, but don’t expect me to tell you everything.


(c) Graeme Smith is Reader in Public Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/) and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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