Cheating girlfriends... and Wikileaks
(Disclaimer: I write this from the point of view as a man who dates women, but please do not take anything I write here as if there is any kind of assertion about how either gender is likely to behave in a relationship. All the analogies could have the genders reversed, or the same, and they would apply just as much.)
It's happened more times than I'd like to have experienced, but with various girlfriends I've had over the years, I've suspected them of cheating. And then, she's left her phone, or email account, or diary, open so that I can check it if I want.
Well, I did.
Sometimes I did find evidence of cheating, which usually was part of a long process of breaking up. Most of the time I found no concrete evidence of anything. Sometimes my suspicions were too deep to be satisfied, so I would interpret out of context snippets of information in the worst possible way, leading to accusations. Other times I just ended up realizing I was being unjustifiably paranoid, and felt like an asshole for having invaded her privacy. I'd be inexplicably nice to her for weeks following.
Was it wrong to look, though? The first answer pretty much everyone, myself included, starts with is that, yes, it was wrong to look.
That's just a starting place, though. In the case where I found out for sure about her cheating, I'll be straight with you, I don't feel even the slightest bit guilty about it. A heart broken by betrayal trumps the discomfort of personal emails read.
That's not merely an emotional judgement. We had, in essence, an agreement of mutual loyalty. That mutual loyalty is based on trust. Trust to not go through each others things, and trust not to see other people. The fact is that it is impossible for me to discover her cheating in an email unless she has already cheated, so in the case of discovering her cheating, she violated the agreement and broke the expectation of trust before I did.
However... if I don't find evidence of cheating, then it's me who has violated the trust agreement. In one case I found out that not only was she not cheating, her loyalty and affection for me was so unwavering that I felt like the world's biggest asshole for having even suspected her. The problem was by that point I had enough "hits" when suspecting previous girlfriends that my inclination to check up on them had become habitual. My suspicion came from my cynicism, not her actions.
My life lesson was learned, but it didn't make me come down on one side or another of whether or not it's right or wrong to look.
I'm convinced, in fact, that there is no absolute right or wrong about it. It's an over simplification to call it a gamble, but, for lack of a better term, you are rolling ethical dice when you contemplate checking up on your lover. Find out she's cheating, you are vindicated. Find out she's not, you're an asshole. And don't think that the possibility of the former will excuse the latter. Nope. If she catches you in the act, and she hasn't done anything wrong, then you will not talk your way out of it by claiming she might have cheated and you couldn't have known without your unilateral surprise spot check. No, you're going to have to suck up whatever punishment is the norm in your relationship.
I think most people are uncomfortable with this idea that the ethical judgement can oscillate depending on results. However, reality has a way of helping you bridge the dividing line between before you look in the black box and after.
As one ex-girlfriend, who had cheated on me but we ended up as friends years later, said to me, "If you've reached the point where you feel you need to look, the relationship has already lost something."
Trust may be broken in a tangible sense when you've snuck a peak at her diary, but it was already gone when you felt the need to pick it up.
I think this is one of the points that is missed by a lot of people who criticize Wikileaks for having released the US State Department cables. Some critics have made the claim that by creating a venue for where such secrets can be read, that is what inspires to become indiscriminate whistle blowers.
That, however, is like saying I wanted to know if my girlfriend was cheating because she owns a phone, where the information is. Which is ridiculous. When I have no doubts about my girlfriend, I don't even think about prying. The market for information is not created simply by the existence of web sites or newspapers who make it available.
The fact of the matter is that the market exists because people already have doubts about what the government does behind closed doors. The relationship between the people and the government was already broken, and now the people want to look in the diary. The market for that information is not going to go if you eradicate the diary, it will only go away if people are convinced that the government can be trusted.
People would be fine with the government having secrets if ultimately they were in our benefit. It's like having your friends plan a surprise for you. Ultimately, you're okay with it because even though they're hiding something from you, in the end there's cake. Yay! Cake.
The surprise-party justification is essentially the government's rationale for hiding stuff that can be pretty unsavoury. I know some people who work in diplomatic circles, and they really do believe they are ultimately doing the right thing. So do the pundits and academics who provide all the media and intellectual support for such decisions. They need to support a bad situation here and there, you see, even some truly hideous things, because if they do that, then they use these incidents as bargaining chips in order to work toward longer term goals where we all win. Then when it all works out they can throw us a surprise party and there will be cake. Yay! Cake.
Which is a dream world. I've never been in a situation as bad as this, but it's as if you were with a girlfriend, and every time you looked in her diary you found the name of a new man she was sleeping with, and when you pick up her diary for the umpteenth time to look, she says "How can you even think of looking in that? You're going to ruin the big party I was planning!" The government, like a habitually betraying relationship, has so long ago lost the benefit of the doubt that I can't help but laugh when I hear some pundit talk about how the leaked cables has interfered with their ability to do business. The business of fucking someone behind my back again? Cry me a river.
I can believe that it may sometimes have long term benefits to make short term compromises. It's probably the case that some leaked information did mess up a few long term good projects. The idea, though, that all the skeletons in the closet can and should be protected by this threadbare excuse is laughable.
A government, or a lover, has to have your trust in order to keep secrets. When she suddenly hangs up the phone when I walk in the room, whether I believe that she was planning a party or suspect she was arranging a date will be decided by the amount of trust we've established up to this point.
In other words, keeping secrets is a privilege.
And I'm willing to assert that quite broadly. Privacy is a right, and secrets are always a privilege. You get to keep secrets only so long as you don't abuse the privilege.
I think the two words are often blurred together, making so much debate on the topic heated for no good reason. Sometimes people argue against Wikileaks on the premise that they can't support a world in which no information can be private. Which is ridiculous. The technology to protect privacy advances just as much as the technology to invade it. Which technology wins in any particular battle will vary, but that privacy will always be a right is not even a question.
The difference between a secret and private information is the degree to which the information affects others. What you do in the bathroom, by yourself, affects only you. That's private. What you and your lover get up to in the bedroom affects only you two, so it is private between you two. A whole group of people can keep private information so long as what they do affects only them. You can even have a bunch of rich and powerful leaders get together and dance around naked in the woods in front of a big owl statue together, and so long as all they do is circle jerk each other or whatever else that affects only them, then fine. That's a right.
However, the second they start talking over the camp fire about how to price fix a product or bomb a country, then they've gone from club to conspiracy and they can expect no privacy. Not on the issue that affects others, I mean. They can still privately circle jerk if they want.
If you're girlfriend gets together with your friend to plan a party for you, then they don't have an expectation of privacy, but you will probably extend to them the privilege. "How long had you been planning this? Wow, I had no idea! Thanks so much!" However, if they're getting together to have sex behind your back, they don't have the right of privacy because their actions affect others, and they no longer can expect the privilege of secrecy because you wouldn't grant it if you knew. "How long has this been going on? I had no idea! How could you be such assholes?"
A government pretty much never has any claim to the right to privacy. Almost by definition, everything they do affects other people. I can't think of anything a government could possibly do that comes with an automatic right to privacy, though maybe I just can't think of it right now. Whatever. It's so rare that I'm going to discount it.
They can however, exercise the privilege of secrecy. Some say that for reasons of security and other realpolitik, secrecy is essential to government operation. I think that reasoning is way over extended to cover a lot more than is justifiable, but I'll at least concede the principle. Some secrecy probably helps a government get good things done. The catch is that they only get to exercise that privilege so long as they don't abuse it.
How can we ever know they are not abusing it, though?
How can I be sure my girlfriend isn't cheating?
In both cases, before one logs into anyone's email accounts or burning CDs of information, you have to wonder why you're even asking.
I've had girlfriends with whom I've never asked the question. Girlfriends who were so great that even if maybe they did slip and cheat in some context or another, and I never found out, I can honestly say that I'm fine with it and would actually rather not know. I mean, if I did find out, of course I'd punish her with passive aggressiveness for a week or so. Hey, you gotta maintain some minimum of response. But overall, they made the relationship so great that ultimately the mistakes are outweighed by the transgressions, and I'm cool with that.
If we had a government that was so awesome, the kind of government that really enjoyed giving blowjobs, and treated it like an art that they aspired to excel at... wait.. sorry, mixed my metaphors a bit. Let me start again...
Seriously, if the government was so great that it was plainly obvious they had our best interests in mind, there would be no Wikileaks, even if they were doing a few unsavoury things once in a while to pursue a greater goal. I'd believe the argument that a government has to do dark things now and again to achieve noble goals if it weren't the case that those noble successes never seem to happen. When has there ever, once, been a headline that says "Black Ops Terror Campaigns Finally Revealed As Source Of Country's Current Awesome Human Rights Achievements"?
People often want to tell us that our government, assuming you live in a democracy like I do, is so much better than the dictatorships, that we should be so grateful that we let them get on with their work. They want us to think that they're like the awesome girlfriend who has done so much for us that we extend them a line of ethical credit.
But actually, it's like having a girlfriend that is so hot that we're supposed to just appreciate her appearance and overlook how she actually acts. Just being in a democracy is, in itself, not so automatically awesome that we should shut up and never ask questions. In fact, aren't questions precisely what is supposed to make a democracy so great? A democracy can be abused like any other system, and the onus is on the government to constantly demonstrate that they are the democracy we hoped for. The democracies we have now... they just don't have that much cred.
In every case where I found cheating, it always ended up that I left the relationship. In fact, in every case I found cheating, it was the case that the relationship was already falling apart, and the cheating was a symptom, not a cause. Which is a point that has its own implications on the analogy I'm making, but I think you're smart so you can run with that on your own.
It's not as easy to just wholesale dump the government and go find a new one. Democracy allows for tweaking over time, but I think the evidence is clear that the amount of change you can believe in with a new administration is only about as significant as deleting the phone number of the guy you caught your girlfriend sleeping with. Yeah, she's not seeing that particular guy anymore, but has the underlying problem really gone away? There are a lot more guys she could be seeing...
However we might get there, though, until the day comes when our government is so obviously awesome that a little infidelity is not worth breaking up over, we'll want to check their cell phone while they're in the shower.
And post what we find on ...