What privacy? For the most part, we don’t have a right to privacy while in public places

By BENNY HORNSBY,

By a 4 to 1 vote, the Hattiesburg City Council has approved the implementation of the so-called “Project NOLA,” an initiative to place cameras at strategic locations throughout the city to monitor and prevent crime.

Credited with greatly reducing crime in its namesake city of New Orleans, as well as in other participating towns such as Natchez and Fairfield, Alabama, the system also records automobile license plate numbers and the sound of gun shots.

First reported by this newspaper in November of last year, some council members are hanging fire over issues of consent and confidentiality, but as someone who has lived, worked, and gone to school in New Orleans, I say, “Do it!” In fact, not only would I put such cameras all over Hattiesburg, I would also put them in our capitol city, starting at about Mendenhall.

The concern, of course, is one of privacy.  To this I would respond, what privacy? I always just assume that I am under surveillance and act accordingly.

Don’t kid yourself. The most obscure company making solar-powered hula dancers in Unpronounceable, China, already has a database on most of us, and they know our shoe sizes, our kid’s names, what prescriptions we take, and probably what we had for supper last night.

I have an app on my phone that tells me how far away lightning strikes. I don’t doubt for one minute that it’s not ultimately hardwired into Langley, and if I said the wrong thing to the wrong person the black helicopters would be lit off and beating their way to my home in Oak Grove.

While I’m certainly not a lawyer, I believe that, generally, outside cameras are almost always fair game.

That’s why so many rural homes and buildings in urban areas have cameras that will light you up if you approach at any time of the day. For the most part, we do not have a right to privacy while in public places.

Outside on the street is generally considered to be a public place, so there should not be any issue about invading someone’s privacy in downtown Hattiesburg.

I see the Project NOLA cameras as just another weapon in the arms race against the bad guys; however, such cameras obviously cannot be pointed at an area where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

It’s when someone disrespects us, steals our identity, invades our private space, uses the photographic record for “profiling” purposes, or in any way intrudes on our individual rights that the hair starts to rise on the back of our necks.

Many in the state are already jumpy about the recent emphasis on voter ID, and about the potential use of facial recognition cameras.

Everyone has heard about the ubiquitous facial recognition cameras in China; now even London, England, has over 600,000 in use around the city. I’ve read, incidentally, that over 80% of London’s “identifications” have proved to be false. Read Ralph Ellison’s famous novel, The Invisible Man, to get a sense of what it’s like to be seen by society but not acknowledged.

We tend to desire our privacy, but our intrinsic need is for identity. The psychological term for giving someone else your full attention is called “attending.”

When I was getting an MA in Psychology at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, we decided before class one day not to “attend” the professor, that is, not to look at her. She lasted about 30 seconds before she asked what was going on.

It’s a dichotomy when you think about it: we crave privacy, yet we need to be acknowledged. I think about the reclusive actress Greta Garbo, who famously declared: “I never said, ‘I want to be alone; I only said I want to be let alone. There is all the difference.’” 

“Total institutions,” such as prisons, military boot camps, and mental hospitals (think Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) are designed to gain control by stripping away one’s individuality, if not identity.

As a graduate of three such boot camps back in the day, I knew what was happening, but I understood the process and never completely gave up my “self.” 

I always held a little back, just so I would know who I was. When I graduated from the Navy boot camp in San Diego, with a thousand other guys, all dressed alike, with farmer tans and the same amount of money in our pockets, I went downtown to one of the locker clubs (no civvies allowed in those days) and had golden, embroidered eagles sewn on the turned-back cuffs of my dress blue jumper – totally illegal, but I wanted to “stand out” and not just be a face in the crowd. 

When I got off the bus in Tucson, headed home, the Shore Patrol was standing there with a razor and cut them off. Knowing that this was going to happen, I had extra eagles and a sewing kit in my bag, and I was looking “salty” again before we got to El Paso. 

It’s not surprising to me that questions about issues of privacy and identity are among the third rails of public discourse today.

I’m currently teaching a weekend Sociology class for Gulf Coast Community College at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. The class is made up primarily of Air Force personnel who are either permanent party, students, or instructors.

We have spent an exceptional amount of class time dealing with theories of identity: from Freud to Marx, from Piaget to Weber. Interestingly enough, the one with the most resonance for the students seems to be the simple “Looking Glass Self” formula of Charles Horton Cooley: “I am who I think you think I am.”

For example, if I think that you think that I’m a fine person, I feel good about myself. On the other hand, if I think that you think I’m not so hot, my self-concept and my sense of identity will suffer. If you are a parent, think about how such thoughts would affect your child’s self-esteem.

My students also found Irving Goffman’s concept of “Dramaturgy” interesting.

This is the idea that “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare, As You Like It), and we are all just players on it, assuming and discarding roles and identities as our situation changes. If you don’t like your name, for example, just change it.

Look at the heyday of Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe was really Norma Jean Mortenson; Tony Curtis was actually Bernard Herschel Schwartz; Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovich Demsky; and John Wayne – well, he was John Wayne. Such identity shifting is also similar to what a literary critic might refer to as “self-fashioning” - where the protagonist in a novel deals successfully with the challenges of life through their own ingenuity and grit and becomes an entirely different person on the last page. 

Here’s a personal example of dramaturgy. On my first ship, when I was 17, my Chief Petty Officer called me “Reb,” I suppose because of the way I talked and because I was from Mississippi. I didn’t particularly care for the nickname. It wasn’t “Reb” in the bold, audacious sense of the Rhett Butler, I don’t give a damn, South. No, it was the lower-case, backwoods, banjo-playing, “Deliverance,” stereotypical kind of “reb.” Even though I felt marginalized, and had a hair trigger in those days, which got me into fights over silly things (like they say, “My mama died and left me reckless, and my daddy died and left me wild”),  all I could do was to try and keep my head down and my mouth shut as I learned my rate and made rank. 

Three years later, I got transferred to the west coast, and while riding a Greyhound bus from Norfolk, Virginia, to Long Beach, California, I decided to “reinvent” myself. I was sick of Reb, and I decided to pick my own nickname before I got to my new ship.

Who would know? I had two uncles that I looked up to, both of whom had served in the Navy during World War II, and their nicknames were “Rip” and “Slick.”

I liked both names but ended up deciding that I’d rather be slicked than ripped, so I reported aboard as Slick Hornsby.

It worked, because the first night my duty section had liberty, the alpha males, the “A list” guys, said, “Hey, Slick, we’re going to hit the Pike (the old beachside amusement park in Long Beach) tonight, you want to go with us?  I said, “Well . . . sure,” and I was Slick for the next three years. Even my picture in the cruise book. Big smile.

Like the real estate people say: “It’s presentation, presentation, presentation.”

I’m remembering a little river in Vietnam, snaking through the jungle. It’s nameless - so small and remote it’s not even on our charts, so let’s call it the “Snake River.”

In an earlier time and place, Joseph Conrad could have used it as a setting for Heart of Darkness. It’s a hot zone, and we are going as fast as we can, trying to get out before dark.

We careen around a sharp bend and run right over a native fisherman, standing on his little boat, tending his nets. His flimsy boat is busted to pieces, and he’s in the water, obviously hurt. We circle around, pull him out of the water, and it’s bad, really bad.  Apparently, one of the props hit him, and he looks like a piece of raw meat.

He’s going to die. I have his head in my lap as we make some pitiful attempts at first aid, but he’s in shock and slipping away.

He’s a young man, about 25 or 26, and dressed in shorts and an old army shirt. I notice that he’s fumbling with the button on one of the shirt pockets, but he can’t manage to open it. I help him, and as I do, I’m wondering what could possibly be in there that was so important – in terrible pain, staring up at foreigners, life ebbing away?

A picture of his sweetheart? Money? A letter? All these things ran through my mind as I opened up the pocket.

Do you know what I found? Nothing . . . but his South Vietnamese government identification card. His last act on this earth was to prove that he had existed, to claim some identity.

Sometimes, none of it makes any sense at all. Bruce Springsteen, the Boss, came about as close as anyone can when he sang: “So, tell me what I see, when I look in your eyes; is it you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via email at: villefranche60@yahoo.com and read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com