A few months ago, Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress who has alleged having sexual affairs with President Trump, went on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to talk about the details of her sexual relationship with the president. I personally have not watched the exchange, because quite frankly, I do not care nor do I want to know what happened behind closed doors in Trump’s bedroom with Daniels. The reason I bring this up is because the YouTube video of the exchange between Kimmel and Daniels has garnered 8.8 million by now. 8.8 million people decided that Trump’s sex life was worth knowing about. Kimmel paved the way, thinking it was acceptable material to put up on TV and on the internet.
This story is indicative of assumptions we often make about other people, namely that we assume to have a right to know even the most personal details of other people’s lives. Troublingly, some people find it acceptable for the most intimate details of people’s lives to be out in the open for all to see. We must acknowledge that there are things we are not supposed to know about someone. If someone denies sharing a certain detail about his life, leave him be; it is his business at that point.
Before I go further, let me be clear: I am not arguing that we should be closed off from one another. There is value in sharing deeply personal details about one’s life, and we can learn a lot from each other when we open up. But we should differentiate between the voluntary exchange of such details and the coercive manner in which such details can be extracted from someone (such as through bullying, harassment, intimidation, or social pressure). Far too often, people go the latter route in finding out personal details about others and see no harm in it.
Censorship, nonetheless, is not the solution. If Kimmel wants to interview Daniels and ask her what sex with Trump was like, it is his prerogative. But, censorship aside, there must be some discussion about the implications of Kimmel’s actions and what he is normalizing by probing the most intimate of details about Trump. Of course, Trump is a politician, and like all other politicians in this country, we subject his personal life to the highest scrutiny. What is his education? What is his personal health? Has he done any public service? These are all legitimate questions to ask, and it would be wise for the president to give honest answers to these types of questions. But scrutiny can go too far, as I believe Kimmel did in his interview with Daniels. More often than not, acquiring such sensitive information usually leads to malicious actions on the part of others.
There are some violations of personal privacy that have rightfully gotten some pushback, but some of these problems persist to this day and pose huge threats to our personal privacy. Doxxing (the finding and publishing of personal information for malicious intent), government metadata programs, and cyber attacks are some of the more extreme examples. But there are subtle ways in which we normalize the coercion of people into giving up personal information, if not outright stealing that information and showing it to the world. The grand hypocrisy is that we always look to keep big padlocks on our personal lives, but we look for bigger hammers to smash others’ padlocks.
In the end, there are just some things that are not for us to know. We all keep secrets, even if we do not like to admit it, but it is a good thing in some cases. Hannah Arendt defined totalitarianism as the erasure of the boundary between public and private life, where privacy was nonexistent in the face of an omnipresent state dominating every facet of social life. Think Orwell’s 1984, where no action could go by without the watchful eye of the state keeping tabs on what is going on. If we are not careful, if we are not vigilant in protecting the private lives of ourselves and others, we could easily slip into an Orwellian nightmare where nothing is hidden from the prying eyes of others, which is not desirable for anyone who cares about personal privacy. After all, how would you feel if your whole life were on display for all to see?