What is Private?

I’m actually a bit confused – thrown, disoriented (disorientated, if you prefer). I am not a moral absolutist but there are certain things I hold quite dear. There was an incident with the young people I work with where one adolescent had a bit of a meltdown during a discussion of a sensitive topic. This was not in a therapeutic space – it was an educational space – but the material was controversial, emotional. His behavior created a tenseness in the room. Some people were offended by his words, others were simply uncomfortable with all the feeling he emitted. I was concerned. On one hand, I could see his emotion was real, raw. On the other hand, he upset some other adolescents in the space. He stayed afterwards, we discussed it. We both made a kind of peace with the situation and agreed that he’d work on handling emotion in that space… This is not the incident that leaves me sad.

All of the above occurred on a Friday afternoon and later that same day I found myself at a nearby pub with some colleagues. Immediately one leaned over and said to me, “Someone filmed that incident with the kid getting so upset and then Snapchatted* it to all their friends. Another kid showed it to me”. Oh. Stunned. Silenced. Intrusion into private or safe places makes me upset, angry. Being a counsellor means that such spaces are sacred to me. (I do get the minor contradiction of me writing about this 'private' incident, but I don't think I am giving enough detail to make it identifiable to anyone beyond the people who already know about it or to expose the vulnerabilities of the individual or group involved.)

I did end up thinking about this a lot all weekend. I spoke to a few different colleagues and considered all of my feelings – what was justified, what wasn’t. As an aside, I was not filmed in this situation and it wasn’t about me, but I did feel responsible for the space. I set out a plan and the biggest part of that plan was speaking to the students openly, honestly about how it left me feeling. People don’t believe this but nothing works better with adolescents. Their sense of loyalty is high, typically. Living up to your expectations is a priority and letting you down makes them feel awful. Most people want to be the person they imagine they are. The talk went a little something like this – “I care about you unconditionally. Nothing can change that… but you disappointed me and I was stunned. This may not be a confidential space but it should be a safe one. We discuss sensitive issues and what comes out of that should not leave this room. I also worry about the understanding people have of consent…” and so on.

Most responded the way I would expect. They were quiet and simply shook their heads in agreement. A few questioned this, though – not in an aggressive or disrespectful way but in a sincerely ‘I-don’t-get-it’ kind of way. “Why? Why can’t we film each other? This is a public space.” My response – “No, this isn’t a public space and the filming turned someone’s difficult moment into the butt of a joke. It was unkind.” They didn’t respond but the shaking of their heads told me that one or two of them just weren’t convinced. In their minds, it was simply unrealistic of me to think that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen, that people open themselves up for this to happen by simply being in a place with others.

I don’t agree. I don’t want to live my life like that – having to always second-guess my every word or movement in case it may be filmed and contorted into some humourous and embarrassing soundbite… but what if I am just too old to understand? What if the filming incident was in no way unethical? Maybe I am being unrealistic and am out of touch. Maybe everything outside of my home is a public space. I’m not being facetious. Maybe that is just the way life is now. I don’t know. That’s the thrown feeling I’m experiencing. That moment when you think – “wait, something I was so sure of… maybe it is just one of a million possible perspectives of equal value”. I’m not comfortable with that in this scenario, but I also don’t know if I overreacted in my certainty that the filming was an invasion of privacy and unethical.

*In case you don’t know what Snapchat is – it is an app that let’s you send a photo or video to your contacts but the image disappears after several seconds. It can be fun. It is very popular amongst young people but has caused some controversy. You can screenshot the photos and there are programmes that let you capture the videos. So, when people Snapchat embarrassing or risqué photos and videos to the wrong person, sometimes it ends up being a very painful incident. The story in the link following this note is not a result of Snapchat (nor is the point of all this to attack Snapchat, which is innocuous in itself), but is a powerful example of how quickly a small photo or video can become a devastating event in a person’s life. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/jan/21/naked-pictures-this-is-what-i-did-revenge-porn-emma-holten-video