The major social problem of secrecy in the sense of hiding facts or even as an accidental omission is firmly connected to the difficulty of group thinking: what they don’t want to know, what would change them if they knew, what prevents someone’s wants, what they have been taught it is dangerous to know.
It was a problem in my ministry that people had media-promoted ideas about “the seal of the confessional” which only applies to Roman Catholics, or about confidentiality in law or therapy which moves around according to what people think is includes and why. Similarly there were mystical fantasies about love, marriage, and children that had developed to keep people in their places.
Secrets are a problem in my family where people wanted to present their most acceptable public aspect, partly going back through homesteading generations through risky economics. It was important to seem like “everything is all right” so therefore okay to loan money and invite to events. One uncle who was evidently paranoid schizophrenic has simply been erased.
That seemingly crazy statement of Rumsfeld about knowing, not knowing, knowing what is not known, and not knowing what isn’t even suspected though it’s true, is particularly sharp in a time when the boundaries of science and history are being exploded and the awareness of the public that experts know things no one else knows. This is quickly followed by public rejection of intellectuals who think they know so much.
It’s a major wound to democracy that the people who are supposed to control our fates by voting still refuse to either respect new knowledge or educate themselves some way in order to keep up. Another damaging attitude is confronting new and daunting information about persons by saying, “Oh, they’re all like that. I just don’t have anything to do with them and it’s their private business, so as long as it doesn’t affect me, I don’t give a damn.” Or maybe, “Hey, I don’t have time to figure all this stuff out, so I just won’t participate.” If I don’t know about it, it’s not my problem.
But looking at it from the opposite side, people are willing to accept weird ideas about reptiles and outer space, but won’t assimilate the Kinsey Report that found MSM can be universal and occasional rather than “men only” gay. The “Billion Wicked Thoughts” about pornography produced data showing what is classed as porn can be almost anything — whatever turns you on, which is highly dependent on experience and memory. Molecular predilection, like all physiological functioning, can be shaped. Sex hunger, like food hunger, is a driving force that seeps into everything. Those who don’t have it don’t survive as a line of inheritance. But it can be satisfied without fertility. They can contribute to the survival of the group.
The internet has added new dimensions to the problems of secrecy. At first we thought it was wonderful to have a private pipeline to each other, to clump into groups who didn’t have to hide who they were, to explore the whole thing about how even a dog could post without being blamed for his canine tendencies. But soon the illusion of secrecy was like undependable ice on a lake, breaking through and killing people. Once sent out, words became permanent — revived from way-back — there to be reinterpreted and misunderstood and accumulated into damning evidence. (“We know by analyzing your typing skills that you were a cat all along!”) People infiltrated and were found out. I got thrown off RezNet. And then it became plain that half-a-dozen people knew me in real life but didn’t rat me out. The secrecy that was a transgression was followed by a secrecy that was protection.
Internet stuff was all very confusing. Some people and a lot of kids cracked up, destroyed themselves. We didn’t have sufficient education and the generations had split apart because families did the same. The idea of the stable middle-class that had dinner together every evening was gone. No home was considered sufficient if it didn’t devote thousands of dollars to electronic equipment. Every child thought they had to have a bedroom, a bathroom, and a computer as well as in adolescence a car of their own. But a huge percentage of people were lucky to have a shelter at all and had to steal an iPhone to be part of the country. Worst of all, by going online, they knew it.
The strong have always preyed on the weak, but now rape and pedophilia were vividly portrayed on crime videos viewed at home and they became a “thing,” political and gender-assigned, without equally vivid forces explaining that these are not just stigmatized because God said so, but because they are dehumanizing and sociopathic. Yet never analyzed for causes or amelioration.
It is a mammal characteristic to want to resolve ambiguity, to complete systems, to solve puzzles. Out here on the prairie we know that antelopes can be attracted by waving a white hankie. My dentist’s assistant had a teenaged track star in the family who ran on a trail. He was joined by a cougar. It didn’t attack — it just ran alongside, wanting to know where he was going. Even cows will come watch fencing in case there might be food involved. Thus court cases, political issues, and athletic games can seize our attention. I caught wary dogs by pretending to find something fascinating in a clump of weeds.
Famously, Jack Nicholson accuses “You can’t handle the truth!” Absolutely. Those of us with empathy can hardly handle the suffering in the world that comes from simple poverty, stigma, and ignorance. We’ve seen modern war and its consequences and few if us like it, though too many sociopaths like thinking about it. Covid-19 is real to those who have watched the bodies being carried out, and the knowledge that LA has asked for an air pollution exemption because burning so many bodies makes a lot of smoke, takes a lot of fuel, eliminates the possibility of autopsies.
Some good things are also hidden because their privacy is part of their appeal and secrecy can be a necessary protection. How do we honor that if we don’t know it exists, which is the surest kind of secrecy?
One consequence is a flurry of speculation and fictions meant to distract and inform at once. The invention of fiction in the first place is meant to be a way to talk about what can’t be talked about — that is, an escape from consequences of revelation. Which intensifies the “need to know.” This was never directly addressed in seminary, though religion is almost defined by it.