negligent privacy

I first heard this phrase last year, from an elementary school assistant principal in my doctoral seminar. She said it was a term of art being used in discussions of school security: it describes aspects of a school’s physical and social landscape that provide spaces for dangerous or undesirable behavior to take place. The placement of video cameras such that they couldn’t see around corners, the fact that no one knows what happens in the bathrooms, that sort of thing. The goal of school security plans being to eliminate and police those sites as much as possible.

I was disturbed by the concept, and how it connected to broad worries about the surveillance state, Foucault etc etc, and read its anxiety in light of various observations (Laclau and Mouffe, Scott and Princess Leia) that proliferation of top-down attempts to control an environment only multiply the sites where opposition can take place. Which in turn invites more overreach by authorities into privacy, ad infinitum. It’s a fool’s game to try to exhaust the possibilities of bad things that could happen and control them all. Better, much better, to empower and trust local actors to make their best judgments according to the local needs that only they can fully understand.

The term came back to mind yesterday morning as I heard a horrifying story on NPR about Spain’s “ninos robados“: the 300,000 children over fifty years who were taken from their parents and sold to other parents to be raised in different families. This arrangement was justified under Franco as a state effort to eliminate “social distortion.” If the birth parents were judged too poor or potentially Marxist (and we have to assume the two were seen as one), their offspring would be better raised by good, well-off, Franquista families, and the $25,000 that changed hands along the way didn’t hurt anyone either. The birth parents were told their babies had died, and the handoff happened secretly. Now, in retrospect, Spain is undergoing an unthinkable nightmare of collective reckoning with its past (though not an unfamiliar one, around here). Empty coffins are being unearthed; hospitals have destroyed decades of records; aging nuns won’t talk about it, claiming perverted oaths of patient / caregiver privilege. Privacy abused, state-sanctioned exploitation, complicity, unthinkable legacies of pain.

This was ample horror with which to begin the day, but of course it got much, much worse with the unimaginable news from a little elementary school in Connecticut. I was asked yesterday if I had a different reaction to the horror as a teacher and a teacher-of-teachers because it took place at a school. Are educators more vulnerable than the rest of us? Are children? To which I must reply, no. Education is not merely a social institution like others, because we have all been children, have all loved children, and most of us have them. A wound to other people’s children is a wound to ours, and to us. This is why discussion of political and social violence being wreaked upon American schools is not the purview of education professionals, but of all of us. This is why yesterday’s horror is not a school issue.

My libertarian friends will perhaps be surprised to hear that I do not think that increased school security is a useful response to this tragedy. I think that would be another example of increasing oversight and thereby multiplying opportunities to skirt it, while drawing resources from better options. I am convinced by findings that increased TSA surveillance of air travel has not made travel demonstrably safer. I am convinced that top-down efforts to police student achievement have not made our schools demonstrably better. I think top-down oversight has diminishing returns, and does unintended and unforeseen damage to selfhood and dignity and respect and autonomy.

But I also wonder on this bleak morning whether gun-control policy in our nation does not constitute a true “negligent privacy,” as it allows for spaces in which horrible technologies of violence can be bought and sold next to furnace filters and christmas trees (the case in my town). The type of guns that can be bought and sold by citizens matter. Speed kills. Yesterday’s furious outcry at the Press Secretary’s initial statement that “today is not the day” to talk gun-control policy suggests that many feel the same this morning. I am warily encouraged by the President’s early indications that maybe he’ll see fit to use his second-term cultural capital to correct these egregious misreadings of the rights to a “well regulated militia” that we supposedly enjoy. I hope for at least a renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban as a step toward sanity in this matter. I think. I am not expert in this debate, and do not know what is enough. But the current situation cannot stand.

This is hard to work out, too, because teaching is private practice, always, and to entrust your child to a teacher is to trust her to act in your stead behind a closed door. This is developmentally, socially, and culturally part of education: giving up our children to our teachers. Therefore we must work hard to choose people of good judgment and character to do the work, to support them in developing the skills and dispositions that support them in making sure that all students can learn, to enable them to use the trust and respect we accord them through their autonomy in the best and most useful ways. Privacy in teaching is not negligent. Not helping future teachers develop an understanding of the trust placed in them, is.

So, how do we get up this morning? Some of us sit down and try to write their way through to how to keep going (the real end of real theory, after all).

First I mourn fiercely the senseless loss of of so many beautiful, defenseless children. I have no rights in this matter – except the primary, cardinal rights we all have as children once, as parents, and members of the human family. They suffice.

Second, I mourn and honor the teachers who died in yesterday’s horror: their consecration to their students’ well-being and their willingness to give their lives to their protection.

And finally, I honor those lost by working to transform pain into change. May we correct, finally, the errors in our national experiment about gun policy. And may we honor the hundreds in Connecticut who wake today to torn lives by honoring those who teach their children with the autonomy and trust and respect and care they deserve.

Thanks to Sarah Skwire for the Roethke poem. 

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