The Right to Know is Grounded in the Need to Know
“The public has a right to know!” How often have we heard an impassioned journalist express this phrase on television and in the movies? Countless numbers of times. So many times that we have come to take it for granted as a basic principle regarding our First Amendment, but we forget that there are nuances and stipulations that apply to this phrase, as to all phrases, and that it is not absolute.
The principle applies to that which is properly a public matter. Whoever is party to an affair (and you can hear the concept “participating” in the word “party”) is privy and entitled to what’s going on, because it directly affects them. Nonparties to an affair have no such truth-rights. When something affects the public at large, the public is a party, and does indeed have “a right to know”.
But those lines have blurred in our culture. The paparazzi cloak themselves in the First Amendment when they video celebrity weddings, and invade the privacy of celebrities in their own private residences, on the same sort of unexamined, unnuanced ethos of “the public has a right to know”, on the grounds that celebrities have chosen to become public figures. But just because you have chosen to become a public figure does not mean that you have chosen for every part of your life to be public! There is a region of public concern to which you have devoted yourself : art, music, theatre, public service, etc., and in those areas, what you do is indeed public. But not anywhere else.
Privacy is not only eroding all about us, but is under serious attack in our society. Truth has become inquisitional in character. It is presumed that everyone has the right to know everything about anyone, and if you resist, what, do you have something to hide? There is a presumption of guilt around privacy : if you have something to “hide”, then you must be guilty of something improper or even criminal. What if you simply want to maintain information about events proper only to participants amongst those participants? What if others haven’t been invited?
We have a notion that “telling the truth” means that everyone has a “right to know” at all times about all things, and we’ve forgotten the very important principle of need to know. The basis of need to know is those directly affected by affairs need to know what is going on, so they can base their actions accordingly. It is, in a sense, an extension of the prohibition against fraud, which forms the basis of our notions of consent. You can only consent to participating in something if you know what’s going on. But if you aren’t participating in something at all, of what business is it to you?
Yes, we’ve forgotten the principle of “It’s none of your business”. This is a wonderful phrase. It turns the so-called “right to know” right back on those demanding it : what gives you the “right” to know? On what basis is that “right” grounded? Quo warranto? On what authority do you claim prerogative to cross my lines of privacy and do a search and seizure?
Search and seizure ... Oh, yes, there is another one of our amendments, one increasingly forgotten, the Fourth Amendment, which enshrines the idea that “a man’s house is his castle”, and is founded on principles of privacy. What happens when the press tries to overextend its lawful freedom to report on public affairs by encroaching on the Fourth Amendment principles themselves? Rights exist in delicate balances, and are not so obvious on their face that they can simply be plugged in robotically and in an isolated fashion. Once private information gets out that was intended to be private, it can be utilized by anyone for any reasons.
If everyone has the “right” to encroach on everyone else, and interfere with their business, then no one really has any true rights at all. Unfortunately, this interference-ethos is a legacy of some very dark history in our society, originating, of course, with empire, but developed in more sinister ways through Christian missionizing, which saw fit to infiltrate autonomous societies and begin to dictate to them how they should live. Christians all over the world claim this as their “right” by religion, because their holy book tells them they must do so. This has dulled the edge of our sense of rights, and thrown us into confusion. The practice of confession, spread by the Church, while perhaps therapeutic in its own right in a private setting, nevertheless extended the idea that all private acts are ultimately affairs of the Church, to which the Church ought be privy, and thus, a kind of spiritual totalitarianism set in that culminated in the Inquisition itself, in which “truth” was pried out, if necessary, by torture, and definitely by irregular (to say the least!) judicial practices.
Spiritual totalitarianism : your life is ours, and thus, what you do is our business. Well, what a perfect ethos for an age of sophisticated surveillance equipment! It can become the drive behind a quite Orwellian transformation of society, which is well under way. We’ve become used to being spied upon, our own private messages subject to unwarranted search, even now being made to electronically strip naked in order to fly. The Church claimed its pseudo-rights as “agents of God”, founding their inquisition into your private affairs on the dogma that God himself constantly searches into all private recesses of the human heart. I have asserted here before that the heathen Gods do not do this. Oh, they may be aware of many things happening on the heart level, because they are in tune with the ocean of the heart, and to that degree know things. But they aren’t interested in prying into your life unless you ask them to do so, for specific reasons, thus giving them warrant. (And just as with the concept of a warrant in human affairs, if you were doing something that violated someone else’s rights, that could theoretically give them warrant as well.) You have your family and friends to take care of you and your private matters, and then your tribe or community, and then your bioregion or kingdom, and then any larger alliances in which your kingdom may be involved. You have your ancestors, the land wights, and so forth. When these systems fail, then you call in your “big guns” as it were. A heathen would look askance and then grab for his sword if someone spoke of being agents of the Gods and therefore privy to all information, because not even the Gods would claim that on the level of the surveillance-society. (Odin looks out from his throne on the doings of men, but he is watching macro-movements, the development of nations (which is why he often deals with and tests kings, who lead nations), and so forth.)
Odin distinguishes between an inner circle of trust, and that which is outside that circle, and therefore unworthy of being privy to things. We need to reclaim that sense of boundaries that characterized our indigenous ancestors. There were three kinds of people : friends, foes, and those who are neutral. Friends are within the circle of frith and thus are owed full, heartful sharing, which feeds the friendship. Foes have proven themselves antagonists, and thus will utilize every resource against you, functioning on the “anything you say can and will be used against you” principle. To foes the laws of war and not the laws of peace apply.
Odin says, Vin sínum skal maðr vinr vera ok gjalda gjöf við gjöf; hlátr við hlátri skyli hölðar taka en lausung við lygi (Havamal 42), “A man shall be a friend to his friend and return gift with gift ; laughter against laughter shall take hold, but loss against lies” (with "laughter" here implying not only enjoyment, but ridicule as well : return laugh for laugh, ridicule for ridicule), and Ef þú átt annan, þanns þú illa trúir, vildu af hánum þó gótt geta, fagrt skaltu við þann mæla en flátt hyggja ok gjalda lausung við lygi (Havamal 45), “If thou hast another, whom thou ill trust, but wishing to get good from him, fair shalt thou speak with him, but intend deceit and return emptiness against lies.” Lausung is related to our word “loose”, and means emptiness, vanity, a kind of deceit characterized by a false front or face, a type of cover story, acting, or feigning that remains noncommittal. It’s not precisely encouraging lying, but in the face of the lies of an untrustworthy foe, one is permitted to speak in such a way that the other will lose (another nuance of lausung) in his or her antagonism. Odin continues, Það er enn of þann er þú illa trúir ok þér er grunr at hans geði, hlæja skaltu við þeim ok um hug mæla; glík skulu gjöld gjöfum (Havamal 46), “Concerning one whom thou ill trusts and have suspicions about his good intentions (favour/mind), thou shalt laugh with him and speak around your thoughts ; thou shalt pay them back in their own coin.” [Literally, “similar shall yield the gift”.] It’s a delicate and interesting phrase : to speak around one’s thoughts : not precisely to lie, but not precisely to tell the truth either. This applies to those whose intentions one suspects.
Neutral parties, on the other hand, are not party to any private affairs within the circle, and thus have no essential “need to know”. Here one may simply choose to say, politely, “That information is none of your business,” or, “I choose to keep my silence.” (And would that public figures involved in purely private scandals would, instead of giving in to the demand for public confession and repentance, simply say, "It's a private matter and will be handled privately." After all, we're not really involved in the adulteries of others, much as we might disapprove.) Odin says, in this regard, Ósnotr maðr, er með aldir kemr, þat er bazt, at hann þegi (Havamal 27), “For the unsophisticated man, who comes amongst men, it is best for him to remain silent”. When you’re amongst people you are uncertain are friends or foes, get to know them before you start sharing personal or private matters with them, and test them before they become privy. Likewise, do not expect to be privy to private matters until you have been tested. The sophisticated may have ways of skirting around confession in more elegant ways, but those who cannot, ought remain silent in the presence of neutral parties.
Here we come to an important point, the distinction between truth and confession. Because of Christianity, we’ve come to confuse the two. We’ve almost come to the point of assuming that “if you don’t confess everything, you’re guilty of something”. In heathenism, you have no obligation to confess anything to unaffected parties, let alone potentially or actively hostile parties.
There is approximate, need-to-know truth for the outside, and deeper truth for inside, and as long as affairs are one’s own, and not the business of the larger public, one does not owe those on the outside truth. This does not authorize manipulation and lies, either, but a cover story as a shield against outright antagonism by parties who would misuse information with slanderous or aggressive intentions may be ok to protect the inner circle.
The basic point might be expressed as “shield”. You have the right to protect you and your own, and outsiders do not have the right to disrupt that frith. They are owed information, as peaceful outsiders, to the degree such information affects them, and no further. The press may have a right to lawfully investigate ; they have no warrant to usurp inquisition under that right. We have a right to know that which we do have a right to know.
These are not absolute principles, but they are important guidelines that help temper fanatical, absolutist notions of truth-telling which ignore the contextual realities of considering the safety of the situation, without sacrificing the ideal of sooth, of staying close to deep reality. But once again, if the deep reality is one of hostile antagonism rather than peaceful discourse and mutual, open-minded inquiry (which, I must always add, can include sharp but friendly critique, and can even include less friendly debate, if both sides agree to the debate, in which case there is a sharper need to cleave to truth), then one can speak the truth that corresponds to that deep reality. Absolutist approaches to ethics are poor substitutes for authentic wisdom, and we are called by our heathen Gods into authentic wisdom. Keep these guidelines in mind and act wisely, holding truth as an important principle on the one hand, and privacy and protection on the other hand. In such balance lies wisdom.
I just want to re-emphasize that when it comes to things that affect us, like the nuclear industry, like toxic fallout and pollution, like secret programs to destabilize other countries' integrity, and all other matters of properly public import, we do indeed have the right to know. "Private" industry that affecgts us = our business. Private life that does not pollute us = not our business.