Sunday, 3 May 2009

Privacy Versus Community

In my village, in the quiet and subdued battle between privacy and community, privacy is gaining ground.

But surely, you may be saying, we all want privacy?

And, to be sure, people appear, in these times, to put a higher value on maintaining or increasing their level of privacy than they do on maintaining a sense of community.

There has been frequent talk about the possible introduction of a privacy law, although this seems to have faded a bit in the light of recent revelations about the activities of certain politicians and others active in the Westminster village. Our representatives were clearly divided over what I would have considered a ‘no-brainer’, whether or not to publish details of MPs’ expenses. Ahead of such publication we hear of at least one instance where second home allowance was used for the installation of a sauna at tax payers’ expense, so I am not at all surprised that some place a very high value on privacy. Equally, an extreme level of privacy, to which many feel they have a ‘right’, generally fosters suspicion and resentment.

Age and maturity often brings a sense of proportion to the debate. I am too old to worry about who sees the haemorrhoid cream in the supermarket trolley, or who hears me break wind whilst digging the garden; but I accept that younger and more sensitive souls may be subject to embarrassment over such trivia.

Younger members of society are also inclined to suffer from the illusion that others are intensely interested in their activities, while in fact the reverse is true; most people’s personal activities are a matter of complete indifference to their fellows.

One of the features of my house and its neighbours which attracted me when I was house-hunting was the footpath which separates the end of my front garden from the very small river bubbling cheerfully towards the village centre. I walked down the footpath when I first saw the house, and was delighted by the pleasant stroll past well- and not so well-kept front gardens, with low garden walls over which I could pass the time of day with neighbours.

Since then new people have moved into two of the neighbouring cottages, and have immediately erected high fences across the ends of their gardens. I am sure that the occupants see this as a logical move ‘to preserve their privacy’. It is interesting that the house owner in each case spends his working life away from home, and probably, therefore, doesn’t notice the degree to which his simple move has isolated him from his community. Although I know one of these two well enough to say hello, the family of the other are completely unknown to me.

The sense of community is on the way out. I am on our Parish Council, where we have been advertising a vacancy for a year. No one has put themselves forward for the vacancy. In a population of about 1500, we have 11 people who are willing to spend some time being Parish Councillors. Council meetings are well publicised and open to the public, but no one comes. We receive the occasional letter of complaint from someone who is too lazy to make the 5 minute walk to talk directly too us. There is an estate of some 60 houses which sell at around the £350,000 mark (when they sell!) and most of the occupants of these houses are almost never seen in the village, being content to make their daily commute to their place of work without impinging on the village at all, and studiously maintaining their privacy whilst in their homes.

On a national level, I believe that the politicians and the media between them have generated such a level of mistrust that the inevitable counter-weapon is privacy. Both establishments have lost sight of ‘community’, what it means and what its value is. The same is becoming true at a local level. When there is a community event, it seems that only a small number of people are actively involved, whilst the remainder of us continue to study our navels.

It is difficult to see how this trend can be reversed; and yet it is becoming very clear that as our climate changes to become more extreme, and as our energy prices soar as Peak Oil makes itself felt, and as supermarket food prices increase on the back of energy costs, a sense of community is going to be as important as at any time since the second world war.

I fear that we will only start to rediscover the community spirit when the village street lights start to dim, and when we can no longer afford the price of the fuel to take us to the supermarket!


Scarlett the Heavenly Healer said...

Interesting and very timely for me to read this as my neighbour has just placed a load of hideously unsightly brown wooden boards and broken down cardboard boxes up against our dividing fence which is causing me a great deal of upset. His side of my garden now looks like a junkyard!

I wonder what he has to hide....?

On a brighter note - if my Cherokee Trail of Tears don't get decimated by the slugs and snails I'll send you a few seeds for next year.

Dorothea said...

A good post, if a sad sign of the times, Tim.

Still, it might be worse - you could be living near Liz Jones and she'd be eagerly scrutinising you from her £1.6m house for inclusion in her next book as a toothless yokel with learning difficulties!