Skepticism can be lethal. Peter Singer

Under Cover

To analyze the true value of secrecy, we should not look to the state or companies but to kids and their diaries. For secrets are an essential part of our human development.

As a working mother, I have neither time nor excess imagination to think of a different birthday present for each of my daughter’s friends, so I tend to find one great gift and buy in bulk. This year, her friends have turned seven and the gift du jour is a secret diary. The girls have been delighted and their mothers have reported frenzied writing activity under the bed covers; their child’s private penmanship illuminated only by a torch.

This was a well-calculated move on my part rather than luck. I’ve been researching and writing about secrets and secrecy in the past few years and recognise its particular allure. Secrets can feel naughty, dangerous, exciting. But they shouldn’t be dismissed as simply an illicit indulgence; they’re an essential element of the social self.

The boundary between self and other

The academic literature supports what every parent instinctively knows: secrets play an important role in child development. The ability to keep a secret is seen as a key stage in reaching maturity, as well as understanding the boundary between self and other. The idea that we can have and hold on to information that is different to that of our parents is a big leap forward. It means we are separate, can have our own thoughts and feelings, and that we have some influence over to whom or to what we belong. Most importantly, secrets confer intense singularity. At RADA in London, drama students are told a little trick to give them confidence before they go on stage: they are supposed to tell themselves, “Somebody loves me and I’ve got a secret”. Indeed, as every superhero with a day job knows, keeping the secret is as powerful as the superpower itself.

Power can always be abused, and this simple tenet leads us to the downside of secrets that we are perhaps much more familiar with. To have a secret is also to know that others may keep secrets from us, perhaps even have secrets about us. So as well as a sense of power, agency and control, entering the world of secrecy also opens us to fear and helplessness. Children manage this dark side of secrecy through games and play, but as a society, we have developed a wide repertoire of narrative and technological devices to help.

We might concoct elaborate global conspiracy theories to cope with an economic system that bars the majority from having access to the ‘secret’ of success. We might gossip about a colleague who hints at knowing what the boss really thinks of us. We might opt for total openness – using every social media available to confess all in the hope that others will do the same. Alternatively, we might commit Facebook suicide to reduce our digital trace or use a search engine (like DuckDuckGo) that can keep our search-term secrets safe. We might campaign for government transparency in the hope that we can see and control the kind of information the state keeps about us as well as reduce government secrecy.

We know all about the arrogation of power that secrecy risks and are reminded of it daily right now with revelations about NSA data gathering. But with all the bad press secrets are getting at the moment, I feel the time is ripe for rehabilitation. Why should we leave the secret to the state? If we do, we not only entrust our secrets to an organisation that has shown it is not worthy of that trust, but we also forgo all of the positive, productive aspects of secrecy.

Secrecy fosters innovation

It’s not only that secrecy can confer a sense of singularity or productive power: it has a number of roles. It is necessary, for example, in the creative process. For innovation to occur there has to be a time for secrecy – a black spot in the life of the artwork that isn’t under scrutiny and subject to critique. Mistakes have to be allowed to happen without repercussions. And the truly new shouldn’t be derailed by external influence. A vision sometimes needs to be secret until it is ready to be shared with confidence. There is a gestation period in any creative process that might not benefit from crowd-sourcing.

Complete openness is also undesirable in the school or university. As a teacher versed in Socratic pedagogy, I do not hand over in a transparent manner all that I know but, rather, allow my students to arrive at knowledge through a process of dialogue, of trial and error. I keep the secrets so that they might discover them anew, often with fresh insights that teach me in turn.

Equally, an analyst friend knows the value of withholding information about himself in order to create something of a blank slate to enable the process of transference and healing. He quotes Freud: “The physician should be opaque to the patients, and like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him”. The analysis cannot adhere to the normal social rules of interlocution, in which “one confidence deserves another,” because the analyst’s self-revelation can forestall an uncovering of “what is unconscious to the patient”. Something ‘good’ occurs, a ‘cure’ of sorts, because of concealment, or at least non-disclosure, rather than revelation.

So it’s time we thought about secrets rather differently to the way in which both transparency advocates and the state position them (i.e. as either negative and untrustworthy or valuable only in political terms). We need to take back secrets and configure them as a social good rather than as the currency of geopolitical power.

Read more in this debate: David Omand, David Brin, David Vincent .


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