It doesn’t happen very often that I feel a little culture shock in the US. The American culture reaches me on a daily basis in the Netherlands through music, movies, TV-series and literature. But there is one place that makes me uncomfortable every time I visit the land of the free: the public toilet.
It’s made up of stalls with thin doors. If you sit down on the toilet, you can just see other people through the gaps all around the doors, which means they can see you too. Also the walls are so small that, if you want to, you can easily look over them and have a peek at what your neighbour is doing. Which means your neighbour can do that too. You can smell and hear exactly what happens on the other side of the wall, which again means that you’re probably prickling their senses as well. The stall only creates the illusion of privacy, when clearly almost nothing is concealed.
I get nervous about my visits to the restroom, simply because I feel that it should be a very private experience. I know that’s not logical: everyone has to go to the bathroom, so why be ashamed of it? In Holland we’re open about a lot of things, but we tend to try and not bother others with the nasty too much. Therefore our restrooms are truly places of rest. Closed spaces: no gaps, no holes, no peeking.
Privacy and dignity
You might wonder why I’m bothering you with my toilet confessions. Well, as I was balancing my way through an airport bathroom trying to make myself invisible once again, I thought of something I learned earlier this week when we visited Prof. William McGeveran at the University of Minnesota. McGeveran is an expert on privacy and technology law and has a lot to say about the security versus privacy debate, a hot topic around the world ever since Edward Snowden became a whistle-blower and exposed how and what the NSA was monitoring (basically everything and everyone). Europe and the US have different approaches to the debate, McGeveran said. “In Europe, privacy is viewed as a form of dignity and in the US, privacy appeals more to a feeling of freedom and liberty.”
He was citing the article The Two Western Cultures of Privacy Law: Dignity versus Liberty by Prof. James Q. Whitman, who delved into this topic to see why and how these points of view influence the debate on, for instance, the protection of consumer data. “European privacy norms are founded on French and German ideas of ‘personal honor’, Whitman writes. “American law shows a far greater sensitivity to intrusions on the part of the state, while continental law shows a far greater sensitivity to the protection of one’s public face.”
I had a “light bulb moment” (as Oprah would call it), because it explained exactly why I always feel so ashamed of my activities in an American public restroom: my toilet neighbours can be compared to the National Security Agency (NSA): listening in, peeking through holes and gaps to see what I’m doing. If they’re wary of me they can simply look over the wall to get a better view and judge my shame. All without my permission, since the structure of the US toilet stall provides them with all the access they need.
An American would argue that they don’t mind their neighbour watching them, because they have nothing to hide. Plus, someone could be building a bomb in the stall next to you, and maybe all this peeking will help prevent a future terrorist attack. I would argue that I have the right to be ashamed of what I’m doing in there and that the walls shouldn’t be a façade of privacy. They should be able to help me protect my feelings of dignity and honor.