Non-Western Cultures and Traditions

As the example of ubuntu suggests, when we turn to what we once thought of as “non-Western” cultures and traditions, what counts as even a rough approximation of “privacy” becomes still more complicated. As we will explore in the next section, in cultures shaped by Buddhist and Confucian conceptions, the stress is on the self as a relational self – i.e., a sense of identity that is more or less fully constituted precisely by the extensive relationships that define us as members of families and larger communities. To use the example of a once classic form of Chinese introduction: such an introduction would recount my primary relationships, beginning with my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and (perhaps) children. This sense of selfhood thereby stresses the importance of sustaining harmonious relationships with the family and larger community, and includes an exquisitely developed attention to the moods and wishes of others. The Japanese version of such attention, wakimae or “situated discernment,” has been described by one of my Japanese students as the need to “read the atmosphere” or even to “read the minds” of those around one, with the goal of attuning one’s behavior so as to avoid conflict or disharmony. In this context, some notion of individual “privacy” – a desire to hold something of oneself apart from the group – can be seen only in negative terms. As in the Western Middle Ages – that is, before the rise of modern conceptions of individuals as rational autonomies who thereby require privacy – the notion seems to be rather: “the only reason you would want privacy is if you have something bad (or illegal) to hide.”

At the same time, however, the shifts we are starting to see in “Western” societies toward the “publicly private / privately public” and “group privacy” suggest a correlative shift in our underlying assumptions regarding selfhood and identity – namely, from an earlier emphasis on strongly individual notions of selfhood toward a greater emphasis on more relational notions of selfhood. In this sense, (recent) “Westerners” are becoming more like (older) “Easterners.” At the same time, we will see more fully below that (recent) “Easterners” are likewise shifting – from a greater emphasis on relational selfhood to a greater emphasis on more individual selfhood: this shift is apparent first of all in the changing demands in “Eastern” cultures for (older) “Western” notions of individual privacy as a positive good. Finally, we will explore an important middle ground between these two – namely, conceptions of the self as a relational autonomy, that is, a self that conjoins more individual notions of the self as a freedom or autonomy alongside the relationality that increasingly defines “Westerners,” especially as taken up within social media.

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