On secrecy

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Secrecy is often thought of as something involving the withholding of information but, in contrast, equally it can be understood as the management and control of information. In turn, secrecy has a certain kind of relationship with trust and, depending how it is used, it can either enhance it or undermine it.

On secrecy

By: Gareth van Onselen

26 March 2012

Secrecy is about the management and control of information. That is a counterintuitive idea; for secrecy’s various connotations suggest it involves withholding something and thus the perception that there is little to manage. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

In that sense, the word ‘secret’ is a misnomer altogether because, in its ultimate form, it is without title, merely to know something exclusively. The moment one says they have a secret, they are relaying information of a certain sort and the moment a secret is shared, it becomes something else – privileged knowledge at best.

So secrecy and sharing secrets, then, is in fact about sharing information. And, because it is done piecemeal, it lends itself to manipulation and distortion.

For one, someone sharing a secret with two people separately has no reason to share it in the same way. It can be tailored to suit a particular individual and, bound by their secret contract, they have no way to test the truth of what they have been told. By contrast, public information automatically necessitates peer review, as its veracity is tested by a diverse audience. A secret shared, however, has an audience of one and, in that moment, the unstated agreement – that this particular person be allowed access to a piece of privileged information – engenders in them an onus to accept it on face value, on the basis that it is extraordinary and themselves ‘special’ in some way.

And so secrecy plays on one’s ego.

In return for that disclosure one feels obliged to sacrifice judgment or risk losing access – a sure path to ignorance not knowledge.

People who abuse secrecy in this way ostensibly conduct their business in the name of trust, using privilege to manipulate relationships and information in turn. But they are not to be trusted, these professional secret-tellers, their real business is distrust and secrets the mechanism through which they augment it.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.

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