Personal freedom and privacy: the other Covid-19 victims? 

Monday 12 October 2020

A discussion of the personal freedom and privacy issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic will kick off a new series of online conversations organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

‘Freedom, Privacy and the Pandemic’ will take place via Zoom on Tuesday, 27 October, at 6 pm. It is free and open to the public. To register, go to http:// https://sas.ac.uk/events/event/23274.

The event is the first in the School’s new ‘Open for Discussion’ conversation series, convened by experts who bring multiple humanities perspectives to critical social issues. The focus of this year’s series will be what the COVID-19 pandemic has made visible, or rather what it has forced us to see more clearly: Black Lives Matter, digital poverty, privacy rights, the importance of communications, the value of the arts and heritage sectors, and the types of knowledge needed to confront global challenges. Critically, all of these issues have a human dimension that is frequently overlooked in current policy debates.

‘Freedom, Privacy and the Pandemic’ has been convened by Professor Carl Stychin, director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Participants include Gracie Mae Bradley, Interim Director of Liberty; Professor Sasha Roseneil, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences and Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science in the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London; and Professor David Vincent, Emeritus Professor of History at The Open University.  

The global pandemic has seen unprecedented restrictions on individual freedom with a remarkably high degree of consent by the general public. The dominant discourse has been that seclusion in private space ensures safety and the protection of human life. However, the supposed safety of the private sphere has never been experienced universally. The crisis has exacerbated both the variegated ways in which private space is possessed and the dangers that it presents to many vulnerable people. Moreover, seclusion restricts freedoms in different ways depending, for example, on gender, age and physical ability. 

Lockdown collapses the public into the private sphere, preventing escape from one into the other. Work and education no longer provide relief from domestic pressures nor do they give the victims of abuse or neglect a temporary respite. Conversely, home is no longer a refuge from the public sphere of work. The extra-domestic networks that sustain most of us have been degraded while a traditional notion of the nuclear family has been further entrenched. The freedom to construct ‘new ways of living’ thus has become another casualty. 

Ironically, this relegation to an atomised private sphere has resulted, for many, in a heightened sense of community and shared collective purpose. But it has also contributed to a culture of public surveillance designed to regulate what previously would have been seen as private, autonomous decisions. In addition, the easing of lockdown is accompanied by the demand that freedom requires restrictions on privacy through the ability of the state to ‘track and trace’. In response, it might be argued that the experience of movement for many has never been ‘free’ given the way in which ‘dangerous’ subjects have always been surveilled. 

This conversation will explore how the process of recovery might provide an opportunity to interrogate the inequities which the virus has laid bare and to explore alternative futures in which our understandings of freedom and privacy are enriched. 

PARTICIPANT BIOS

Gracie Mae Bradley is the Interim Director of Liberty. She has worked at Liberty since July 2017 and has led the campaign against the Government’s “hostile environment” policies on immigration, as well as work across policing, counter-terror, and privacy and surveillance. Before joining Liberty, Ms Bradley worked in casework, research and policy across several NGOs to support survivors of torture and working migrants to navigate the UK’s immigration system. She also trained public officials and third sector workers to use the Human Rights Act in their day-to-day work. She holds a Masters in Human Rights from the LSE and a degree in Philosophy & French from Oxford University.

Professor Sasha Roseneil is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences and Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science in the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London. She is a sociologist and gender studies researcher, and a group analyst (MInstGA) and psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She is a a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Professor Roseneil’s research focuses on how gender, sexuality, subjectivity and intimate life are changing, and in the role that social movements and collective action play in bringing about social, cultural and political change. Her early work was about the women’s and anti-nuclear movements of the 1980s, with a particular focus on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. In recent years she has undertaken a number of projects that have explored the politics and practices of intimacy and personal life in the UK and across Europe (Bulgaria, Norway, Portugal). She has paid particular attention to the experiences of those living outside conventional couples and families – single people, people in living-apart-together relationships, lesbians and gay men, and those living in shared housing – and she has been interested in the role of friendship and lateral networks of care and support in their lives. Running through this research has also been a concern with the experiences of members of marginalized and racialized groups, first and second generation migrants and diasporic communities.

Professor David Vincent is Emeritus Professor of History at The Open University. Previously, he was Professor of Social History and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Keele University, and Pro Vice Chancellor (Strategy and External Affairs) at the Open University. His research interests cover working-class autobiography, British and European Literacy, and the cultural and political histories of secrecy, privacy and solitude. His most recent books are: I Hope I Don’t Intrude: Privacy and its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2015); Privacy: A Short History (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016); and A History of Solitude (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2020).

The second event in the series, ‘On the Outside Looking In: Do We Need a SAGE for the Humanities?’ will be held on 14 December, 6:00-7:00 pm, via Zoom. This event is free and open to the public, and is convened by Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study. Learn more at https://www.sas.ac.uk/public-engagement/open-discussion

Future events in the series include ‘Digital Access, Inclusion, and the Humanities’ in February 2021; ‘Unlocking Museum, Archive, and Library Collections’ in March 2021; ‘Transnational Perspectives on Building a Post-Covid Society’ in April 2021;  ‘Open Cities’ in May 2021; and ‘Opening the Door to a More Engaged Humanities’ in June 2021.