Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?
November 9, 2005 11:56 PM   Subscribe

With last nights government defeat in the House of Commons and the resultant hand-wringing on both sides of the 'civil-liberties vs security' debate, the quote that has been trotted out repeatedly is "Well if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Could anyone shed any light on the origin of this phrase?

I have seen it attributed to Orwell's 1984, and also to Goebbels. I would also like to read any opinions on the validity of the argument as relates to the civil liberties of the population
posted by mr_benn to Law & Government (15 answers total)
It's typically "The innocent have nothing to fear" and I can't find the origin.
posted by johngoren at 12:25 AM on November 10, 2005

This article by philosopher Julian Baggini at Butterflies and Wheels pretty much demolishes this argument.
The argument is a particular species of false dichotomy. You are presented with a simple either/or choice. Either you’re guilty, and so should be exposed; or you are innocent, in which case nothing will be exposed, and so you have nothing to worry about. Either way, you have no legitimate reason to be concerned. Like all false dichotomies, the problem is that there is at least one more option than the two offered in the either/or choice.
To which I would add, if you have nothing you want to keep secret from the state what kind of a boring life have you been leading anyway?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:32 AM on November 10, 2005

I don't know of any origin, I thought it was just a "talking point" rather than a quote as such?
As for its validity, the bill that was defeated regarded imprisoning the innocent for 90 days without charge. To me, that is something to fear.
posted by chill at 2:38 AM on November 10, 2005

I've heard variations of "If you have nothing to hide ..." a lot in relation to ID cards.

I suspect it is the kind of sound-bite that can't be attributed to anyone, though I'd be very interested to see if anyone else can come up with a source.
posted by Olli at 4:05 AM on November 10, 2005

I would suggest taking the question to some of the sites that deal exclusively with this kind of issue. It looks like here your question will be derailed into political discussion.

Maybe ask here.
posted by srboisvert at 5:55 AM on November 10, 2005

It looks like here your question will be derailed into political discussion.
Political points of view were asked for, no?
posted by chill at 6:32 AM on November 10, 2005

Political points of view were asked for, no?

Yes, unfortunately. mr_benn, the first part of your question is interesting and may have an actual answer. But your call for "opinions on the validity of the argument" pretty much guarantees this thread will focus on the politics, which is not so interesting (since it's hashed out on MeFi constantly) and has no actual answer.

Googling got me not only the movie The Wrong Man ("Bowers: An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that") but a biography of Pope Innocent IV ("Innocent had nothing to fear...").
posted by languagehat at 6:56 AM on November 10, 2005

Best answer: The universal declaration of human right states, in one article, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

The 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' dichotomy erodes that right by saying "As a matter of course, you should be willing to reveal details about your everyday life which the law has no right to demand that you reveal". If that gets normalised into society, more erosions follow.

And in the particular case of the new 28-day custodial limit, the dichotomy implies that people should be willing to allow the police to hold terrorist suspects longer than other people regardless of actual incriminating evidence, simply because they are suspected of being terrorists.

Anyone can be suspected of anything. Suspicion does not equal evidence or proof. For those reasons, there has never been a time when a suspect could automatically, for example, be held for even one more day because of the kind of crime of which he was suspected. Internment never made it into a permanent and automatic statute because it was the best recruiting-sergeant the IRA ever had.

I have a feeling that at least a few of the MPs who voted to allow the new 28-day limit did so because it would have been a dagger in Blair's political heart if they had allowed no change to the law at all, and unfortunately a little bit of liberty can be sacrificed in such a case as far as they are concerned.
posted by paperpete at 7:23 AM on November 10, 2005

I'd bet the concept probably pre-dates english.

JJ86 writes "Any politician who spews that bit of rubbish as an argument deserves to have all of their tidy little secrets made public in the most demeaning of ways. Politicians of all people, even moreso than terrorists, have the most incriminating things hidden away."

I've observed that there seem to be many people who have no secrets besides their SIN and CC numbers. They often seem to be the most boring people on the planet but the seem happy despite there puritanism.
posted by Mitheral at 7:42 AM on November 10, 2005

I always respond to this "not having anything to fear if you're innocent" BS with a question. If we place this same principle into the real world as opposed to high-tech, would you have no problem with a knock at the door to go through all of your desk drawers and file cabinets? Huh? Why not? After all, if you have nothing to hide......

posted by Independent Scholarship at 9:45 AM on November 10, 2005

Thanks to Mitheral for reposting my quote which seems to have met with disapproval, not sure why? It may not have answered the question completely and definitely was not meant as offensive as it was taken but I think it was a valid opinion as much as others in this thread.

There are secrets, there are dirty secrets, and there are evil secrets. Of course, regardless of "puritanical attitude", which is in itself a dirty secret, everyone has a secret. I would not be embarassed to admit my secrets because they are not dirty or evil and I don't embarass easily. The point I was trying to make, which maybe was my fault for not making it more clear, is this: Many politicians seem to make an extreme effort to expose the most mundane secrets of others while protecting their own evil and dirty secrets.

Case in point? To keep it less inflamatory how about Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor of Detroit?
posted by JJ86 at 9:54 AM on November 10, 2005

Anyone who trots out this phrase is clearly happy to have me film their marital bed, and sell the footage on teh internets to whoever wants to pay me for it.

No? Then they're lying through their teeth.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:38 AM on November 10, 2005

Actually, take the money out of my example, just put it on the internet free to all. That's truer to the spirit of the phrase.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:42 AM on November 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the input people, I had actually a suspicion that the phrase was a corruption, as johngoren and others pointed out and it is rewarding to have such a great resource of intelligent people to explore these topics
posted by mr_benn at 12:27 PM on November 10, 2005

By polarising the possible responses, the "nothing to fear, nothing to hide" argument over-simplifies the issue. This isn't an "all or nothing" situation, it's a spectrum. People use this as a straw-man to present exaggerated worst-case scenarios, which they then counter with exaggerated best-case scenarios, or vice-versa. By neatly segregating all possible options into "right" and "wrong", it is assumed that any tendency towards one answer is an implicit acceptance of all other possible answers in that camp. You are either 100% for A or 100% for B, you can't be 51% A and 49% B. This is of course ridiculous.

As a side-effect of this approach, the "all or nothing" argument encourages a failure to define limits of acceptability. The ends start to justify the means. This is often parodied in distopian books and films.... 1984 is an obvious example (although more complex issues are present too). A more recent example can be seen in the Hollywood film of "I, Robot" where the robots, eager to protect their human charges, realise that the best protection is to lock people in boxes.

Although this style of argument is often attributed to the political right/authoritarian crowd, people from the opposing camps often fall into exactly the same trap.
posted by ajp at 3:04 AM on November 11, 2005

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