The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why what you say in private looks bad in public, even if it isn’t

Word choice, tone and the thrill of discovering secrets lend a toxic tone to innocent communications.

Hillary Clinton accompanied by Nick Burns, Jake Sullivan, and campaign chairman John Podesta. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Imagine a world where you can’t feel safe speaking to those you’re closest to because an invisible eavesdropper is always lurking, ready to expose your private words to public scrutiny. Actually, we already live in that world, especially if you’re a public figure or talking to one, as WikiLeaks has shown by its steady release of hacked emails during the presidential campaign.

During the primary race, it published emails of Democratic National Committee officials, and this month it has busied itself with broadcasting those of top Democrats working inside Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (The most recent, exposing internal discussions of the Clinton Foundation, reveal concerns about appearances but no favors granted to donors — and that campaign chairman John Podesta loves risotto.) Of a different nature was The Washington Post’s release of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush during a 2005 taping of an “Access Hollywood” segment. But it, too, was an instance of public exposure of presumed private communication.

We all say things in private that we wouldn’t say in public, and when we talk about the same subjects in public, we say things differently. That’s why taking words said in private and making them public is practically guaranteed to make the speaker look bad. A Wolof proverb holds, “Everything can be moved from one place to another without being changed, except speech.” One reason that’s true is the matter of word choice: not only crude language, which some people use in private, but also informality that can come across as callous when overheard. And it’s common to talk about people who aren’t there to connect with people who are — in ways you never would if the absent people were present.

It’s a fundamental of human communication that we speak differently to different people. Imagine if someone recorded you talking to your best friend, your grandfather, your mother, your younger brother, your great-aunt, a new acquaintance at a party and your boss — then pulled out and played side by side the way you described an evening out to these different listeners. There is no person on Earth who would not come out seeming like a hypocrite and, to use the current term of art, a liar. In the past, that could have happened only if someone who heard you speak repeated what you said to another person. With electronic recording and digital communication, the risk that an unintended listener will hear your words (or an unintended viewer will see them) is always there — and has become a staple of politics. Scandals regularly result from remarks, as with Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment in 2012 or Trump’s sexual boasts to Bush.

The Trump video is a dramatic example of how words said in private can feel authentic in a way that public comments can’t. The behaviors Trump boasted of — kissing women he’d just met without their consent, groping them, grabbing their genitals — had been reported before the recording emerged in early October. Examples of such behavior were made public way back in May, in a New York Times article headlined “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private.” One woman, Temple Taggart, said that in 1997, when, as a 21-year-old Miss Utah USA, she was introduced to Trump, “he kissed me directly on the lips. I thought, ‘Oh my God, gross.’ ” She added: “I think there were a few other girls that he kissed on the mouth. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s inappropriate.’ ” Also in 1997, Trump was the object of a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former business associate, Jill Harth, whose deposition described him groping her in exactly the way he boasted in the video.

But none of these accounts had anywhere near the effect of hearing Trump describing such acts in his own words, in his own voice. Anything said in public can be questioned based on the speaker’s alleged motives, just as Trump has tried to discredit his many recent accusers as seeking publicity and being pawns of the Clinton campaign. But things said in private are presumed to reflect the speaker’s true self.

No doubt those who hacked and disseminated the Clinton campaign emails hoped that she, too, would be caught saying something in private that would badly damage her when made public. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the leaks is how benign their revelations are, as if commentators are straining to find something — anything — that justifies the voyeuristic thrill of reporting on them. Sometimes it’s just the tone that might seem to merit attention, such as the header “FREE STUFF FOR EVERYBODY,” after which a Clinton adviser noted that “Sanders proposals would put the government in control of more than half of the American economy, but Sanders has never told anyone who would pay for all of this or how it would work.” It’s hard to imagine a more realistic or less incriminating critique of an opponent.

Most of the leaked emails that have drawn criticism were sent by advisers and contain classic in-group talk, such as a note from the Center for American Progress’s John Halpin (which copied Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri) to Podesta saying that many prominent conservatives are converts to Catholicism who may have been attracted by the “backwards gender relations” and “systematic thought” of the faith, overlooking the more significant elements of “Christian democracy.” Palmieri added: “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.” Her comments were called out as anti-Catholic, but both Palmieri (who wrote the email) and Podesta (to whom it was addressed) are Catholic. Their shared respect for their religion would be a given, the unspoken foundation upon which their suspicion of outsiders’ appropriation of it would rest. The exchange can sound anti-Catholic only if removed from that context.

Even though the emails lack shocking or compromising content, they have become the subject of so much attention because they breach barriers between public and private communication. The prospect of reading public figures’ private emails is titillating, like being invited to a peep show: Look through the keyhole to see things you weren’t meant to see! What’s really revealing is that the leak has uncovered little more than was already known: that the Clinton campaign was strategizing to win the primary contest and the general election, that the candidate resists talking to the media, that people perceive her as stiff and scripted. (Clinton has volunteered publicly that these latter qualities make her “not a natural politician.”) Ironically, the Wikileaked emails support the finding of the independent fact-checking website Politfact that Clinton is the most truthful of all the 2016 presidential candidates.

A question we need to ask is why the leaked emails have been embraced as acceptable contributions to public discourse, rather than shunned as stolen property, and what this means for how we think about politics and privacy. Richard Nixon faced impeachment as a result of his coverup of the Watergate break-in, a parallel attempt to steal private communications from an opponent’s campaign. Somehow, a physical break-in sparks visceral repugnance in a way that hacking into computer accounts does not. That should give us all pause, because it is a testament to a frightening new reality: That communication technology has steadily amplified the breakdown in the line between public and private. Without a zone of privacy in which we can talk freely to those who are close to us, no one is safe. That’s the sense in which WikiLeaks is a threat not only to the presidential campaign of a particular candidate, but to us all.