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Keep your eyes to yourself.

Do inquiring minds really need to know? Shouldn't Jerry Springer's guests have a private life and Julia Roberts have a life of her own? Patrick McCormick finds that prying into the privacy of others uncovers less about them and more about us.

vo yeur (voi ur) n. 1. a person who obtains sexual gratification by looking at sexual objects or acts, esp. secretively. 2. a person who derives exaggerated or unseemly pleasure from being an observer.

WITH A RISING TIDE OF CABLE CHANNELS and Internet Web sites flooding into our homes, more and more parents are concerned about the sorts of things our children see on the family TV or computer screen. Alarmed at the idea of preteens with access to pornographic channels and chat rooms, or youngsters visiting the Web sites of exhibitionist coeds, a growing number of folks express fears that we may be raising a generation of voyeurs. Whatever happened, one hears an occasional middle-aged parent complain, to the notion of "custody of the eyes," the idea (as the textbooks on moral theology used to put it) that it was "immodest to permit the eyes to roam without any control whatsoever, disregarding the menace of temptation"?

Still, in an age when Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are pop icons, and dysfunctional guests on afternoon talk shows "entertain" us with all the unseemly details of their unhappy lives, perhaps lonely adolescents visiting X-rated Web sites aren't our most troubling voyeurs. Maybe in a society of "watchers," the media and the Web have become our "wandering eye," letting us peek into the private lives not just of celebrities but of small fractured folks who purchase their 15 minutes of fame with an emotional striptease on The Jerry Springer Show or a tasteless clip on America's Most Embarrassing Videos. In a country where every passerby has a camcorder or a sordid secret to spill, there is a constant temptation to play Peeping Tom.

Which may explain a rash of recent films taking aim at our insatiable appetite for the details of other people's lives. Unlike Orwell's 1984, however, the watchers in these new movies are not "Big Brother." Rather, like Jimmy Stewart's wheelchair-bound photographer in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic Rear Window, they are ordinary folks spying on others for the sheer entertainment value of it all, neighbors peeking over their electronic fences or through Internet curtains in hopes of catching a glance of something amusing, embarrassing, or even salacious, but certainly private.

And in most of these films there is a definite cost to all of this not-so-innocent watching.

Privacy seems to be the first casualty of our snooping. Toward the end of The Truman Show, Jim Carrey (Truman) tells the show's creator and impresario Ed Harris (Christof) that "you never had a camera in my head? Perhaps not, but as the audience (and the rest of the planet) already knows by this point in Peter Weir's fascinating 1998 satire, that would be the only nook or cranny on the vast set of Truman Burbank's so-called life where his keepers didn't have a 24-hour minicam. In a film that asks what happens to a life too closely observed, Carrey plays a man so relentlessly "watched" by billions of anonymous fans that he seems little more than a human panda, a tamed pet without any privacy or secrets, indeed without the simple sanctuary of his own bathroom.

BUT THE SCRUTINY OF THE PUBLIC EYE DOESN'T JUST INVADE people s privacy, it also manipulates and castigates them. Caught in the glare of the media's klieg lights, folks often feel pressured to perform like trained seals--or suffer the judgmental wrath that comes with having one's foibles held up for ridicule.

In Constantin CostaGavras' Mad City, Dustin Hoffman is a cynical TV reporter who hopes to rescue his failing career by generating a full-blown media frenzy around the misfortunes and misadventures of a fired museum guard (John Travolta). The fact that Travolta's life might well become a casualty of sweeps week seems to bother almost no one at the network.

So too in Michael Mann's The Insider, we get a glimpse of the camera's seductive power when a 60 Minutes producer (Al Pacino) sets out to court Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) for an expose on big tobacco. And when corporate interests force CBS to abandon Crowe, we get an ugly sense of what 15 seconds of infamy on the evening news can cost a man and his family.

The tone is decidedly lighter in two recent comedies about folks suffering the slings and arrows of too much fame. In EdTV--a quirky but energetic film in which Matthew McConaughey is the lottery-winning star of a cable channel dedicated to tracking all the details of his personal and romantic antics--we have an amusing version of MTV's Real World. McConaughey and his family and friends soon discover that it's not all fun and games to be in the public eye, and although the story has an upbeat ending, not many in the audience will go away wishing they had a camera crew following them into the toilet.

So too in Notting Hill, Julia Roberts doesn't have to do much stretching to play a megawatt movie star whose attempts at firing up a little personal romance are regularly trampled under the hooves of stampeding paparazzi.

THE FOCUS IN ALL THESE MOVIES, HOW ever, includes the watchers as well as the watched. What, Weir and some of the other filmmakers seem to inquire, becomes of us when we peek in on the lives of others, when the small (and usually sordid) details of celebrities' or strangers' lives become the bread and butter of our conversations-or our lives? Why would we need or attend to these major and minor celebrities?

The answer offered in The Truman Show seems rather dark. For as tough as Carrey's situation is, he at least is doing something. And there is reason to believe he might ultimately escape his electronic zoo. But director Weir's view of the audience is not nearly so optimistic. Indeed, curled up on their couches or squatting on their bar stools, they seem much more likely than Truman to go on passively accepting the reality presented to them on their video screens, simply changing the channel when a story is over. If Carrey's life is controlled, theirs is derived. This is the sort of hell our parents warned us about when they told us not to spend so much time glued to the "boob tube."

Sue Erikson Bloland makes a similar point in a recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly (November 1999) when she addresses the dangers of the celebrity cult. According to Bloland, our fascination with the lives of the rich and famous flows from our own insecurity, from fears about our smallness and frailty.

If we can identify with figures who seem larger than life, it somehow makes us feel safer. No wonder, then, that one of the very ordinary folk in Notting Hill tells Julia Roberts' character that "although we've never met, I just know we could be the best of friends." Funny, and pathetic.

Still, it's not just that watching others is a poor substitute for a real life. It's also that there is something improper, even indecent, about snooping--and that no matter what "inquiring minds" want to know, there are some things about other folks we have no real right or need to be informed of.

Forty years ago German moral theologian Bernard Haring wrote that "reverence and love forbid us to pry into the intimate life of our neighbor, or to divulge secrets revealed to us." Those words seem almost quaint in a world where Barbara Walters urges Monica Lewinsky to share details with 40 million viewers, or where so many of us rubberneck at the checkout stand to catch tabloid headlines about some final secret about Di or JFK Jr. But then, maybe if our children see us turn off or walk away from visual pollution when we see it, maybe if we practice "custody of the eyes" and "watch responsibly," they'll do the same.

PATRICK McCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:respecting others' privacy
Author:MCCORMICK, PATRICK
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Words:1365
Previous Article:No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Next Article:McCORMICK'S QUICK TAKES.
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