The line between curiosity and invasion of privacy

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
October 14, 2017 - 5:00am Updated: October 14, 2017 - 6:45pm

Privacy is hard to come by these days. The world has become a place without filters, where the best and the worst in us have full range of expression, and where lives can be celebrated or tarnished in an instant.

This age of algorithms, data collection, account hacking and social media has created an information contradiction — we’ve become a society of gossips, at the same time becoming ever more protective of our own privacy.

We’ve even legislated it with seemingly incongruent regulations on access to information combined with restrictions against it. We struggle to sort out when the right to privacy ends and the right to know begins.

There’s nothing more private, or more public, than a death. At a time when news, lies and rumours speed around the world in milliseconds, families are increasingly reluctant to release even the name of a loved one who has died, let alone the cause, and police and coroner’s services are backing them up.

That’s not an option for the prominent among us. Whether it be the internationally famous, or those who have made a special mark at the community level, their passing has to be acknowledged. 

Curious creatures that we are, we always want to know more.Bad-news basics aren’t enough.

We’re wired to be curious about the lives of others, especially those who are regularly in the news. But how much of a public person’s private life are we entitled to know about? How much about their death?

As the life of TRU vice president Christopher Seguin is celebrated today, such questions come to mind.

When his death was announced three weeks ago, the family said he had become critically ill while on a trip to Victoria on university business.

The news was greeted with shock, sadness and praise for Seguin, whose boundless energy, involvement in community causes, and fundraising successes on behalf of his TRU employer were widely admired.

There were also rumours, though, fueled in part by the absence of an explanation of the cause of death. When there’s a vacuum, we like to fill it.

One of the rumours was about drugs. A media outlet apparently heard it, and was reportedly doing some investigating. (Somewhat ironically, the news outlet hasn’t been identified.)

As the grapevine telegraph became more active, the family issued a statement revealing his death in a Victoria hospital was due to an “accidental overdose” that occurred in his hotel room.

The hope was to stop the scandalmongering but it was a forlorn hope. Social media revved up. Some comments have been compassionate, some defensive, some poisonous and based on assumption rather than fact. Curiosity promotes whispering, which becomes hearsay, followed by judgment. And we love to judge. We especially love to judge well-known and successful people.

So now there are even more questions and assumptions and suppositions about the details. When we don’t know, we make stuff up. What we do know is that another successful human being was imperfect. Does that somehow provide us with satisfaction?

I didn’t know Christopher Seguin well. We had lunch on a couple of occasions and sometimes connected with respect to TRU news or issues. Sometimes we disagreed over what was newsworthy, or about TRU policy. It was never unpleasant.

He obviously had tremendous drive, both for his job and for the community. I’ve seldom seen anyone as involved as he was.That’s all I know first-hand and it’s all I have a right to know.

Some families of drug-overdose victims share intimate details of their loss as a cautionary tale for others. It becomes an honorable and cathartic mission.

Seguin’s family has chosen instead to seek privacy, and they have a right to do so. 

While people as prominent as Christopher Seguin become, in a sense, public property, there are limits. 

As his family works through the pain of this tragedy, it asks only that we allow his legacy to be his outstanding contribution to the community and their memory of him as a loving husband and father. We should be good with that.

There are times when we have to become better than our harshinstincts, and rediscover the line between natural curiosity and hurtful trespass. And put our respect for a family’s loss above all else.