The Dream State of Genealogy
How the French See Their Ex-Colonies in North America

Identity versus Genealogy versus Privacy



Goodness! The many, varied, and quite passionate replies and comments which we have received concerning the previous post are quite a surprise. To our mind, there seems to be some conflation, particularly as to identity and genealogy, hence, some definitions here:

  • Identity, not in the sense of sameness but meaning personal identity, our sense of self, is determined by our genetic inheritance, our teaching, and eventually, ourselves. One can change one's identity, as we once changed our name; one can change one's appearance rather extremely these days; one can change that first point of definition, one's sex. In short, identity, for those in the modern, Western world, can be very much self-created and mutable. 
  • Genealogy, as we wrote in the last post, is history, and history is fact, documented, verifiable fact. We cannot change who our grandparents were, whom they married, who their parents were. When we attempt to do so, we are being dishonest, either with the world or, worse, with ourselves. 
  • Privacy, as we have written before, is a rather new concept and one, sadly, that may turn out to be short-lived in our modern society. The Shorter OED gives five definitions, none of them very clearly touching on what some of you Dear Readers seem to have meant, which would appear to be something along the lines of: having some part of our lives that is not available to the general public to see, scrutinize or examine.

Modern science and technology have affected all three of the above, and intensely.  Identity is increasingly controlled by governments and, thanks to electronic storage and the publicity of the Internet, it is more and more difficult to make a new beginning and escape the past.

Genealogy was once a pastime but is now a business, a very big business, thanks -- again -- to the Internet and the thousands of websites giving access to the kinds of records that, though public, were once viewed only by the people involved and their close family: birth, marriage, divorce, death records and much more. Each of the businesses that runs those websites is taking advantage of the Internet to make the pastime so many of us enjoy much more rewarding for us and profitable for them. Probate and heir research is a branch of professional genealogy that is remarkably lucrative and that is dependent upon the maximum amount of personal data, including DNA profiles, being open to public access.

Privacy as a concept had barely got off its feet, with people only recently accepting an idea so simple as the one that what consenting persons do in the privacy of their home is private, for example, before the Internet and its abuse by some individuals, companies and governments made it obvious that privacy may now be impossible. 

Personally, we think that every person has a right to form his or her own identity in a way that enables that person to become the most decent human being possible, that every person has a right to a private life free of unwarranted surveillance and that that private life should include personal data, and we think that the people in the business of genealogy should recognize those rights and respect them. 

As more and more family histories, public and private documents, personal data, DNA profiles, lineages, genealogies, etc. are put online, the pressure each of these three issues puts on the other will intensify. It will require clarity and compromise to find a solution. We would hope that those seeking to establish their identities would not seek to falsify genealogies to do so. We would hope that those attempting to correct family histories riddled with blunders would respect the privacy and identities of the members of that family as they go about it. We are a BCG Certified Genealogist and we love the research of a family's history as much as anyone else, but we are quite ready to accept that some of what have hitherto been freely available documents and data about living or recently deceased people should no longer be so, that our professional access should be curtailed in order to protect the privacy of others. We would hope that other genealogists would think the same, but it would seem not to be so.

The December, 2013 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (vol. 101, no. 4) opens with an editorial entitled "DNA Standards" that is signed jointly by the editors, the much respected Melinde Lutz Byrne and Thomas W. Jones. Its conclusion is, frankly, shameful. After admitting that professional genealogists should have been more involved in establishing standards for the ethical use of DNA test results for "acceptable linkages to individuals", the authors conclude that, for genealogists, "Anticipating and circumventing laws that would prevent responsible researchers' access to DNA data should be a priority." It most certainly should not. Responsible citizens do not seek ways to circumvent the law and responsible professional organizations do not urge their members to do so. 

We are approaching a time when because some of the most important details relating to family that each and every one of us learns about ourselves, the things that ally us to a social group, a tribe, an ethnicity, a race, the things that make us less frightened in the face of the immensity of the universe because we know our family's little bailiwick in history, are now no longer private and are sold and resold, we are at risk of losing the personal. Now is not the time for self interest; it is the time for cooperation in the name of decency and of consideration of others.

 Click here to read the comments and further discussion of this post.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy