In his inauguration speech, Barak Obama repeatedly invoked the need for the country to come together as a collective entity. “This is our moment, and we will seize it—but only if we seize it together.” Indeed. Later in the inauguration ceremony, poet Richard Blanc evoked a similar and much more emotionally-infused sentiment through his poem “One Today” in which he observed that, while we all go about our individual tasks, we do so under the same, sun, sky, moon and stars.
The moment seems ripe for a reawakened ability for Americans (starting with Congress!) to work together. Whether it is politics, education or even organizations like the Rotary Club or American Legion, things we once could count on to bring us together seem to be under significant pressure, and the wishes and habits of individuals and small sub-groups present themselves with more and more strength and urgency. Multiple meal options are expected in school lunch to accommodate health, religious and lifestyle preferences; flexible work schedules make it difficult indeed to attract and rehearse a community choir; community-wide civic events and celebrations find it more and more difficult to attract volunteers and participants. Our president may ask us to seize our moment together, but do we have enough practice in collective action to follow through on his urging?
Some social commentators have pointed to what they call “affluenza” as a possible influence diminishing our ability to engage in collective action. Briefly described, they say that the more affluent we become as a society, the less invested we NEED to be in fostering collective action. We become more individual in our perspective. Instead of supporting a local community center, we build a swimming pool in our back yard; support for public transportation decreases as automobile ownership increases. Perspectives understandably start to tilt away from the collective toward the individual.
What can or should be done about this? How can we strike the best possible balance between the individual and the collective, between private and public, between dependence and independence? In order to balance the needs of the individual with those of collective society, it would seem to be essential to first agree on what realms of our existence are individual/private, and which are collective/public. I would argue that among the many factors that hinder us from intelligently addressing these challenges, one is that the distinction between public and private seems increasing murky in our culture.
The irony is that just when we as a society are arriving at a place where we should/must begin to discuss public/private balance, we seem to be losing our ability to clearly define each. What do I mean by this? By way of illustration, I will cite three areas where we are profoundly mixed up about the distinctions between public and private; between individual and group behaviours.
Is a public sidewalk (or any pedestrian egress) public or private?
This would seem to be a no-brainer. In fact when I began to type “sidewalk” into the question above, my fingers instinctively added “public” before it—such is the assumption society has previously made regarding this space. But look around you (if you’re a rare American who walks anywhere!): the sidewalk is—functionally, for the majority of users—private space. If a walker isn’t on a cell phone, they are very likely to have their ear-buds in. Psychologically, they are in private space—just as is the moron who loudly uses his phone call on the bus or train. A geezer’s first impulse is to think of most cell phone users and i-pod aficionados as rude or irritating.
Actually, they are not necessarily rude, and may well be nice people in private life; but in a space which is legally and traditionally public, a geezer can be irritated when run into by a text messaging pedestrian engaged in a private moment. A similar dynamic can be observed in movie theatres where jolly, animated people often enjoy the company of their friends, conversing, laughing and generally having a great time. The only problem is that it isn’t their living room, it’s a movie theatre; it isn’t private space, it’s public space (or so the former assumption held.) Geezers grew up in an era when a very clear distinction was drawn regarding behaviour in a public space: you WERE quiet in the library, sweatpants were worn at the gym and pyjamas were a garment you put on when you were going to bed. This distinction is no longer so clear.
Is “Business” public or private?
Is the Internet public or private?
This may emerge as one of the essential social debates of our new century. Parents are concerned about sexting; employment counsellor’s caution job seekers to carefully control what are contained on their Facebook page (to the extent they can!); arguments abound about whether a parent blogging about their child is invading the child’s privacy.
Each one is a potential minefield, and there are explosions all over. If there is one common thread running through many debates on Internet culture, it is the blurring of what is private and what is public. Many naive users open themselves to significant potential problems when they behave like something is private when it is technologically public (or, at minimum, easily “sharable.”)
As outrageous examples of this type of confusion are exposed, one assumes that these distinctions will become more clear. But even the proliferation of e-mail is a challenge. When asked to deal with a sensitive (private) issue through e-mail, I consider it the equivalent of a person asking to record a conversation. I admit that such a thought has more than a whiff of paranoia about it, but it’s a rare e-mail that isn’t recorded and stored. Can we consider it private? Maybe, but not with certainty.
On the other end of the spectrum, there can be confusion about what aspects of internet culture are identifiably public or collective in nature. A person “tweeting” is certainly aware that their comments are public—but is this “publicly-minded” activity in the sense that it reaches out to others and is potentially involved with the greater/collective good? Sometimes, perhaps. But in examining the “twittersphere” one is struck by the degree to which commentators are focused on themselves and their own individual activity. Geezers are second to no one in finding themselves fascinating, but we certainly don’t expect others to share that fascination. And we certainly wouldn’t consider it a contribution to the public good to let others know what brand of toothpaste we are considering switching to. Twitter is certainly a public medium when technologically defined, but functionally, can one think of many other things that seem so self-focused?
Another major issue that the explosion of internet culture has raised is whether “virtual” living is equivalent to “traditional living”—whether virtual communication is equivalent to face-to-face communication and, analogously, whether electronic “communities” should be considered the equivalent of traditional, face-to-face communities (“regular communities” the geezer is tempted to say.)
In his wonderful book Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam comprehensively charts the demise of many of the social structures that came to support communities through the second half of the twentieth century. He closes with a fairly desperate final chapter, in which he gallantly tries to make the case for new communities being formed through electronic means. Concern for the collective good is not diminishing, he seems to argue, it is only evolving into concern for “virtual” or electronically mediated community. Should we be concerned with such evolution? Should we value those new “civic” leaders that provide the means by which we all come “together” through electronic means in the same way we valued traditional civic contributors in the past? When one contemplates such questions, the very terms public/private or collective/individual seem ill matched or obsolete.
Is morality or honour personal or public?
Now that we’ve got warmed up on the issue, we can tackle the big one. As discussed above, with rising affluence, our culture has provided the greater and greater luxury of doing things our own way. Children having their own bedrooms are more common than ever; many of us go months—or years—without using public/shared transportation; we select our electronic entertainment when we want from among hundreds if not thousands of options. All well and good, but as our lifestyles have become increasingly individualized, so has our moral perspective. In most societies of that past, an honourable or moral person was one who subscribed to and upheld (and occasionally tried to influence or change) the collective values of their culture or subculture, be it their country, church, club neighbourhood or family. This was not just an altruistic impulse: in a more dangerous, precarious world, people’s willingness to bind themselves together and commit to a common set of behaviours could spell the difference between military defeat or victory, economic health or collapse, or making it through a long winter.
In our more individualized culture today, these existential imperatives are not as strongly present; there are fewer functional reasons to insist on individuals being consciously raised to invest in communitarian values. As a result, many—if not most—would today identify “morality” or “honour” as a thing within the personal or private realm. Who among us doesn’t believe we have a personal, informal, “code-of-honour” developed over a lifetime, upon which we rely for guidance when faced with difficult moral or ethical dilemmas? It seems sensible, doesn’t it, that personal honour is just that—a personal and individual thing.
The difficulty is that morality is most needed in public (or at least interpersonal) situations. Personal morality is fine, but when invoked, the actions one takes predicated upon that moral code almost inevitably affect (if not come into conflict with) others. As Brett in a provocative essay/blog at The Art of Manliness so convincingly argues, honour is a concept that is developed and applied between people, not within a person.
The bottom line is: America is an individualistic nation, and our independence is important to us. Living in Europe as I now do, it is striking to observe how governments and businesses impose their values and procedures upon citizens with relative ease (The “health and safety regulations that are systematically imposed by what some critics call “the nanny state” really need to be seen to be believed.) Americans tend to have a healthy scepticism toward mandated collective action. We don’t want to lose our individualism; we value our privacy. But if we lose our ability to operate politely, ethically, and morally in public, our prospects are equally grim (and much more dangerous.) What to do? It’s hard to say, but perhaps a place to start is to begin a discussion about what is private and what is public.
—This article was contributed by The Professor—