Gotham Diary:
Considering Privacy
April 2018 (III)

17 and 20 April

Tuesday 17th

If we want to blame our moral disasters upon the loss of dogmatic authority, we shall again find ourselves in the midst of notions which have little if any place in the great tradition of Western thought or in the history of ideas. For politically speaking, it was the fear of hell which acted as the most potent curb upon the potential criminality of human beings. And the idea that a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell should have restrained mankind from the worst crimes is no more palatable than the notion that such an intellectually unspeakably low product as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should have had the power to influence the course of contemporary events. Yet, I am afraid these very unpalatable notions are closer to the reality with which we were confronted than any dialectic of ideas. It would lead us too far astray now, but I think it can be shown that the belief in hell is the only strictly political element in Western religion, and that this element is neither Christian nor religious in origin. If this is true, then it would follow that the politically most momentous consequence of the loss of dogmatic authority was the resulting loss of belief in rewards and punishments in a Hellfire.

To be honest, I copied out this passage* simply for the pleasure of repeating the phrase “a motive of such obvious moral inferiority as the fear of hell.” The Roman church’s exploitation of hellfire is arguably its most discreditable failing. We are left with a somewhat cynical question: did it work? I myself suspect that the totalitarian atrocities of the Twentieth Century would never have occurred without the many new facilities of technological convenience in communication, transportation, and manufacturing. We have no way of knowing (I suspect further) how many agents in the Holocaust and the Soviet purges found it easier to participate because they no longer feared eternal punishment. I often wonder if the hellfire element of medieval life (of which we know very little directly) wasn’t overdone, resulting in a demoralized population incapable of virtue. I wish I knew more about the paradoxes of Calvinist predestination, which  if anything re-moralized Europeans. This brings me to my other thoughtful lady.

It has been usual to treat the great school of writers who emerged from American Puritan culture in the nineteenth century as having put aside the constraints of the old faith and stepped into a larger conceptual world. But in fact the striking kinship among them suggests they found source and stimulus closer to home. Whatever else might be part of a Puritan world-view, the exalted mind is central for them as it for all these writers. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, share a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. The Puritans spoke of their religion as experimental, that is, experiential. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made, grace assisting exquisite effort, to experience its meaning. … The absence of shrines and rituals and processions that interpreted the world and guided understanding of it in England and Europe reflected, as absence, a sense of immanence that gave the theological meaning to anything in itself in the moment of perception — a buzzing fly, a blade of grass. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary, given discipline and desire.**

In this passage, what captivates me is the description of thinking as a communication with reality. Although Hannah Arendt belonged to an earlier generation and was trained in a very different cultural environment, I like to think that she would agree with Robinson on this point. A mind such as Robinson or Arendt’s is stuffed with learning, with highly articulated ideas of “authority” and “grace” (to pick an example from each), but the act of thinking is always an undertaking to find points of articulation by which the mind’s stock can connect with the palpable world. Connection is more important than explanation, if only because explanation is impossible without it. Both thinkers exhibit a gentle impatience with the sluggishness of connection — there is never enough of it; one is never satisfied. Arendt and Robinson combine a practical worldliness with tremendous suspicion — not unlike, say, Jonathan Edwards’s fear of religious hypocrisy — of the reduction of reality to the dimensions of a problem that can be solved.


Something to think about:

On the one hand, we have readers who nod deliberately when the Times intones that the President is not above the law. On the other, we have a television audience for whom those are just words, words like any others in the script, or the show, or whatever it is — the word does not exist, does it? that describes the contemporary entertainment experience, something categorically beyond symbiosis, in which the audience is part of the show, and the show is part of the real world, a world more vivid than the world perceived by the audience members when they are not watching, or, to put it better, involved with the show. One the one hand, we have political discourse. On the other, political discourse is suffocated by entertainment, entertainment that consumes all the oxygen (ie meaning) in the public space that is occupied by the audience.

Better than to say that television created this audience, to say that television inspired the audience to create this reality. The audience is wholly, morally, responsible.

*The extract is from “Challenges to Traditional Ethics: A Response to Michael Polanyi,” in Hannah Arendt, Thinking Without a Banister, ed. Jerome Kohn (Schocken, 2018), p 189-90.

** From “Old Souls, New World,” in Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), p 294-5.


Friday 20th

Kindly attribute my silence this week to my discretion on two points: first, that I have been thinking full-time about something that doesn’t appear to have been much thought-about by anyone (then again, I don’t get out much), and my thoughts are not yet fully fit for publication; second, an iron determination not to mention a certain German-American political thinker (1906-1975) more than once a week.

So much for her.

What I have been thinking about is privacy, and I have been thinking about it because the idea of privacy seems to me to be what’s missing from current social discourse, particularly in the context of lamentations about social media. The word “privacy” is mentioned all the time, but there is no real idea behind the word, just a bundle of legal concepts. This makes a certain sense, because our notions of privacy have their origin in jurisprudence, specifically in the arguments of Louis Brandeis and others, made around the beginning of the last century, that we all have the right to be left alone. Far from being a universal right, moreover, privacy is not only a relative novelty, apparently confined, until very recently, to the Anglophone world.

Isn’t that odd. Privacy is important to everyone — to mature adults, anyway. How can it not always have been?

In the old days, before the word “privacy” had much currency, the right to be left alone was limited to a few special cases, usually involving the word “privy.” Alone, it represented what we now call the privacy of the bathroom, although actual bathing was not covered by it, for the simple reason that bathers had to be provided with hot water by helpers capable of filling and lifting pails. At the other end of the scale — what scale, exactly, I hesitate to say — the king and his advisers met in privy council. I have a couple of scholarly to-dos to check off. When did the word “privates” come to be used as a partial euphemism for genitals, and how do we explain the positive right to privacy deriving etymologically from words denotating deprivation? But these don’t seem terribly important at the moment.

In the old days, ideas of modesty and discretion imposed the effects of privacy on everyone. And there was also an idea of the family that encompassed a large part of the idea of privacy that I’m trying to work out. It would be wrong to say that there was no need for privacy, but there was no thought of it as something that was missing from the rule book. Finally, aside from smoke signals and bonfires, there was no such thing as communicating at a distance.

The last thing I want to do is to lapse into treatise-writing mode, beginning with definitions and distinctions. That’s precisely what I’ve been doing all week. But if I have the sense to keep my doodles to myself, I still think that there is at least one worth sharing, and it’s something that I call social privacy. It is the privacy of two or more people living more or less together more or less intimately. That’s to say that they may or may not live in the same place all the time, and that they may or may not be what we’ll call lovers. They may be parents and children. They may be cousins or friends. They may be like the group of five or six former camp counselors who get together every summer in cabins on a pond in Maine (my wife being one), a gathering not to be confused with your garden-variety reunion.

The second thing that I want to say about social privacy is that it is nourishing, beneficial. Toxic relationships preclude it. Unhappy families do not enjoy it. Nor does it just happen by itself. It requires certain kinds of behavior, and working out what that behavior might be is my real concern here.

The third and last thing that I want to offer is a distinction between secrecy and privacy that might be useful. A secret is simply information that is purposefully withheld from universal knowledge. It is defined by the people who don’t know it. (Those who know that it exists together with those who don’t.) Privacy is positive, a possession really. Privacy operates on the assumption that those who don’t share it don’t exist. The right to know a secret might be disputed — it’s disputed every time friends argue about whether to tell someone about a cheating spouse. What takes place in private, however, is nobody’s business — which is why these arguments occur. Whether the social privacy of an adulterous relationship destroys the social privacy of a marriage is, I conclude from the variety of human experience, not a question to be answered by deduction from principles. I will leave this very thorny question here.

What makes these thoughts urgent is, of course, the mobile phone in all its varieties. The mobile phone has created a contested, confused space, one in which many people pursue their private lives in the company of strangers. Strangers are on record as finding this annoying, but the greater harm, it seems to me, is the nuisance to the users. Is it not foolish to detach private conversations from the affect of physically sharing a familiar interior?

That’s enough for now. Bon week-end à tous!