THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF PRIVACY

I have had quite a lot of trouble writing this blog. Not for lack of material – the libraries are bursting with books tackling the problems and possibilities of modernity. Nor for lack of ideas – with so much to read and so much London around it would be impossible not to be making connections all over the shop.

The thing I find distinctly difficult is this: I am a modern subject, trapped in my own subjectivity and writing about the (my) experience of modernity. The examples I choose, points I make and spins I put on things will be tinged with my own experiences, preferences and prejudices.

So what? you might well say. Opinions are good. Everybody likes an opinion. I like an opinion. What I don’t like is sharing my own experiences to the whole world, via this blog. Some of them are private and I would like to control their audience.

Before you say anything I am well aware the readership of this blog is probably 2. Even so, I don’t like it.

But then – aha! The lightbulb! Why not write about the arguably modern phenomenon of privacy? More specifically about individual privacy and its (sort of) birth and (possible) death. For this post I will even make some concessions and talk about why I like privacy. I hope you understand this foray into the public expression of personal feelings is not a natural one.

Interestingly I am writing this blog post in a room where the other four occupants (strangers to me) are discussing in intimate detail how many days they tend to wait before having sex with someone and the asymmetry of vaginas. (Does the latter ‘mean women are more tolerant of ambiguity?’ How very Irigaray). Privacy does not seem to be a concern.

What is privacy?

The OED gives the definition of privacy as ‘a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people’. This definition attaches no value to this condition – but most people (certainly in this much-talked of modern world) see it as important, and are distressed when their privacy is violated.

medieval-bath

Bathtime used to be so much more musical…

I don’t really know how ‘modern’ it is. There certainly appears to be some cross-cultural preferences for some degree of discretion in their sexual relations but the extent of this desire for privacy varies hugely across cultures and, as anyone who has ever slept in a youth hostel dorm probably knows all too well, also between individuals. There is certainly an argument that a previous distinction was between ‘public’ and ‘domestic’ [1] or that far more of life’s business was conducted under the eyes of others. The openness of living spaces often necessitated this in many cases, but I would not like to speculate too much about a universal tendency to take oneself off somewhere for a quiet think. Lionel Trilling reckons that ‘‘it is when he becomes an individual that a man lives more and more in private rooms’ [2] and others have drawn a link between privacy and ‘the introspection and soul-searching of radical Puritanism’ [3]

Certainly some authors have hailed the dawn of a new and more solitary age. Others have mourned its loss – Kundera, writing about the Prague Spring, argues that ‘A man who loses his privacy loses everything. And a man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster’ [4].

If only it were that simple. Why then all these accounts of a new and open age? Think of Montesquieu and his Uzbek hero who comes to Paris where ‘everything speaks out, eaverything is visible, everything is audible. The heart shows itself as clearly as the face'[5]. Leonard Cohen warning us of the ‘metre on [our] beds that will disclose/what everybody knows’ [6]. Rousseau abhors the ‘uniform and deceptive veil of politeness’ [7] that hangs over his society.

Perhaps such contradications are unavoidable in a time when ‘everything seems pregnant with its contrary’ [8]

Why does it matter?

There are many ways to construct an identity out of rather inchoate matter. I like to think of it as a split process – the self being composed of an internal world (inner self) and outward expression. This expression is the interface through which we interact with the world, and is therefore a source of significant tension as the inner self and external world vie for control. The process of individualisation – for the purposes of this blog –  is the gradual move of abstracts (transcendentals) from the external world into the inner self.

So, we are left with quite a messy picture of a split self. Where is the true self? That, again, cannot be said for certain. Different cultures, and different people, place different emphasis on these constituents. What we should bear in mind here is a notion of an ideal self – ‘Every individual human being, one may say, carries within him, potentially and prescriptively, an ideal man, the archetype of a human being, and it is his life’s task to be, through all his changing manifestations, in harmony with the unchanging unity of this ideal’ [9]. The task is to bring in line the inner self (and to differing extents the expressive self) with this ideal.

The novelty of modernity is having to construct one’s own ideal. This is not an entirely solitary pursuit – much of the material for this ideal is sourced from cultural contexts – but there is plenty of room for personal choice. Choice itself is held up as an important and virtuous thing. It does, however, put the individual in a bit of a double bind; she must make her own morally meaningful choice but an increasing relativism of morality and tendency towards anthropocentrism weakens many ‘horizons of significance’ (10).

This model of inner and expressive selves is only a model. It is, by its very nature, extremely reductionist. Neither does it explain large aspects of human behaviour. It does not tell us what is used to ‘express’ the self, nor how the external world is divided up in individual or collective consciousness. We also cannot overemphasize the leakiness of the boundaries between these rough categories. They act upon each other in ways both obvious and more subtle: the external world greatly influences the development of the inner self throughout life, during childhood especially. It gives form to an ontology, a way of being-in-the-world. The inner self has some control over the expressive self – whether it chooses to show a truth or a falsehood, or indeed nothing at all. Parts of the external world seek to influence the expressive self, to bring it in line with a societal code. It can do this by force (which may or may not be resisted) or through the  Foucauldian politics of desire, coercing the inner self into wanting to conform.

It should also be stressed that the inner self is not ‘thought’ and the expressive self is not ‘body’. The inner self is a complex creature and may well include parts of the body or even other people – for example the realm of intimate relations. The expressive self may choose to show far much more in this later context than in more impersonal settings.

So it is a useful model in some ways. I will use it in this post to explore notions of privacy and in a following one to explore ‘authenticity’ as a paradigm of the modern age (11).

A violation of privacy is experienced when a component of the inner self is forced out into the expressive self by the external world.

Don’t ask me about my preferred pronouns

The case study for today is the recent trend to introduce yourself with your preferred gender pronouns.

For those who are not aware the idea behind this group gender identification is to make it easier for trans people to share their pronouns and normalize the practice more generally – to make it second nature as part of all introductions. Both of those are very valid goals.

Other people might suggest alternative options (ze, hir is a common one). A long list of possible pronouns can be found here: http://askanonbinary.tumblr.com/pronouns

The most common ‘human’ ones are under ‘general’ but it is interesting to explore the other categories. It doesn’t give any examples of who they are for and I can’t find out so I won’t say too much about it (although I like that ‘dei/deis/deiself’ comes with the warning ‘ONLY USE IF YOU ARE GOD/DEITY BASED OTHERKIN’).

Here, as in a lot of matters relating to feminism, I always come across as decidedly retro. So before I go any further I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am really fine with calling people by their preferred pronoun. I have no problems with the fluidity of gender and I really, really don’t want people to feel or be constrained by social expectations. So, I feel a little guilty having reservations about the pronoun-introduction circle. I am aware that the other people on this side of the debate are quite often raving misogynists or pearl-clutching conservatives. Sometimes both. I will try and explore my thoughts as openly and respectfully as possible, without targeting individuals, leaving open the possibility that I am the problem.

My discomfort with the idea rests on two parts of this process: the invasion of privacy and the primacy given to gender. The first part is quite simple – to me the expectation to share my pronouns feels like an attempt by the external world to bring an aspect of the inner self into my expressive self. It is an ‘outing’ of identity if you will. I would not be comfortable indiscriminately sharing my political leanings, nor my sexuality, nor my sexual preferences. Why would I want to share my ‘gender’?

There is, of course, an obvious objection to this critique. I don’t experience any particular discomfort being referred to as ‘she’, which most people do. Nor did I mind when a buzzcut and steel-toecapped boots got me a ‘he’ at work.I have been able to slip under the question of gender just by not bringing attention to it. I totally agree – this is an unacceptable situation. But why not use all this discussion around gender to propose one pronoun for everybody? All hail the epicene revolution!

This tackles the dysphoria issue whilst removing gender from its undeserved pedestal. Why on earth do we need to bring gender (when that correlated with sex it was bad enough but now it correlates with identity it’s become, frankly, confusing) into it every time we talk about someone? Part of it lies in this distinctly modern (or perhaps even postmodern) quest for an identity: an identity that has ‘become more mobile, multiple, personal, self-reflexive, and subject to exchange and innovation’ [11.5]

This shift in the nature of identity is not, in itself, a problem. It becomes more fraught when the identity category is something as historically oppressive as gender – when a battlefield is brought into the realm of pure subjectivity. That is not to say that it cannot be done – merely that caution and proper attention to all points of view must be exercised.

The Problem of Gender

I’m particularly intrigued by the notion of non-binary. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what non-binary is, and when you ask too many questions people get a bit defensive. It seems that you just ‘feel’ it. But what exactly are you feeling?

Here are some accounts of discovering you are non-binary:

  • ‘i felt kind of like i didn’t really align with either of the binary genders’
  • A non-binary person is someone who identifies as something other than entirely a man or entirely a woman. This may mean that they feel more like a combination of both (‘androgyne’); or that they feel like a man on some days, a woman on others, and/or a combination of the two at other times (‘genderfluid’); or that they simply have no gender at all (‘agender’)
  • Being non-binary can mean identifying with being both a man and a woman, or only one of those, or neither of them.
  • “Woman” had always felt like a filter that reduced me somehow, like it diluted me or masked me. I felt like an outsider to it, like it was a story I was told but never believed with any certainty. I had been wrestling with my gender, trying to fit in or at least coexist with it, but instead I came up empty and I didn’t know why.
  • A Google search revealed the word pangender, which I liked because it acknowledged that someone can have masculine and feminine qualities

Taken from:

How Did You Know You Were Non-Binary?

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/am-i-non-binary/

http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/12/4-things-stopped-non-binary

It does seem to me that an awful lot of the experiences described in that list are experiences that most women, or even most people, will have felt at some point in their lives. That fact that they can be difficult experiences merely demonstrates that fixed gender roles are bad.

Now I don’t want to go so far as Susan Cox [12] and suggest that non-binary women are throwing other women under the bus. But it’s hardly a radical deconstruction of gender – rather a social reinforcement of the binary to facilitate an individual rejection of it. If you say that you are not a women because you don’t like the expectations of and reactions to women then if I say I am a women does that mean that I do? Probably not but that’s the whole problem with identity. It doesn’t have to follow any rules at all. (Unless you are Rachel Dolezal in which case it definitely does… https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/13/rachel-dolezal-i-wasnt-identifying-as-black-to-upset-people-i-was-being-me)

Personally, I’d prefer to abolish the concept altogether. Or at least ‘[expand] the category of womanhood so that anything is possible within it, rather than grasping for a different gender identity if we find that we don’t feel stereotypically feminine’ [13]

‘That’s why non-binary is the best around!’ shout the proponents. ‘We want to get rid of gender roles too and we are being bloody more proactive about it than you are. All you’ve done is stopped shaving your armpits’

Perhaps they have a point. Is the best way to bring about a revolution taking to the streets, or living as if it has already happened? My natural inclination is towards the latter but I don’t have very many solid arguments to back that up. I just can’t be bothered to bother about my appearance and I wish it didn’t matter at all. But wishful thinking is wishful thinking and, like it or not, the only way to win the game is to play the game. Much like the inked up rebels described by Fisher, transgressing normative bodily practices is to still acknowledge the (constructed) importance of the body [14].

As Emma Watson reasonably pointed out after scandal broke out after her underboob graced the cover of vanity fair: ‘I don’t see what my tits have got to do with it’.

And I wish it was nothing at all Emma. But we are not there yet.

 

 

Reading this back I wonder if I am particularly concerned about the privacy of gender. Is everybody this concerned about keeping their body (I know I know, biological reductionism, essentialism and all that. But if you think gender is a social construct then the idea of keeping it private doesn’t really make sense. It is this sort of assumption based on my physical characteristics that I wish to avoid) under wraps?

Which leads me nicely on to my next post…

 

 

References

[1] Siedentop, Larry. 2015. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. London: Penguin Books.

[2] Trilling, Lionel. 1974. Sincerity and Authenticity. London: Oxford University Press.

[3] Christopher, Hill. 1961. The Century of Revolution. London, New York: Nelson, Norton.

[4] Kundera, Milan. 1984. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. London: Faber and Faber.

[5] Montesquieu’s ‘Lettres Persanes’

[6] Cohen, Leonard. Everybody Knows

[7] Rousseau, JJ. 1950. Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. Dutton.

[8] Marx, Karl. 1978. “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C Tucker. Norton.

[9] Schiller, F. 1967. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[10] Taylor, Charles. 1995. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[11] Lindholm, Charles. 2007. Culture and Authenticity. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

[11.5] Kellner, D. 1992. “Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities.” In Modernity and Identity, edited by S Lash and J Friedman. Oxford (UK) and Cambridge (USA): Blackwell.

[12] http://www.feministcurrent.com/2016/08/10/coming-non-binary-throws-women-bus/

[13] http://rewriting-the-rules.com/conflict-break-up/non-binary-feminism-the-personal-is-still-political/

[14] Fisher, Jill A (2002) Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.  Body Society December 2002 vol. 8 no. 4 91-10

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