The Privacy of Speaking One on One

Lately I joined Facebook in order to do specific things. I had joined before, a few years ago, then quit because I didn’t like it. This time around, I was bewildered all over again by the prevalence of group updates—the practice of telling a large group about life events, major and minor. I couldn’t keep up with these conversations and didn’t want to join them. I miss the old-fashioned practice of speaking with an individual.

Online group communication can be a boon at times. For instance, someone with a medical emergency could keep her friends posted without having to write individually to each one. A medium like Facebook can be useful for announcements as well–of events, special occasions, and so on. The problem lies not in individuals’ use of Facebook or any other online medium, but rather in the general drift away from private association. I am uneasy with the ubiquitous group conversation and the pressure to surrender private conversations to the group.

The problem is not restricted to the internet. In many situations, individual conversations are subject to interruption and curtailment, and people are not staunch about defending them. There’s a general assumption that a conversation belongs to anyone—that it is up for grabs. When people interrupt, they are often not conscious of interrupting, or don’t see the interruption as a problem. Thus, most conversations don’t last long.

Growing up, I saw and heard excessive quotation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” (especially the first two lines). I don’t hear it quoted any more. It isn’t in the air.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The poem is stark no matter what the times, but today it stands out so severely against everything we are asked to do. The repetition of “Unmoved” in the second stanza seems defiant now, and it’s a defiance I miss, even though I have it to an extent. We are supposed to move along with things, to be responsive to as many people and events as possible. To stay “unmoved” in the face of demands is to shirk one’s unwritten obligation. But it may be a way of keeping a greater obligation.

And what comes next? “I’ve known her — from an ample nation —Choose One —” Who gets to do that today—except when choosing a spouse? It is possible, of course, to meet with particular friends, but it’s challenging, given people’s complicated schedules and tendency to do things in groups. The problem is not new, but it has taken on new forms. A Yale professor remarked to me recently that he doesn’t see students talking to each other one on one any more. He used to see them on the lawn, on benches, in dining halls. Now he sees four, five, six students talking with each other or walking through campus together.

Is that all terrible? Of course not. But some of it is terrible.

Granted, there’s something terrible on either end. The poem is not sweet. Even in my childhood, I got a chill from the last two lines: “Then — close the Valves of her attention — Like Stone —” (where “Like Stone” sounds like stone clapping, and the dash aftwarwards, like an unknown). Even then, there was something disturbing about the poem: a suggestion that an intimate friendship required hostility of a kind. (I loved Julie Harris’s rendition in The Belle of Amherst—I think she brought this out.)

But that hostility can be a kind of protection, an enshrinement. The poem has a subtlety and surprise: the “Society” of the first line is the “One” in the final stanza. This One is a society, in that the soul can associate with it as it could not with a pausing chariot or kneeling emperor.

It takes courage to lift one person above the “whatever”—to meet with one person, to write to one person, to listen to one person. It takes the willingness to shut others out for a stretch. There is solitude in this.

I am not talking about limiting one’s entire company to one person; that is dangerous and confining. Nor am I saying that all meetings should be one on one. There are no mandates or policy prescriptions here. I am talking about the simple practice of spending time with an individual—and having strength and room for such a meeting.

Dickinson’s poem suggests an absoluteness of attention that people in any era might find terrifying. It goes a bit beyond what I am describing here–but is part of it all the same. There is a stalk of such staunchness even in a dialogue over coffee.

To speak to a particular person as one would speak to no one else; to notice things about the other that others may notice too, but not in the same way; to hear stories take shape, stories that belong to the two, because they come out of the listening and telling—this is the privacy that I defend.

Note: Just after posting this piece, I added what is now the penultimate paragraph.

Tetrahedra and Truth

Let’s say you have a tetrahedron (a polyhedron consisting of four conjoined triangles). You project each of its points onto a flat surface, along lines perpendicular to the surface. Depending on the tilt of the tetrahedron in relation to the surface, you will end up with either a triangle or a quadrilateral.

Now, both the triangle and the quadrilateral tell truth about the tetrahedron, but neither one tells the complete truth. However, if you rotated the tetrahedron and captured enough projections along the way, then you could determine the tetrahedron’s shape from the projections alone (if you already knew that it was a convex polyhedron). In other words, by considering the changes of the projections in time, you could see beyond the projections’ two-dimensional aspect to the tetrahedron’s three-dimensional shape. (You can try rotating a tetrahedron here.)

To even begin this project, you have to suspect that there’s something beyond the flat shapes that you see. You think: “Yesterday it had four sides. Today it has three. Something’s up with that.” Without such suspicion, you’re a prisoner in Plato’s cave, believing in the shadows on the wall because you’ve seen nothing else.

Now, suppose the tetrahedron were not stable in shape. Suppose it were crumbling or melting. Then you could not determine its shape from the projections. You could only approximate it—that is, by observing projections very close to each other in time and trying to spot abnormal changes. A sort of calculus would come into play. The more regular the tetrahedron’s disintegration, the more accurate your calculations would be. The projections would only pick up certain kinds of changes; they wouldn’t show concavities, for instance, if the edges were still intact.

Things get even more complicated if time itself is unstable: if it slows down, speeds up, loops around, breaks apart, or comes to an end (in relation to some other measure). We won’t get into that.

Imagine, now, that the phenomena in our lives are (at their very simplest) tetrahedral. Our instant impressions are limited, as they don’t capture the full shape of the phenomena. It takes time, knowledge, and insight to perceive their shapes.

We should not, then, place much value on the instant update or newest thing (the quick projection of part of the tetrahedron onto paper), except insofar as it adds to our knowledge and understanding. The latest projection is in itself no treasure; we must look to the old ones as well and—since we can’t spend all our time observing projections of tetrahedra—to other people’s interpretations of these shapes.

This is why we study history, literature, science, history of science, mathematics, philosophy, and music. It’s also why our current drive to collect instantaneous data on everyone (where we are, who our friends are, what our emotional reactions are to every possible product or classroom gesture) will do more harm than good. The purposes of such data-gathering are limited, even crude; the point is not to build wisdom or understanding, but to boost sales, test scores, and other quick results.

For example, developers and marketers have been considering the use of biometric bracelets not only in classrooms but in everyday life. Your bracelet will tell some subset of the world where you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re responding to that activity. Marketers and customers, then, can respond to you accordingly. But what happens, then, to friendship, which depends on voluntary disclosure and voluntary reserve?

Suppose I meet with a friend for dinner; what I do not say is as important as what I do, and both are my choice, to the extent that we choose such things. I learn about my friend through the things she chooses to tell me and the things that make her pause or stay quiet. Biometric bracelet data would ruin this. (“I see you were at the doctor’s office earlier today. Is everything OK? … Oh, is that so? I know you had a brain scan there. Why a brain scan, of all things?”) 

We can gather all sorts of data about people, but such data are little more than flat projections. Take that in stride, and those flat projections, maybe, can tell you something. Treat them like the real stuff, and you send your brains rolling down the hill.

Twitter and Loss of Solitude

Last March, during a book talk,  Jonathan Franzen committed the scandalous act of criticizing Twitter. An audience member took issue not with his points, but with his failure to admit to his own privilege. Franzen, she argued, doesn’t have to  worry about promoting himself. His publicist probably dreams about him every night. Many lesser-known writers have to go on Twitter and Facebook if they want to reach readers.

But do we? Isn’t there a way to reach people without reducing yourself? If you genuinely enjoy Twitter—and many do—then it can have benefits. It can serve as a good source of information, if nothing else. But if you aren’t drawn to it, why force yourself to use it? One of the most grating aspects of Twitter (and other social media) is the subjection of everything to a popularity vote and public display.

Publicity is not evil; writers and others need to reach an audience. Still, there are many ways of doing this, each with its benefits and costs. One must choose carefully, resisting pressure to join the crowd.

Promoting your work through Twitter is no mere thumb movement. It isn’t enough, from what I have seen, to toss out a tweet now and then. No, you have to build a following (which you can check moment to moment). This requires time and strategic activity. What’s more, it requires that you look somewhat friendly and accessible. You tweet about how great it was to meet so-and-so for lunch. You tweet that you’d love to come to so-and-so’s reading but—alas—are about to board the plane to LA, where you will be giving a reading of your own. Too bad! Another time!

Now, some claim that this sort of online socializing actually preserves privacy. Susan Cain suggests that it appeals to introverts because it relieves them of the pressure to socialize in person. According to Cain, it is more comfortable for them to tweet and blog than to speak in public or introduce themselves at parties. Clearly there’s some truth to that. It’s probably less draining in some ways to send a hundred tweets than to meet ten people in a day. Introvert or extrovert, a person gets tired.

Let’s set aside the question of introversion for the moment and consider solitude instead. (Introvert-extrovert distinctions are a bit messy, in my view.) If you value solitude—that is, time apart in the mind, even time alone with a friend—do you really want to muddy it up with tweets of “great to see you” and “say hi to Nancy”? Are your conversations really mass entertainment pieces? Some will argue that such communications aren’t special or intimate–so nothing is lost in making them public. But I consider even acquaintanceships important enough (and, in a sense, private enough) to keep to myself.

In my book, Republic of Noise, I define solitude as the apartness we have at all times, which we may honor and shape or not. There is solitude in friendship, because friendship requires a certain aloneness of spirit, a willingness to take the other person on his or her own terms. Each friendship has its special language, history, and rituals, which are understood by the two friends alone. Conversations between friends do not have to become public property.  Something’s corrupted when they do.

I like to separate public from private. When in public–for instance, when giving a speech or teaching at school—my words are for all, and my focus is mainly on ideas, not on personal relationships. When in private, alone or with others, a mixture of ideas, rumblings, and affections (or, in some cases, antipathies) comes into play. Although it is impossible to separate the public and the private completely, I find meaning and respite in such division.

Twitter and other social media erode the distinction between public and private. They create a zone that is neither one nor the other. Of course, this erosion is not new, nor is social media the sole cause. Hannah Arendt considered it a feature of modernity;  she gives a fascinating analysis of the problem in The Human Condition. There is something perturbing about the zone that is neither this nor that—the extension of our selves into arenas that do not care for us.

Now, one can use Twitter in a purely formal manner: sending out links and announcements with no personal content. But unless you have a large following, this will likely have little effect; moreover, you still have to deal with tweets from others. I’d rather stay off the whole thing.

My upstart abstinence may cost me a host of readers. So be it; I’d rather have a thousand readers and independence of mind, than a hundred thousand and twice as many tweet-intrusions. I do not have to broadcast what is private or mundane (or even what is not). Some say social media is the wave of the future, but that does not obligate anyone to ride it. An age contains far more than its trends; a life, far more than avatars and “likes”; a book, far more than its surrounding chatter.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.

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