Public Privacy

heart-on-a-platterWe have been worn thin by publicity, especially in the internet era. Private life, as it was once known and protected, has ceased to exist, except for those who protect it defiantly. On the one hand, this “openness” brings people out of isolation; they can now speak of their experiences in ways they could not before. I remember when it was considered shameful to bring up family problems or divorce; children often felt that they could not tell anyone what was happening at home. (That still might be the case—but there’s more of a sense that it’s good to speak up.) Also, people went through personal tragedy without knowing that others had been through similar things. Today it is easier in some ways to find support, and this is good.

But the spillage of personal life carries dangers. It has become the new norm to put your heart on webcam, as it were—so if you wish to be more reserved, you are on your own. Also, the boundaries are unclear and can vary widely from situation to situation. A normal disclosure in one context could easily be “too much information” in another; with no ill intention, people can intrude on each other with their words, or can appear rude and standoffish for holding back. This confusion of boundaries can hurt friendships, working relationships, and family bonds.

This “public privacy” cripples discourse as well. (Hannah Arendt, writing more than half a century ago, describes this as the submersion of the private and public spheres in the social sphere.) Newspaper op-eds, radio shows, and other media and formats are now filled with intensely personal stories, which you are not supposed to challenge. If you try to do so—and few dare—you risk being written off as heartless. It’s personal, after all.

Moreover, to share your private life is to shed your guilt—or so goes the belief. In his essay “How Publicity Makes People Real” (in Moral Imagination), David Bromwich discusses how this “broadcast intimacy”—through which people seek some kind of public expiation—prompts people to disclose things to the masses that they would not tell their own families. The success of this process, he writes, “depends on the puzzling fact that the irrevocable passage from depth to surface can be experienced as a relief.”

I was stunned by a recent New York Times piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The author writes from the deathbed, it seems; she says, “I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.” She explains that she was diagnosed in 2015 with ovarian cancer and had to give up her plans and projects. She proceeds to describe her wonderful husband, Jason, and to express hope that the right reader will find him and start a new life with him once she (Rosenthal) is gone.

The problem lies not with publishing a farewell to her husband, or writing about cancer and impending death. All of this can be done with grace (and even privacy). Rather, this excruciating context makes it difficult for anyone to question her gesture of offering her husband up. That gesture, as I see it, should not be protected from criticism; any thoughtful and civil response should have a place.

I find her gesture troubling, not only in itself but in combination with a detail in the piece. She mentions that in her most recent memoir (written before her diagnosis), she invited her readers to suggest matching tattoos (that they would actually get). She thought this would be a great way for reader and author to bond. She ended up taking a suggestion from a 62-year-old librarian; the two went to get tattoos together.

I responded with the following comment:

You write: “In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.”

That, to me, goes against the bond between reader and text, a bond that can strengthen, weaken, release, or otherwise change over time. The reader does not have to be on display; he or she can think, dispute, laugh and cry in private. The author, likewise, needs no permanent token of the reader’s devotion; to write and publish something is to trust that readers will arrive.

I find privacy missing from this piece overall–not because you write about a personal experience (which many writers do, even those who tend toward privacy), but because you seem to try here, as before, to bond with a reader in the flesh.

Not all bonds have to be in the flesh; not all have to be known, seen, etched, or advertised.

That said, I recognize the pain and grief that you are facing.

At this point there are 1,124 comments. The overwhelming majority speak of being in tears over the piece, finding it the most beautiful thing they have every read, etc. There are only a few outliers—and some of them got snappy comments in response. Some people even said that only a heartless person would read the piece without crying.

My point here is not that Rosenthal did something wrong. There is more than one view of the matter. Many took her piece as an act of love and courage; there’s much here that the readers cannot see or know. Nor is the problem (as I see it) with her piece in particular. The problem is more general: Such excruciating revelations call for only one kind of response. You are supposed to join in the chorus of sympathy or be a brute.

Because pieces like this are so common, because it has become the norm to put not only oneself but one’s loved ones “out there,” public discussion has lost some of its verve, diversity, and questioning. (Of course many other factors have affected discussion as well.)

Personal stories are essential; they have beauty, they can help both the teller and the hearer, and they can transcend the particular situation. But there are stories and stories; a story should not be protected and praised because it’s personal, and people should not be afraid of questioning and criticizing a story’s content, premises, or style.

There is reason to be wary of genres and platforms that encourage unanimous mass responses. Literature at its best, no matter what its content or form, helps us speak and think on our own.

Introversion: Pro-Idea, Anti-Noise, or Something Else?


There has been much discussion of introversion and extraversion but little agreement about what they are. Moreover, I have seen multiple implicit definitions of introversion within the same article or discussion.

It would not matter much, except that some people with power are starting to say, “introverts are this,” “introverts are that,” “introverts need this,” “introverts need that.” Interior designers, engineers, and consultants have been creating “Quiet Spaces” in workplaces. Schools have undergone training to become more introvert-friendly. These initiatives may hold some good but need vigorous (and rigorous) questioning.

A recurring problem is the lack of initial definition (or the lack of distinction among definitions). It makes little sense to discuss what has been discovered about introverts, unless you mean something specific by the term “introvert.” State your initial definition, explain why you have chosen it over other possibilities, and proceed from there.

In a 2014 article in Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman gives a sampling of the many floating definitions of introversion. They run the gamut and then some. He then reveals that psychologists have put forth a model of four types of introversion: social (where you like to be alone or spend time with a few close friends), thinking (where you pay close and continual attention to your own thoughts and feelings), anxious (characterized by self-consciousness and shyness), and restrained (where you tend to think before you act). He then offers a quiz to help you find out which kind you are.

Even there, I see many complications (which he acknowledges as well). To be a “thinking” introvert, must one primarily be interested in one’s own thoughts and feelings, or can one be absorbed in thinking about something else, such as music, a language, or a mathematical problem? The quiz presumes the former, but I object.

As for the other types, when I look at the questions, my response is often, “It depends.” The ambiguity does not bother me; I don’t feel a need to narrow myself down by type and subtype (on other people’s terms). But others are busy doing just that—not for me in particular, but for “introverts” at large.

So, for instance, “Quiet Spaces,” envisioned and designed by Susan Cain and others, exist to give introverts an environment that brings out their best. The intent here is good but the execution narrow. I would not want to work in one, and in this I am not alone. I don’t like the lounge-y feel, the glass walls all around (frosted, but still), the lack of bookshelves, or the colors. Give me a good old office with solid walls, a windowed door, an actual desk, a window to the outside, and plenty of shelves. Or, if space is lacking, just give me a cubicle and some quiet. Again, I see the good intentions but question the assumptions and aesthetic choices.

Nor can a workplace accommodate everyone. I am skeptical of attempts to identify employees’ personality types and tailor workplaces to them. Instead, find the structures that suit the situation at hand. Where the work calls for thinking, make room for it. Where it calls for discussion, create forums. Allow people to work alone, coming together when necessary. Also, let them treat the job as a job, not as an all-consuming career (unless they really want the latter). That way, they can pursue their interests in their own time.

What about schools? Attempts to create introvert-friendly classrooms may also rely on false or skewed assumptions. Some assume that introverts dread speaking to the whole class and prefer speaking to a partner (e.g., in a “think-pair-share” activity); this is not necessarily true, though it may be true for some. There are those who count unequivocally as introverts yet thrive in class discussion, precisely because it is about something interesting. There are those who dread the “think-pair-share” activity because of its “buzz” (so many people talking at once) and its tendency to water down the ideas before they reach the full forum.

Here too, one can reach students by paying attention to the subject matter. When the point of class discussion is to reach greater understanding (about a work of literature, a mathematical concept, or a philosophical idea), students may sit quietly and think, venture a tentative idea, or offer an insight. All of this contributes to the understanding. One lesson might consist primarily of lecture, another of whole-class discussion, and another of a combination (or something different). In each case, students may participate in a variety of ways. Yes, the teacher should be alert to the students but can also trust the subject to lead the way.

And what about the world outside of work and school? Here again, beware of constricting generalizations. I just read an article titled “Introverts Love Facebook, and Extroverts Hate It. Here’s Why.”How does the author justify such a wrongheaded assertion? Here we go:

Everything about Facebook serves the emotional and psychological needs of introverts. It gives them a place to socialize and chat with people they like, without having to deal with the elements of in-person dialogues that make them uncomfortable. It allows them to say their piece, without being interrupted, scowled at, or patronized.

What? Who says introverts are uncomfortable with in-person dialogues? There are those who vastly and vehemently prefer such dialogues to the groupy, chatty, like-y, Facebook-y stuff. I myself dislike Facebook precisely because it’s so social (in Hannah Arendt’s sense of the word). Unless you have a private chat, which tightens you with its tiny windows and bubbles, you have to accept group conversations,  which aren’t even conversations. I recognize the efficiency of Facebook (it helps you stay in touch with many people at once), but it can’t hold a candle to a letter, phone conversation, or conversation in person.

I resist the excessive tilt toward gregariousness, talk, quick answers, busyness, aggressiveness, and so forth. Yet I also resist the push to classify people, especially when the basic definitions are unclear. Personality research is fine, but those involved should acknowledge its questions and doubts, strive for precise language, and exercise caution around policy and products. It is sad to see “groupthink” arising around introversion, when introversion, like extraversion, holds so many variations and possibilities.


Note: I took the above photo at Anne Loftus Playground (around 8 a.m., before children and parents started arriving).

I revised this piece twice after posting it.

Anger Endangered

Last spring, in political philosophy class, my students and I discussed Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “behavior has replaced action as the foremost mode of human relationship.” After analyzing it in context, we considered whether it held true today. A few students commented on the pressure to be pleasant all the time. One student defended this state of things; he thought good behavior had benefits for all. Others saw a loss. There was little room, they said, for emotions and thoughts that stood out, such as anger.

What is anger? It is a reaction against some kind of wrong or injustice. At its best, it helps sort good from bad, right from wrong. Yet it often turns into violence or muffles itself into vague hints. It is not easy to get anger right.

A few decades ago, “anger management” was in the air—but something more like anger wisdom is in order.  We have, on the one hand, a workplace of niceness (where people join a “team” and get along), and on the other, a cyberspace of insults and dismissals. Anger has been bent out of shape, yet its literature has verve.

In Book 4, Chapter 5, of his Nicomachean Ethics (translated by W. D. Ross), Aristotle writes:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis writes that when Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883) first started learning Mussar (a tradition of practical wisdom in Orthodox Judaism), “he became angry at the world but remained at peace within himself. As he studied further, he also became angry with himself.  Finally, he evolved to judging others favorably.” (I will read the original source as soon as I can.)

Both Aristotle and Rabbi Salanter see anger not as emotion alone but as emotion combined with reason. Anger can go right or wrong, depending on how one directs it. To use it properly, one needs  full education. The right use of anger can be the  project (or one of many projects) of a lifetime. One might begin with anger at the world, like Rabbi Salanter, or with anger at oneself; either stance is provisional. Ultimately one comes to see human fallibility.  Anger becomes less necessary overall. It doesn’t disappear; instead, it reserves itself for the most appropriate occasions. The remainder turns into empathy.

For anger to do good, a few conditions must be met. (These are my own thoughts on the matter; I hope to develop them over time.)

First, the angry person must identify the cause of the anger and decide whether it’s worth a fuss. If not, the  person should drop it altogether. If so, he or she should bring it up in appropriate circumstances.

Example: Say you are going with a friend to a concert, and the friend meets you late, making you both late for the performance. If this is a unique occurrence, it might be worth letting go; if it happens more than twice, it is worth mentioning.

Second, the person must be able to articulate the reason for the anger–clearly, calmly, and promptly. Vagueness and evasion do no good.

Example: Your co-volunteer in the public garden has been short with you lately–and when you finally get up the nerve to ask whether something’s wrong, he says, “never mind; it’s fine.” If it’s fine, then fine; that should be the end of it. But if it isn’t fine, then different words are in order. For instance: “Recently I have been showing up at 9, which is when our shift starts, and then working by myself for at least an hour until you show up. This isn’t working for me; let’s figure out a better arrangement.”

Third, the angry person should be willing to listen to the recipient of the anger. Otherwise what is the point of expressing it at all? To get it out of one’s system? Possibly–but people are not liver cleansers. The real point is to lift the level of justice, even slightly. That takes more than one person.

Anger-wise, I am far from perfect; I can tip away from or into it. I try, though, to approach it strongly and give it proper form. Like many, I fear being rude, but that’s like the fear of playing out of tune. Ultimately you have to play out your thoughts. Kindness can be true and clear.


Note: I added to this piece after its initial posting.

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

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.