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.

So Now You’re Rating My Self-Knowledge?

Jesse Singal is one of my favorite journalists. He’s a powerful writer: intelligent, probing, daring, nuanced, and skilled. But today one of his New York Magazine articles (which he co-wrote with Ashley Wu) made my blood boil. Singal and Wu invite the readers to test their own self-knowledge: first, by rating themselves on the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience); and second, by taking a personality test, which will presumably show them how correct or incorrect their self-assessment was. I reject the premise that the personality test has the last word or better say–or, more generally, that some outside instrument can set the terms for my self-knowledge.

Singal and Wu vastly overstate the test’s capacity to inform us about ourselves. Toward the middle of the piece, they write: “So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out.” At the end, they claim, “In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.”

I have copied my response below, with some minor edits and added links.

A comment on “Can You Predict Your Scores on an Important Personality Test?” by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu

I protest the underlying assumption of this article: that the Big Five model and its accompanying personality tests hold some truth about us that we may or may not “get right.” According to your argument here, how “well we do” at guessing our test results speak to how well we know ourselves.

No, no, no! I acknowledge that our own self-knowledge may be limited, flawed, and distorted–but I reject any personality test as an arbiter of truth.

Why? First of all, as you yourself note, psychologists have based these categories on tendencies and general correlations. And tendencies are just that–tendencies. They are somewhat forced, first of all, by our vocabulary; second of all, they don’t hold for everyone; third, within an individual there may be great variation from context to context and day to day.

I recognize that this test offers a “sliding scale” for each of these traits–but I question whether they really exist on a “sliding scale.” If I am sometimes agreeable, sometimes not, this does not make me, say, 70% agreeable. My instances of disagreeableness may be key to my personality. What matters here is where and why they occur. They may have to do with an actual situation.

In The Long Shadow of Temperament (one of the wisest psychology books I have read), Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman question the Western tendency to define personality in terms of categories. “It is not clear,” they write, “why American and European social scientists maintain a preference for broad psychological properties for individuals that ignore the contexts in which they act.” In Moral Imagination, David Bromwich points to the importance of resisting this tendency. “The force of the idea of moral imagination,” he writes, “is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.”

Why does this matter? Because everything human is at stake here: self-knowledge, knowledge of others, knowledge of the world, dialogue, and language itself.

P.S. In a demonstration of “openness to experience,” I went ahead and took this test. It was not enlightening. For too many of the questions, the response in my mind was, “It depends.” I mean “strongly depends,” not just “sort of depends.” So in many cases I entered a 3, which to me did not represent the situation. Or else the lack of breakdown–for instance, of types of conscientiousness–distorted my responses by averaging them out. (On the other hand, without trying, I scored extremely high on “openness.”) I view such tests with extreme skepticism and caution. (Yet this is not because I am a “cautious” type overall. Skeptical, maybe.) If such tests are bad at telling who I am, they are even worse at telling how well I know myself.

Note: I added a paragraph to the beginning of this piece after posting it. Also I changed “theory” to “model” (stay tuned for more on this).

 

“The Remedy Is the Poem Itself”

First, a happy 2015 to everyone! This promises to be a glorious year for CONTRARIWISE. It is also the year of the Class of 2015. At my school, many members of this class have been involved with CONTRARIWISE, philosophy roundtables, and honors projects in philosophy, so I will be both sad and immensely proud to see them move on. Some have already been admitted to colleges (Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Smith, SUNY Binghamton, and elsewhere); others have a few months of waiting in store. Those months will go by quickly, though, and CONTRARIWISE will come out in the meantime!

The year has also started out with great sadness; one of my former students lives in Shanghai, so when I read the news of the stampede, it was not remote as such news often can be. (I trust that she is unharmed—but she must have been affected in any case.)

I am returning today to an idea from yesterday: that the “successful” teacher is one who looks inward. What bothers me is not the idea of looking inward, but rather the subordination of this to some kind of success on the job. In other words, inner life should not and cannot be mandated, and those who live it must do so on their own terms. It certainly may take place on the job and may have benefits for the job—but ultimately it is not for the job. Soul-searching as a job requirement will be stultified. To have meaning, it must be at liberty to go beyond others’ demands. It will find more of a home in poetry than in any teacher manual (since poetry by nature goes beyond others’ expectations).

When listening to a recorded lecture this morning, I was introduced to a passage from The Principles of Art by Robin George Collingwood:

The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need them is that no community knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community altogether deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness.

There is a lot to interpret in this passage, but I will focus on these two statements: “no community knows its own heart” and “the remedy is the poem itself.” Why does no community know its own heart? Well, it is virtually impossible to have heart as a group. Yes, there are approximations, but they are often galvanized by one person’s action—in this case, a poem. Why is the poem the remedy? It’s not that it makes us feel better. Rather, it offers full life and a release from compromises, lies, half-measures, and what Collingwood calls “the corruption of consciousness.”

To prophesy,  then, is to tell not the future, but the present; to tell it as no one else is telling it. Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” (which I read after being moved by David Bromwich’s description in Moral Imagination) has prophetic momentum; we go with Betty on a journey that we ourselves take but do not always recognize. It is the story of a mother searching high and low for her “idiot boy,” whom she has sent off in the night for medicine for their neighbor, who is very sick. Her hope and worry and near-despair are so great that even nature seems to come to a stop (except for the owls):

She listens, but she cannot hear
The foot of horse, the voice of man;
The streams with softest sound are flowing,
The grass you almost hear it growing,
You hear it now, if e’er you can.

The owlets through the long blue night
Are shouting to each other still:
Fond lovers! yet not quite hob nob,
They lengthen out the tremulous sob,
That echoes far from hill to hill.

It would be difficult to read this poem without some soul-searching (where the soul itself goes searching). But this is not the kind that bends to any job. It goes beyond employment. A job, no matter how important or meaningful, must not be confused with a life. No book on pedagogy comes close to “the tremulous sob, / That echoes far from hill to hill.” Unless Wordsworth is included in the curriculum, few will see the poem as relevant to anything at school. But in a sense it is relevant to everything: it is a poem of life and death, sanity and insanity, health and illness, childhood and adulthood, humans and nature—all of this in chillingly beautiful verse. It is worth living beyond the job, even for this poem alone.