Sunday, 28 February 2010

"Write What Thou Wilt Shalt Be the Whole of the Law": The Public, the Private and the Personal

I just read my friend Gealach's latest blog post, "Läsa andras bloggar?" (Eng. trans. Reading other people's blogs) earlier today. In the post, she writes:
I bought Amelia [Swedish woman's magazine] yesterday to read on the train. On their letter page, there is always a cited post from Amelia's forum, with a number of comments written in response to it included. This time it was about a mother who had found her seventeen-year-old daughter's blog, where one can read about everything from sex to cutting classes and partying. The mother, needless to say, didn't like what she read in the blog, but asked if she really had any right to read it, or if she should respect her daughter's privacy. She compared reading the blog with reading a diary. [Translation mine]
This made me think of a subject which I have intended to write about for some time now: that is, the notion of the Public, the Private and the Personal.

The question posed by the mother is anathema to me; simply because it is so ludicrous. Why should she "respect" her daughter's privacy, when her daughter does not do so herself? There is something very strange in comparing a publicly published piece of writing (and yes, e-publishing is a form of publishing, and in many cases with a wider distribution) to a diary. Yet, at the same time, I can understand the mother's feelings vis-a-vis the blog. Because we live in an age where the line between the Public and the Private has been heavily eroded, and there is a generation (possibly more than one) that seem clueless about there being any kind of differentiation.

This phenomenon can be seen in various places in today's society. Just consider what people around you feel happy talking about on their cell phones in various public places (trains, trams, busses, stores); in some cases, this even pertains to material which they make a point of telling the party on the other end of the line is a secret (well, the party on the other end of the line and all the people around them, I should say). Still, it is nowhere more obvious than in the virtual realm of the internet; whether it be in the shape and form of blogs, forums, Twitter or (at least to some degrees) FB.

I would argue that not only is there a substantial difference between the Public and the Private, but that there is an even greater importance to recognise and ken that difference. To borrow from the Bard, "The fault [...] is not in our stars, / But in ourselves" and it is up to us to take responsibility for that.

On one level, I think the problem stems from a misunderstanding of another difference; that is, the one between the Private and the Personal. It is fully possible to write in a personal tone, and even draw upon one's personal experiences, without delving into the realm of the Private. In fact, I would argue that most really enjoyable writing is personal – both in the sense that the stylistic choices grant the writer a recognisable voice of his/her own and that the writer's personal experiences may be used to better illuminate or exemplify the topic at hand, whatever it might be. This tone of voice, this style is, at the end of the day, an element of form, whereas the Private is bare naked content (perhaps with a certain emphasis on the "bare naked" part).

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the Private cannot be alluring or of interest – clearly, in our age of paparazzi, tabloids and oh-too-private/open diary accounts on-line, such a statement would be sheer folly. Heck, I would not even say that it needs to be an altogether bad thing. But I do stand by my main argument; that is, that those who do present their private lives on the altar of the Public be aware of what it is they do, when they do it.

Whatever you opt to enter into the Public realm is Public, and as such, it is no longer entirely in your own control. Somewhere along the line, your control over who can read it, take part of the information and even share it with others still, diminishes. I find little if any sympathy for people who complain about missing a job opportunity because a prospective employer read a blog post (or similar) where they wrote about doing any of a number of things, rating from the merely dumb through the reprehensible to the downright illegal. It is not that I think that our employers or prospective employers should keep a close watch on our private lives, not at all. But who we are will always be of issue when we apply for a job, and if we enter our private lives into the Public domain... well, they may still be our lives, but I am not entirely sure they are still private.

Thus, to paraphrase Aleister Crowley slighty, perhaps we live in an age where "write what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the Law," but if so, let us also remember that we are likely to be judged by what we write.

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