I distinctly remember the day I bought my first house in Austin, some fifteen years ago. The neighborhood was tidy and welcoming, even if the houses were a bit cookie-cutter by design. After a mere twenty minutes at the bank, I was handed the keys. Even though it was a Wednesday and work was calling, I drove immediately to my new place, opened the door and laid down right in the middle of the living room floor. I fell asleep right then and there. The castle was constructed and the king was home.
These days, home buying is a royal pain in the ass, especially in the Land of Unending Red Tape (a.k.a., California). I can handle the boatload of signatures; I suppose that comes with the territory. Forty-five minutes of signing my name isn’t going to kill me if it means that, in forty-six minutes, I can blow out that wall in the bedroom with a sledgehammer. The part that gets me is the complete takedown of my personal life. No stone is left unturned when that much money is at stake. At one point, it felt like the bank/lender/lawyer/whoever team was crowded around in a downtown office somewhere laughing at my financial picture: ‘Can you believe this guy gets paid (my salary) for doing what he does?!’ ‘And he calls this his portfolio!!!’
For someone who values his privacy, the process felt like an invasion. Every purchase, every deposit, every sandwich purchased at Togo’s was subject to scrutiny and required my immediate justification. ‘Why did you get mayo on your hot #9 instead of mustard, Joel? Joel? Why the mayo?’ I almost expected to come home one day to find some Orwellian stiff rummaging through my iTunes list to see if any subversive tunes were present. Oh, and spoiler alert, you’ll find The Clash.
Perhaps this is just a complaint of an old-fashioned dude whose concern for his own privacy is gently going the way of the passenger pigeon. I even feel it in my own home at times, as my wife would like nothing more than to live in a 10-family commune; open doors, no fences, and everyone neck deep in everyone else’s business. Here I am trying to install barbed wire and she’s trying to start community barbecue Tuesdays at the Oesch kibbutz.
But it’s not a stretch to say that the boundary between public and private acts has fallen under severe disrepair. Everything is public. Or better yet, everything is exposed. Business executives are now eschewing email as a form of business conversation precisely because they know they are being watched…by the government, by their competitors, by some dude in his mom’s basement who goes by the online tag, Skeletor. A buddy of mine told me yesterday that, in his industry, all the office computers have black tape over their built-in cameras to prevent intentional or unintentional snooping. Wow. But not surprising. Google knows that I need athletic socks, Yahoo knows I need a better WR2, and Amazon knows I’m a theologian. The private world is on its…last…few…gasps. Might this drive toward the perpetual public life be a corrective to the over-the-top individualism of our post-Enlightenment world?
The younger among us, in particular, seem to embrace the takedown of the public-private barrier. All forms of social media feed this obsession; shoot, Facebook allows us to update our status. Our status. Is our status that important that we must feel the need to: 1) articulate it in print, and 2) make sure our friends know it on a timely basis? And believe me, every time I jump on Facebook, I’m reminded by the blank box on my home screen that my status does, in fact, need updating. Without a status, you might as well say that you have no emotion, no thoughts, and/or no life. After all, a life worth living necessitates a life worth talking about in real-time to your imagined audience.
But the other shoe must fall.
TMZ behaviors give you TMZ results. Act in ways that spill your innermost thoughts out into the streets of the Internet, and you’ll find yourself exposed in ways that you certainly didn’t intend. The New Media has simply exacerbated the effect. We’ve been told that, for a celebrity, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ We’ve appropriated that for ourselves to mean: There’s no such thing as over-sharing.
If a young woman has no genuine community of love and accountability, then she is forced to compete for attention and respect with the whole of society—a society that takes but does not give. The girl is forced to shout over the din, ‘Pay attention to me! I’m worth your attention!’ What is her strategy at this point? How shall she merit the attention she desperately craves? Let’s see what philosopher Miley Cyrus does (WWMCD?):
- Expose yourself emotionally. But frame this exposure as self-expression.
- Expose yourself physically. But frame this exposure as a challenge to repressive societal norms.
- And call it all a courageous fight against ‘The Man.’ To which The Man simply laughs.
We expose ourselves because we don’t know how to grapple with an inherent tension that we all feel: We want to be pursued and known. Yet, we don’t want to be revealed. Wendell Berry kills it when he says that we have “a rightful fear of being misunderstood or too simply understood, or of having our profoundest experience misvalued. This, surely, is one of the reasons for Christ’s insistence on the privacy of prayer. It is a part of our deepest and most precious integrity that we should speak (if we wish) for ourselves. We do not want self-appointed spokesmen for our souls. Sex and worship especially are inward to us, and they are especially fragile as possessions. Their nature is to be shared, and yet it is dangerous to speak of them carelessly. To speak of them carelessly is to violate yet another nucleus that ought to be sacrosanct” .
“We’ve been told that, for a celebrity, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ We’ve appropriated that for ourselves to mean: There’s no such thing as over-sharing.”
Yet this is the slow pull of a TMZ culture; do everything to make sure your life consists of shallow (not necessarily lacking in value) connectivity without committing yourself to an accountable community. Culture is, I believe, trying to re-wire our sense of virtue. Behaviors that past generations shunned have become cloaked in virtue language.
- ‘Being honest’ necessitates stream-of-consciousness tweets, texts, updates, and snapchats.
- ‘Guarding your heart’ implies that you expose yourself only to the views of those you already agree with.
- ‘Exercising freedom’ means having the right to cut down, tear open, and dis-cover anybody and everybody.
A fish can’t hide in a pond a mile wide and 10-inches deep. The fish will always be exposed.
Yes, there is a balance to be had. I continue to press home the need for embodied community, even if that makes us introverts nervous. But privacy is a prerequisite for friendship. Courage becomes, in this sense, an act of consummate self-control—the type of control that protects that which is precious. The ability NOT to show the world the goods, knowing that, in private one-on-one friendship and intimacy, those goods are precisely good because they are rare (in fact, absolutely unique). Diamonds wouldn’t be expensive if everyone could find them on their lawn and pick them up like weeds.
 Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 80.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.