On Privacy and Modernity

The desire to be heard vs. the desire to be understood.— Heraclitus spoke for all time: “One is worth ten thousand to me if he be the best.”

“‘Like a dog,’ he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.” Kafka thereby describes the condition of every one of us in the very late modern world, hounded, herded, and finally, brutally pacified, by clumsily efficient representatives of the local bureau.

What privacy was.— “In private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he’d never admit in public, and so forth.” With those words in Testaments Betrayed, his outstanding nonfiction musing on modernity and modernism, Milan Kundera implies the essential inhumanity, the ugliness, of the totalitarian practice of invading a man’s private thought, speech, and behavior in search of evidence with which to humiliate or annihilate him, as though the free intellectual and emotional associations of his intimate life were to be judged as final and self-defining statements or public actions. The aim of such intrusions, of course, is to inculcate and universalize the sense that one ought to live every private moment as though it were a monitored and scrutinized public moment — and ultimately, as though it were immoral not to regard one’s private life this way, i.e., as public property. “If you have done nothing wrong,” the authoritarians and their willing slaves insist, “then you have nothing to worry about.” Unstated in that sinister reassurance is the following corollary: “And you understand, of course, that to the extent that you have refused to accept and internalize the full meaning and mechanism of omnipresent and omniscient public monitoring, you are doing something wrong.”

Public vs. Private.– Public life is the realm of abiding by norms, accepting generally acknowledged precepts, doing what is expected, following the rules, and generally leaving things as they were. Privacy, by contrast, is the realm of experiment, alternative considerations, counterargument, profound doubt, ironic deflation, and “seeing where this leads.” A world without a respected and well-defined public sphere would devolve into anarchy and licentiousness. A world without a fully protected and honored private sphere would devolve into a calcified totalitarianism, and finally into an age of absolute darkness. To define human nature without acknowledging the indispensability — and indeed the primacy — of the private sphere, is to sacrifice the soul to the body, freedom to necessity, learning to indoctrination, agreement to obedience, desire to compulsion, and philosophy to the hemlock.

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