The distinction between private life and public life is eroding to the detriment of both. Private life is spilling over into the public realm on so-called reality TV shows, all over social media and in displays of personal information in inappropriate places. From the other end, public life at work, in the voting booth and in government proceedings succumbs to private feelings of liking and not liking, rather than judgments of competence and respect. Film stars and other performers have always coyly and incrementally leaked pieces of their private life to their fans. But now there is the category of micro-celebrity that includes anyone who blogs, posts or stands in front of a pocket camera. We unthinkingly display ourselves without appreciating how trivial our personal relationships become when they are marketed so widely.
Jonathan Franzen, in a collection of essays titled Farther Away (Farrar, Straus, 2012), takes particular exception to the cell phone, as wielded on trains, in restaurants, along college hallways and in medical waiting rooms. Spare “me from the intrusion of other people’s personal lives,” he writes. Especially as they inflict “their banal bedroom lives” over a cell phone in a public space.
Each technology, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) taught us, creates a unique communication environment, irrespective of the content of any postal letter or any TV show or any single tweet. The essence of a cell phone “as a social phenomenon,” says Franzen, “is that it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal.” And there is nothing worse a cell phone user “can inflict on a communal public space,” he claims, than the utterance “I love you.”
Be patient with Franzen here because his point has bigger implications. He is not at all against expressions of love in a face-to-face private setting. But the “too-frequent habitual repetition” of I love you and similar phrases in public empties them of meaning. “Avowing sincerity is more or less diagnostic of insincerity,” even if cell phone users are unaware of the erosion.
Again, expressions of sentiment are fitting and proper in their place. Exuding sentiment all around the public square, however, quickly becomes hallow sentimentality. Rational propriety, communal agency and respectful negotiations give way to exhibition of sentimentality, which is a situation of all love but no power.
Maybe the cell phone example doesn’t convince you. What about smiley faces that adorn business communication? What about roadside shrines to honor a deceased individual or the tee shirts and posters shown on TV and in the newspaper after a fatal shooting? Or, what about our appetite for details about a public official’s sex life? The blurred line between public and private keeps what could be intimate relationships on a superficial level. It also corrodes public culture, allowing business and government leaders who understand power to deal in bread and circuses instead of accountability.
Droel is author of Monday Eucharist (National Center for the Laity , PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $9 pre-paid includes postage).