• Email
  • Print

Private Faces and Public Places

Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History

by Barrington Moore Jr.
M.E. Sharpe, 328 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The more time that citizens spend thinking about public matters, Rousseau said, and the less about their own private affairs, the better a society is. One good test of political sentiments is whether you find this thought invigorating or repellent. Either reaction to it, however, implies that you have an understanding of the contrast, some conception of the private.

Barrington Moore’s book raises the very interesting question of what that conception may be. His approach is to consider the quite different ideas of privacy and different attitudes toward it that are to be found in various cultures, thus bringing out the complexities of our own ideas of privacy. There are the privacies of intimacy, such as sexual privacy, which seem, except in ritual and other special practices, to be observed in a very wide range of cultures. (“The preference for seclusion appears to be overwhelming,” as Moore puts it.) Much less widely observed is privacy for defecating and urinating, and among those functions male urination tends to make the lightest demands on privacy, something that used to be illustrated in the streets of Paris by a sparsely enclosed urinal, the vespasienne. (That revealing device has now been replaced by a strange, enclosed structure that is divided equally between the sexes and conceals its purpose so discreetly as to seem thoroughly suspicious.)

For an activity to be private in these ways, it needs only to be hidden; the concealment, as in the vespasienne, can be quite local: other people may readily know what someone, in private, is doing. Other kinds of privacy involve secrecy, as with the undisclosed transactions that take place in a family or among friends. Often, of course, as with other secrets, they are not so much undisclosed as unacknowledged, and what is indecent or embarrassing is to show that one knows. In Eskimo life, about which Moore gives some information, the cramped conditions of the igloo make heavy demands on this kind of convention.

In still other cases, experience is private because it is free from demands or obligations imposed by others. One is free to read, or to go to the movies, or to travel where one wants. This need not have anything specially to do with hiddenness or secrecy; it is merely accepted that at certain times one may do what one wants rather than what one is required to do. Moore particularly stresses this idea, and it is perhaps his central conception of privacy. But it immediately raises several questions. When the private is contrasted with public life or public concerns, as it is by Rousseau’s remark, the world of the private does not have to be understood as one in which there are no obligations—rather, it is one in which there are no public obligations. Within my private life, I may be under an obligation to visit my mother; but if I am obliged, for example, to take part in political meetings, work on civic projects, participate in public ceremonies, or serve in the army, those obligations reduce the sphere of private life.

When we think about it in this way, the idea of the public seemingly comes first, and the private has to be understood as what, in time or space or feeling or social situation, is exempted from it. That idea takes a special form when, further, people claim a right not to be constrained by certain public demands. Any such right defines a kind of activity which is, in a way, private—expressing opinions, for instance, or publishing what one wants, or carrying on business. But we are now a long way from our starting point, and what is private in one sense may be public in another. Publication and free speech are both the opposites of secret, and these “private” activities can in their own way be contrasted with the privacies of hiddenness or intimacy.

How are these different aspects of privacy related to one another? Do they go together in various cultures? How far, starting from the narrowest concept of physical privacy, should one go to defend a substantial private life against public demands, resisting Rousseau and the claims of communal consciousness?

Barrington Moore asks these questions and encourages one to think about them, but he does not offer much help in answering them. He has produced a collection of materials rather than a book, and a collection, moreover, with some eccentric features. It is arranged on a comparative scheme, telling us about four different kinds of society and inviting us to consider them together with our own. He starts with one or two very simple traditional societies, each of them more or less lacking a formal authority. These primitive communities characteristically lack any developed contrast between public and private, but one of several interesting points is that even at these very basic levels of organized life some societies encourage people to be more reticent or self-contained than others do—differences partly (but only partly) related to their various styles of hunting or food gathering.

Many of the anthropological reports that Moore quotes are well worth reading. They should be studied by anyone (if there still is anyone) who entertains fantasies of the noble savage and the satisfying wholeness of the primitive life. One tribe in particular, the Siriono Indians of South America, is, as Moore describes it, startlingly horrible. The Siriono ceaselessly fight among themselves, hide food from one another, pay no attention to cripples, have a sense neither of privacy nor of common interests. The Jívaro Indians of Ecuador sound not much more amiable; about them Moore, no friend of Christianity, cheerfully remarks that as a whole, their “society and culture recall the Western European world of Gregory of Tours.” To read some of the material in these early sections requires a strong stomach. One description of “penis bleeding” during a male initiation rite in the New Guinea highlands is so appalling that one wonders what anyone could learn about privacy from being forced to read it, beyond the generally useful reminder that even when privacy takes its most solitary and anomic modern urban forms, there are vivid styles of community life that are worse.

Moore next pursues the theme of privacy in classical Athens, emphasizing the peculiar relations between private initiative and public expectation that were held to produce good results for the general public in that society. Rich men were expected to pay for the choruses for the dramatic festivals, for instance, or for the triremes of the navy, as matters of individual public service. Going through, somewhat discursively, many aspects of Athenian social history, Moore shows how the Athenians tended to think that a fully developed life for someone who was adult, male, and a citizen involved public, indeed political, activity. The Greek term for a private person, he observes, is the direct ancestor of the word “idiot.”

The private life that men (but not women) were expected to transcend was the domestic life, and they were expected to act to an important degree outside the home, in public places and in the presence of others. However, this distinction between the public and the domestic was not simply the distinction between what was displayed and what was hidden from the neighbor’s attention. Domestic disorder and sexual irregularities were both acknowledged as being of strong public interest, and were subject to various restrictions. Yet the first democracy was already able to formulate a conception of the tyranny of public opinion; in a remarkable passage, which I did not find in Moore’s book, Thucydides presents Pericles as saying:

The freedom that we enjoy in our government extends to our everyday relations to each other. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive although they inflict no positive penalty.

Moore does not go very far or very professionally into the scholarship of these matters, quoting for the most part from what must have been a punishingly copious reading of Demosthenes and one or two other writers. When he gets beyond the Greeks, he relies even less on historical research, and confines himself in each case to taking points from one or two literary sources. The subject that follows the Greeks is not pre-Christian Jewish society, but the Old Testament (“the Revised Standard Version,” he unnervingly remarks in a note, “is presumably more accurate”), and he seems not particularly vexed by questions of what sort of document, or set of documents, it is; even the claim that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines he apparently takes to be a historical fact. He clearly has a personal distaste for Yahweh, and tends to find the Hebrews a tiresome and fanatical crew, regretting that they did not produce a more powerfully secular and analytic historian of themselves: “If a Hebrew Thucydides had been possible,” he remarks—a wonderful possibility indeed—“our conception of that society might be quite a different one.”

If he finds the Old Testament irritating, the classical Chinese writers who provide his last body of evidence seem to have proved rather wearying, and nothing very interesting comes from his reports of them. His attempt to base his account on comparative social history, after its opening movements, seems to have failed him. I wish in fact that he had laid aside some of the Athenian orators and the selections from translated Chinese sages, so that he could tell us how he sees the differing aspects of privacy as fitting together in the modern world, a question he interestingly raises in his closing pages.

There is a “modern pathology” of privacy, he remarks, meaning by that the defensive solitude, the unwillingness to get involved or come to the help of others, that are notorious in the modern city. It is perhaps wrong to see such behavior as simply an exaggeration of positive values that people have conferred on privacy in modern times. It can be seen as something quite different from those values and even opposed to them, since it is based on fear and indifference. A genuine recognition of others’ privacy need not be based on those reactions, it could be argued, but can come from a respect for other people rather than from a lack of interest in them. There is something in this argument, but we also have some reason to be grateful that it often does not apply to the lives we lead. If one is not simply condemned to solitude, but actively wants privacy in order to protect one’s happiness or to deal with one’s unhappiness, one may be pleased that those around, rather than respecting one’s rights with concern and restraint, simply do not give a damn.

One of the historical achievements of bourgeois culture has been the development of private life. Some features of that culture, including those that have most notably provided the makings of the novel, are falling victim to further developments of individual freedom itself. As Moore says, the special intensities of romantic love probably flourish most against a background of publicly supported conventions. He does not mean simply sexual conventions and the obstacles that they can provide. There also needs to be a convincing world of social rules and understandings that surrounds and conditions such a relationship. The rattle of Woody Allen’s ironies, like the bleaker Bloomsbury memoirs and correspondence, reminds us that if all that is interesting to lovers is each other, there may not be much of interest.

I do not see how our societies can be kept going unless people are willing to acknowledge in some way the idea of a public order that means more than simply what is “out there.” This would mean seeing others as citizens and not just as residents or wanderers on the same patch of ground. But the sense of shared citizenship that we need does not exclude or even weaken individual rights, such as the rights to privacy. On the contrary, it requires them. We have a sense of citizenship only if we think that others are like us, and one way in which we know that they are like us is that they need to be protected, as we want to be, from destructive and unpredictable intrusions, whether by the state or by other agencies.

The right to privacy, in its more intimate senses, is closely connected with the capacity to form close personal and family relationships, which must involve a circle of information and experience from which others are excluded.^* Various reformers, revolutionaries, and social theorists who have stressed the values of community and citizenship have wanted to counteract the influences of personal and family loyalties, seeing them as potentially divisive and disloyal when they are exercised in their usual place. Rousseau was only one of many who have hoped to dissolve the private into the public. It is not merely Robespierrean champions of the virtuous republic who have done this, or Hitlerian embodiments of the less virtuous nation. Even some Fabians, too, in less oppressive style, have been suspicious of private life as a self-indulgence, and have despised what they have seen as its triviality and its lack of public commitment—the lack memorably expressed by Wilde in his remark that socialism would take too many evenings.

There are no psychological reasons at all to trust the policy of trying to affirm a useful sense of citizenship by destroying the private or by compulsorily extending it (which comes to the same thing); and there are many historical reasons for fearing it. A modern program to extend the sense of sharing in a community has to start from justice rather than fraternity, and has to recognize that social justice means something only if it acknowledges individual lives that have their own loyalties and are not entirely shaped to its demands. Rousseau’s dismissal of private life in the interests of community was not only wrong and harmful; it was self-defeating, and a deeper understanding of privacy will help to show us why.

  • Email
  • Print