Friday, 3 December 2010

The shifting boundary between public and private

The difficult question of what it is safe or appropriate to reveal about one's inner life maps directly onto what it is safe or appropriate to blurt out on a blog or Facebook, where an act of writing might carry you away, and your false sense of anonymity might fool you into thinking that there are no consequences to what you say.

This leads to a striptease of revelations, in which it is ever possible to shift the position of the truth back behind one more veil of irony, lying, exaggeration, generalization or minimization. Truth is often only the truth if it hits its mark, which is why we spend so much time complaining to others about what we really ought to be saying to our loved ones or employers.

The status of confession and truth-telling, the revelation of the self, in social media, is an extraordinarily fluid thing. Much of the time, the apparent greater disclosure we go in for by using the first person to tweet, blog, or post is in fact another kind of conformity: the Bridget Jones variety of self-denigration in the double service both of comedy and the search for sympathy. There are rules to what it is permissible to say about one's self in the blogosphere. Too much self-talk costs readers. Too little revelation, and the world moves on.

It is as though self-revelation were a game of chicken, in which we, as social selves, dare each other to transgress the ever-shifting boundaries of what is deemed appropriate. But the revelation can only have its effect if there ARE boundaries around what is permissible.

Who sets these boundaries? We seem to do it collectively, but there is also an argument to say that they are modelled for us by social leaders, how MPs speak to us and each other, how we are met by agencies of the state, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, burocrats -- all those who administrate our passage from birth to death.

Where, then is the private self located, and what status can it have? This is a question that plagues me, particularly since having children. There seems to be no space immune from the tweezers of propriety. It is as though, in having children, one is required to evacuate one's self, and replace that set of contradictions and conflicts with a universal script about sharing, playing nicely, working hard, speaking without swearing, and doing as one is told.

How am I to tell my children, who display their inner lives with relish and express their fury and frustration without genuine fear of loss (of love, of status, of existence), that they must learn, as all of us have to, to conceal passions that will cause direct conflict, to pretend not to feel what they do, to bargain with their sense of outrage so as to be able to attend school, be invited to parties, practice the violin, and eventually Succeed In Life? The price seems very high: how are we to remember who we are if we must parlay with our passions, and dissemble them into acceptability?

How can I convey to them that one's inner life never diminishes, and in many ways grows stronger and more urgent as time passes, while also helping them not to panic about this?

This begs the question of whether we remain our original selves all our lives, or whether the adult I now am really is completely different from the child I once was.

What is a self? What on earth is it?