Sunday, January 15, 2006

Public and private

I’ve just finished reading A Return to Modesty, by Wendy Shalit. The book, which was published in 1999, when Shalit was 23 years old, is subtitled “Discovering the Lost Virtue”. Shalit is concerned much less with modesty in the sense of being humble, than with sexual modesty. Contradicting what seems to have become conventional wisdom, she argues that the prevalent promiscuous, anything-goes attitude in fashion and behaviour has done girls and women more harm than good. At the same time, she insists that the virtue of modesty she champions is quite different from – indeed, is the opposite of – prudery, which is actually akin to promiscuity.
Whether she decides to have scores of men or none, promiscuous and prudish women in some sense embrace the same flippant world view, which one might call the nothing-fazes-me world view. As types, they represent two sides of the same unerotic coin, which flips over arrogantly and announces to the world when it lands: “Ha! – I cannot be moved.” Modesty is prudery’s true opposite, because it admits that one can be moved and issues a specific invitation for one man to try.
Shalit is fazed by much of what passes for sexual liberation these days, and she doesn't mind admitting so. She can’t stand the nothing-really-matters, who-cares, whatever attitude that signifies the abandonment of dreams of lasting, respectful, intimate relationships. Modesty, for her, is a matter of asserting one’s dignity. Dignity requires a private, personal space, access to which is limited.
Everything is public because there is no longer any private realm. Our dignity is in our secrets. If nothing is secret, nothing is sacred. In a way, then, this peculiar human armor of modesty protects us against the illusion that we could ever be truly known by strangers.
Although Shalit does not explore the matter at length beyond the relationship between the sexes, the assault on privacy is to be seen everywhere: in people babbling, even shouting, into cell phones on the street or in shops, oblivious to the sensibilities of those nearby; in boors blasting music from their cars; in people walking around in public in what could easily be mistaken for their underwear or their pyjamas; in the unprecedented and widespread use of vulgarity and crude language in conversation and the media, including many blogs, which often include intimate details of the author’s life that formerly, if written about at all, would have been securely locked away in a diary.

One mistake here is to imagine that public space is where anything goes because, after all, it’s not private. But consider: while I may have the right to toss my garbage into my back yard – at least as long as the neighbours don’t have to see it or smell it – I certainly don’t have the right to toss my garbage into a public park. The public realm is public because it is where everyone interacts, and where therefore one must respect the sensibilities and private spaces of others. So I want to modify Shalit’s claim that today “Everything is public because there is no longer any private realm.” It’s not a matter of public versus private. The assault on the private realm is simultaneously an assault on the public realm.

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