Monday, December 29, 2008

Public, Private, And Other Distinctions

After writing yesterday about the way the press is hounding President-elect Obama as he attempts to have some last few fatherly moments with his children before beginning the wild ride as our next President, I've been thinking a lot about the utter destruction of the line between public life and private life. I don't think this applies only to Presidents-elect, or Presidents. It is a phenomenon far larger than simple celebrity journalism, the hyping of all sorts of private pain in to public delectation. There seems to be some kind of general feeling that one's public persona should exist in continuity with one's private person. Where this particular bit of nonsense comes from, I really don't know, but it covers the gamut, not just in politics and religion (remember Ted Haggard? All those anti-gay gay Republicans?), but in the way we little people discuss issues on the internet. Even we peons face the demand that the way we frame our discussions of issues of public import exist as a mere extension of our private lives.

I guess I had always assumed that people understood that there was a real difference between the way one comports oneself in public, including how one argues in favor or opposition to this or that issue or controversy, and one's private goings-on. Yet, the line between private and public, between the contents of public argument and the day-to-day happenings of life is increasingly difficult to distinguish. Having faced the ire of those who seem to believe that, because I argue for or against this or that position my private beliefs and acts conform to my rhetoric. Is it at all possible to have a discussion without someone questioning how one lives one's private life? Is it at all possible to take an argument on its merits, rather than read in to an argument something either noble or nefarious about the person making the argument?

This distinction, I believe, should hold whether one is President of the United States or a small-time blogger trying to make this or that point in an argument. At one time, there was a kind of wall that surrounded the private lives of at least some public persons; Franklin Roosevelt could carry on a years-long affair with the White House press both knowing and respecting the fact that this private business had nothing at all to do with how he dealt with the nation's business. Except in the rare instance - Nixon's almost constant drunkenness his last year or so in office being the most recent example for which there is ample evidence - how a person, big or small, important or of little consequence, comports himself or herself in private is really no one's business.

For the purposes of our little blog argument thingy, I think that includes questioning the integrity or virtue of those who take a position with which one disagrees. Calling an individual who is pro-choice a "murderer" erases that private-public distinction pretty clearly, and as far as I'm concerned, is no longer "in-bounds". Insisting that, because someone supports this or that candidate, or does not support this or that policy, the individual in question "hates America", is "unChristian", or some other personal epithet, is also out of bounds. The simplest way to stick to the issues at hand is to do just that.

Others at other blogs and other places can formulate their own rules, and I am quite sure some may protest my own new and improved guidelines. I really don't care, because the point of all this is not to figure out who's a good guy and who's a bad guy. The point is to reach some kind of clarity about our life together. People who disagree, well, those disagreements don't reflect on the virtue or viciousness of those involved. We're all just people, trying to figure it out as we go along. We are, all of us, as right as we are wrong, most of the time.

This doesn't mean that we can't dismiss something that is clearly frivolous, or silly, or ignorant, or just plain stupid, in those terms, as long as we are clear it is the argument of which we speak, not the person making the argument.

This is my new policy for 2009. We are going to operate on the assumption that all of us are pretty good people with all the variety that entails. Any attempt to make either a personal compliment or insult, even some attempt to decipher the person behind the comment being made (and I will confess to having done so myself, so I don't exempt myself from the new "rule"), that comment will be removed. No one will be banned - I'm not Neil! - but I will remove any personal attacks, either upon me or any of my commenters. We need to do something to introduce, once again, the distinction between public and private, and it seems the best way to do it is, well, to do it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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