A sombre weekend is sometimes really useful and sometimes really difficult. I listened to ethereal soundscapes as the sun slowly ebbed away. I made tea and watched words blend upon its surface. It’s the kind of combination that can fuel anything, and thus it demands a lot more of me.
What the quietude has allowed is a quiet reassessment of the use of the public. Public and private are an emblematic dichotomy; yet they are not straightforward opposites, and the way in which each works to our sensibilities is quite different.
The understanding of public and private (but especially public) has long rested on several key concerns: one being the public and private ‘spheres’, of voice and discussion, and another being the public and private life, of sociability and community. As I see it, the virtual public and private, yet another dimension altogether, inextricably links these together in a fascinating and yet daunting way.
David Haye, the British boxer, has used the public sphere for months to outrageous capacities. Many who would otherwise enjoy a good boxing contest voiced their disapproval this week at his tasteless antics. The swift turn to excuses following Saturday night’s limp defeat to Wladimir Klitschko rendered the vulgarity expended in the public sphere in recent weeks all the more galling. However much or little the revealed injury affected the outcome, his inability to perform at his best meant that there was only more to lose through belligerent propaganda.
The public sphere feeds incessantly upon ‘ego’. And, of course, boxing is extraordinary in this capacity. But ‘public’ is, after all, a collective extension of ourselves. Hubris supported by sublime performance is often regarded as commendable. Had Haye been victorious, perhaps we would be talking about bravery and heroism rather than riling at stupidity. Actions can easily determine whether words place somebody on the right or wrong side of the confidence/arrogance divide.
Does the private sphere escape these egoist traits? After all, the focus here is also on individuals, albeit in a different way. Now that it’s so easy to throw a statement out to everyone at once, are personal updates becoming redundant? Is it wrong to prefer private communication because it feels special and individualised? Now, one might just feel guilty for taking up somebody’s time. It shows.
The private is, in a sense, far more perplexing. It demands more effort, leaves more silence, and provokes more unanswered questions than the public does. The private requires tailoring oneself, and having to think about communication more. It’s easy to be forgotten, and that’s more dispiriting than it may sometimes appear.
It has become increasingly difficult to engage with people privately. And, because so much depends on the public, I find myself drawn in sometimes in the effort to adapt. For sure, ‘publicness’ has considerable benefits. One cannot easily impart a personality or demonstrate sociability through silence and reclusiveness.
To be public is to be transparent. There is a comfort in having discourse in public, where everything can be seen. It’s more immediate. Ask a question or send a message privately, and a response may never come. Ask it again in a portal of recent activity, and it might just catch the right moment. And it’s visible. ‘Hey! I haven’t heard from you!’ somewhere visible will likely procure a response. Nobody wants to look bad publicly for having ignored another.
But it is harder to break through the wall, so to speak. There’s now a point to which it’s about being as private as one dares in the public domain – risky territory. And then the private, as always, has its darker side. There are things channelled privately that nobody would dare say publicly. That’s the beauty and the danger of being behind a virtual device: the safety to say almost anything without consequence, however harmful. Sometimes we might wish that things we encounter were merely figments of the imagination.
For this author, the most challenging negotiation between public and private has not changed: the quest for private sovereignty. The only pride I can build is in my own principles, and in private acts of sacrifice that I have made. To divulge these, which may (or may not) afford me a little credit, would only destroy what made them special. Dignity is only of reward when there is no posterior remorse over the suffering it brings. It’s possibly the most private thing there is to hold.
Thank you, as ever, for continued support, visits, encouragement, and patience. Relevant, perhaps, to this virtual dimension of public: you can now comment here using Facebook and Twitter accounts. Please feel free to drop me a note, and keep some warmth alive in an alienating public.