Life

The forces of social media and neoliberalism have all but erased the line between public and private – and while that’s helped lift the burden of shame, there are drawbacks to rewriting the rules of discourse. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

Collapsing the public–private divide

Birds-eye view of a suburban neighbourhood.
Surburban homes absorbed what had once been public – the pool, the garden, the cinema.
Credit: Martin Hurley / Alamy

There was a time when “public” and “private” were terms of bell-like clarity. No longer. Now almost everything that was public has been privatised and almost everything that was once private is routinely published. The former shift is so familiar as to be normalised. The latter, if acknowledged at all, has been welcomed as the end of judgement, guilt and shame. But is it? And what does this switch mean for our lives as individuals and citizens?

A century ago, both the public–private boundary and its defining criteria were broadly unquestioned. “Private” meant everything intimate and domestic: body parts, sexuality, feelings and personal relationships. The public realm, comprising all things shared, was more abstract. It was the arena of citizenship, public duty, officialdom and etiquette, of intellectual and political debate, collective observation and judgement, formal dress and behaviours. It was the realm of shared institutions and services: churches, universities, museums, streets, parks, pools, hospitals, water and drainage. It was sewerage and taxes and public health, the passeggiata and the proms. It was politics. Above all, it was the realm of duty.

Gradually, the 20th century eroded all that. In two opposing dynamics it blurred the public–private boundary and flipped the distinguishing criteria.

On the one hand, vast swaths of our proud public realm have been privatised: public lands developed, parks commercialised, universities corporatised, institutions sold off, motorways privately operated, streets privately owned and former government services such as prisons, aged care and super funds run for profit.

At the same time, a generation has come to adulthood with its every private emotion posted for peer review, with kids sharing dick pics and vag shots from prepubescence, with their most intimate sexuality, gender and body-shape concerns Instagrammed and TikTokked for the world to see; judged, angsted over and judged again. Now, as young parents, they share their heartbreaks and infidelities online along with – all too often – their babies’ toilet training (or “elimination communication”) prowess.

Together, these opposing dynamics have changed the public realm beyond recognition, leaving us with neither the solace of dependable public services nor the social nourishment of unfettered public debate.

Both dynamics began with postwar Americanisation. The emergence of the United States as an economic and military superpower gave it unprecedented cultural influence across all aspects of our lives, relaxing boundaries in everything from suburban sprawl to fast food to drive-in movies. The old ways were rejected as representing ossified notions of class, gender and social hierarchy. Formalities were passé. Life became casualised.

The baby-boom generation sought to blur existing norms and bust open expectations. Within a few years, jeans became acceptable public wear, first names acceptable public address, protest an acceptable form of advocacy and “living in sin” an acceptable form of relationship. And car-based suburban living, reifying a similar belief that everything good was private, became the universal goal.

Planning norms, with their motorways, footpathless streets and dead-worm culs-de-sac, encouraged a conceptual map in which only the office and the house were vivid, linked by the nothingness of the commute. The suburban home became a castle, drawing into itself everything that had once been public – the pool, the garden, the home cinema. In this universal car-based solipsism, the best public space was space with no one else in it.

This newly legitimised selfishness eased the way for 1970s monetarism and Thatcher’s era-defining “there’s no such thing as society”.  Yet this new emphasis on private values allowed her atomising cynicism to undermine postwar Keynesian public-spiritedness. Duty be damned. What mattered was individual rights.

Now, society has been replaced by that grubby godhead “the market” – all-knowing, all-healing, all-powerful. The public – no longer citizens, constituents, students or patients – are, simply, customers. We’re all buyers now and we’re all sellers. Everything is transactional.

In this world of brand, spin and deal, community groups treat elections as an opportunity to demand not the candidates’ vision but their “offer”. Politics becomes a scrabble of self-concern. The Committee for Sydney sees its job as promoting Sydney’s “global brand”. Even in online dating, people strategically deploy their wares to elicit the highest number of likes – as though popularity were the point, not love.

Government, self-conceiving as a poor man’s business enterprise, buddies-up into “public-private partnerships” that – like tollways, like the CSIRO with Monsanto – ends up taking the public for a ride. Truth, once our staple public currency, ceases to matter. The public–private dualism dissolves into a blur of universalised self-interest.

Here, social media is key. It’s one thing for Germaine Greer and friends to inspect each other’s vaginas on the kitchen table at parties, as is said to have happened in the 1960s. Quite another for those body parts to be routinely published for the delectation and judgement of an anonymous global audience.

The danger here is not only for the self-exposed individual but for public realm itself.

To publish anything, be it poem or peccadillo, always brought the risk of judgement and, therefore, shame. When we’re talking the mass self-publication of intimate details – body shape, gender identity or sexual preference – that risk intensifies. But we now see publication as the antidote to shame, rather than its generator. Further, we see shame (which was always a primary shaper of social behaviours) as a bad thing. So such self-outing has become universal, which brings a whole new set of risks for us all.

There’s the loss of specialness. True, privateness can be oppressive, a generator of shame. The public sphere, too, can seem oppressive in its formality. Equally, though, both privateness and publicness can instil specialness and respect. To protect one’s privacy can endow a sense almost of the sacred, while public formality can feel generous and uplifting, almost transcendent.

Consider dress. To dress for the street or opera can be a kind of gift, a compliment – like the gift a 19th-century building gives the street by lining it with groined and vaulted arcades. In merging public and private we risk diminishing both. And while wearing shorts and thongs to the opera may begin as a liberation, once generalised, it dulls the entire experience.

Similarly, the push to remedy shame via publication, however liberative for the individual, also comes at huge social cost. Why? Because our private selves are tangled skeins of emotion.

To publish things-that-were-private inevitably generates emotion: vulnerability, defensiveness, judgement, hurt, anger. This emotion floods the public realm, clouding debate – which in turn, and still more dangerously, yields a desire (now widely presumed as a right) to publish without risk of opprobrium. Censorship kicks in.

This new “right” to control what others say, even within the supposedly free public realm, is not just about hate speech or incitement. There is a widespread presumption that the social media account is not actually public but some kind of super-privileged private space, over which the user has total control.

Thus, the user or influencer can claim total freedom of speech while simultaneously forbidding all dissent. This may be comfortable for the self-publisher but amounts to a total rewriting of the rules of public conversation.

And yes, change is needed, especially regarding sexual and gender diversity. But there’s a broader dynamic here. Even as “freedom” becomes the catchcry of the far right, the left of politics feels virtue-driven to stifle debate. The question is, can democracy survive such censorship?

To answer it, as we watch neoliberalism’s clay feet crumble into the rising tide, we must reconsider the public–private divide, in particular how public duties might counterbalance our much-vaunted rights. Only then will we replace the flabby and supine role of consumer with the nobler role of citizen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "End of the realms".

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