by Stanley Schwartz

Gracy Olmstead’s recent article in the Intercollegiate Review, “How to Bring Civility Back in 2018,”[1] does an excellent job of expounding on the importance of restoring civility to public discourse. This theme has been emphasized in The New Herald recently as well, with pieces by Jacob Bruggeman and Jordan Poyner touching on the gravity of valuing the personhood of the other through charitable responses. Olmstead’s approach begins with a brief discussion of the origins of the word “civility,” rooting it in ancient and traditional understandings in order to restore its effectiveness in the modern context.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt–in her profound work, The Human Condition–follows a similar pattern with the word “privacy,” noting the familial resemblance with words such as “privation,” signaling lack or absence.[2] This connection might seem counterintuitive to modern readers, who have grown accustomed to the “right to privacy” and the enlarging sphere of protection which has formally and informally evolved around the individual. In the United States, the Supreme Court first embraced the idea that the American Constitution includes a right to privacy which protects the individual from government intrusion in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. This right has been repeatedly relied upon in subsequent cases, including Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges. As legal protection has expanded, our expectation of a sphere of safety naturally has as well, evidenced by the increasing public concern over public surveillance and secrecy. We like our privacy.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, seem to have found privacy inferior and empty, systematically confining slaves and women to this sphere of home and labor, and prioritizing the men who actively shaped their cities’ fates. Arendt, recognizing this tradition, argues in favor of a more robust public sphere. This would require a social change of perspective as citizens towards seeing politics, from the local to the international, as a realm of challenge and opportunity that individuals gladly leap towards in pursuing the vita activa, or active life. This ancient ideal of the statesman’s life, spent breathlessly engaging and coordinating with others in order to foster lasting achievements, is lacking in our modern society, Arendt argues.[3] Most of us lead lives centered around our jobs, rather than social or political activities. Even our politicians seem to often be men simply pursuing a career, not leaving one to risk their private legacy of work in the pursuit of permanent public acclaim for legislative or diplomatic feats. An improper prioritization of the private enables our lives of lesser concerns in an age when great material accumulation makes the scramble for the top unnecessary. A life of work is no longer an imposition from above, but a choice from below. While this may have its own benefits, they are not found in our ability to perceive and shape a healthy society.

Olmstead grasps the significance of privacy to civility in her discussion of social media, noting: “If our only engagement happens from the comfort and privacy of our smartphone, engagement turns into an almost consumptive activity, one in which we put forth our demands without demanding any tangible work or service from ourselves.”[4] Yet for the most involved users of social media, their online presence may require quite a bit of work–at least from their perspective. For them and many others, social media is not a private sphere, but rather seems to mirror the ancient understanding of the public sphere in providing an opportunity for lasting achievement. While the less digitally-engaged people in their lives may dismiss or dislike their online contributions, putting their work on the Internet seems to secure for it a degree of permanence.

Nevertheless, we must recognize the weakness of this hopeful posture toward online engagement. Our social media achievements are more like the work of an ancient craftsman than a statesmen: they may be lasting in a physical or necessary sense, but not in the sense that they create a lasting impact by touching the hearts and souls of creative moral agents.[5] For that we need relationships and activity linked directly to other people, either to create the connections that can be tied to an effective online presence, or simply to participate publicly in communal flourishing.

This difficulty with social media as a seemingly analogous–but insufficient–public sphere indicates that, in some way, a proper understanding of privacy may lie upstream from a culture of civility. Perhaps we cannot expect civility, which requires both the formation of shared norms of behavior and the high valuation of others that enforces their application, from engagement in a world that appears common and public, but is founded on the private and the self. While Olmstead sees social media as problematic due to its consumptive nature, this is not the main problem. The difficulty is isolation framed as engagement: the private conflated with the public. Whether a sharper distinction between the private sphere’s lack and the public arena’s wholeness can best be accomplished through simple discussion–or a new and unforeseen social media structure–is debatable. In either case, a refined understanding of privacy, as an insufficient realm tied more securely to material than social goals, should be pursued and defended by the many today who seek to restore, bolster, or defend civility.

Stanley Schwartz is a Fulbright postgraduate scholar studying Australian politics, history, and political ideology at Australian National University.

Notes:

  1. Gracy Olmstead, “How to Bring Civility Back in 2018,” Intercollegiate Review Online, September 18, 2018, https://home.isi.org/bring-civility-back.
  2. Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 38.
  3. Ibid., 49.
  4. Olmstead, “How to Bring Civility Back in 2018.”
  5. This is a dichotomy which Arendt brings out in significant detail in The Human Condition.