Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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In Praise of Privacy
When famed Alpine skier Bode Miller started to tear up at the Olympics following his bronze medal performance in the giant slalom, the television interviewer Christin Cooper knew it was time to go for the gold. Not content with a slight quiver in the voice, a watery look to the eyes, she pressed Miller with question after question about his brother’s tragic and sudden death less than a year ago until she finally got Miller to fall to the ground sobbing. Having achieved the photo op that NBC undoubtedly told her to obtain, she signed off, as if to say, “My work is done here.”
NBC has defended her against critics, appealing to journalistic integrity and the responsibility to communicate the full story of the Games. Even Miller rather generously – overly so in my view – defended Cooper as a lovely person who just didn’t realize how emotional he might become. Uh huh.
“Bode, did you think about your dead younger brother at the top of the hill before what might be your last run in an Olympics today?” Did we really expect him to say, “No, I was thinking about the TV endorsements I might sign if I win a medal?” Not only was the line of questioning overly intrusive, it was silly. But, no matter. Sports apparently sells better when there is a sinister, gut wrenching, or sentimental back story to accompany the events themselves.
Public figures of all kinds expect to have their personal lives probed. It isn’t helped by celebrities who thrive on exposing the intimate details of their often banal and pathetic lives to a public that can’t quite get enough of it. The therapeutic mantra of the last several decades is “share your feelings!” Healing comes, we are told, only by telling all. Meanwhile, social media encourages lavish revelation of personal news to people who are “friends” in only the most technical sense of the word. Keeping personal matters private has become countercultural, often criticized as either an attempt to hide or to repress.
I’m not suggesting that the alternative to this should be the proverbial taciturn male hiding every feeling behind an impassive gaze. I am suggesting that we honor people with the choice of entrusting what they want to share of their inner life, when they want to share it, with the people they determine ought to hear it. And I’m also suggesting that we might all be better off if we found a way to reconstruct some of the boundary between the personal and the public in our lives. Do they need to know this? Do they need to know this? Do they need to know this now? I realize that inviting a person to answer these questions before posting on social media runs counter to the narcissistic seductions of Facebook and Twitter. But there may be a larger social good to be reclaimed.
There are consequences to the loss of privacy in our culture, chief among them a loss of a sense of the sacred. If nothing is private then everything is, by definition, common. The pain I describe from a bad tuna fish sandwich is no different from the pain I feel over the struggles of a dear friend watching her husband lose his memory. If I share everything with everyone, then no one is entrusted with a special responsibility to steward the most intimate joys and fears of my life. No experience is deemed more intimate, more poignant than another. No one is respected in a unique way. No one is entrusted with a distinctive gift. Everything has become common in this great leveling culture of oversharing. Nothing is sacred anymore.
Am I making too much out of too little? Is this just the mumbling of an aging generation? I don’t think so. Am I running against the grain of current fashion? Most certainly. But did the world need to know Bode Miller’s most intimate thoughts and feelings at that poignant moment on television? No. It may have wanted to know; it didn’t need to know. By forcing him to speak and weep about his dead brother in a most public way, Miller had his privacy stolen from him. And in stealing his privacy, something sacred was violated as well. He was generous in excusing it. But that doesn’t mean we have to excuse it as well.
John H. Thomas
February 20, 2014