Thursday, May 24, 2007

Blogging, Masks and Self-Expression

There's an interesting article at Inside Higher Ed about "risky writing", or self-disclosing essays, in English classrooms:
I was still their teacher, but I had now become another member of the class, one who was struggling, like everyone else, with a personal issue. I had never used the word “intersubjective” in class, but the classroom suddenly became a space where every person, including the teacher, was sharing aspects of his or her own subjectivity with each other.

It's curious how thoroughly impersonal most philosophy (that I'm aware of) is, in contrast. Especially as it seems that one of the deepest philosophical questions is that which immediately confronts us in life, namely, how to live? We discuss abstract moral dilemmas, and formulate broad theories and principles, all from an emotionally disengaged, "God's eye" perspective. Such work is plenty valuable in its own right, of course; but I don't know how often it really helps anyone to live better. So I wonder whether insights might also be gleaned by grappling more directly with the human condition, confronting the problems we struggle with in life, and thinking about how best to respond to them. Is this not a proper role for philosophers? (Should we engage with emotions, as well as reasons?)

Maybe self-disclosure in the public sphere is problematic, though. I'm reminded of Nagel's 'Concealment and Exposure', where he defends social conventions of reticence and non-acknowledgment:
The trouble with the alternatives is that they lead to a dead end, because they demand engagement on terrain where common ground is unavailable without great effort, and only conflict will result. If C expresses his admiration of D's breasts, C and D have to deal with it as a common problem or feature of the situation, and their social relation must proceed in its light. If on the other hand it is just something that C feels and that D knows, from long experience and subtle signs, that he feels, then it can simply be left out of the basis of their joint activity of conversation, even while it operates separately in the background for each of them as a factor in their private thoughts....

In a society with a low tolerance for conflict, not only personal comments but all controversial subjects, such as politics, money, or religion, will be taboo in social conversation, necessitating the development of a form of conversational wit that doesn't depend on the exchange of opinions. In our present subculture, however, there is considerable latitude for the airing of disagreements and controversy of a general kind, which can be pursued at length, and the most important area of nonacknowledgment is the personal -- people's feelings about themselves and about others. It is impolite to draw attention to one's achievements or to express personal insecurity, envy, or the fear of death, or strong feelings about those present, except in a context of intimacy where these subjects can be taken up and pursued. Embarrassing silence is the usual sign that these rules have been broken. Someone says or does something to which there is no collectively acceptable response, so that the ordinary flow of public discourse that usually veils the unruly inner lives of the participants has no natural continuation.

These concerns only seem to apply in social settings, though, where others are physically trapped in the same room as you. Written discourse may be ignored at will, and left "unacknowledged" in subsequent settings where it might otherwise cause conflict. (Though the unspoken awareness could still cause tension, I suppose.) Blogs, especially, are addressed to no-one in particular -- the audience is purely voluntary and self-selecting -- so they arguably provide a distinctively unassuming form of self-expression. Anyone who doesn't wish to read it can simply stop.

So much for other-regarding concerns, then. How about prudential objections? Most obviously, you might not want your personal struggles to be public knowledge. But why not, exactly? We're all human, it would hardly be reasonable for anyone to hold it against you. On the other hand, people can be unreasonable, and it's at least possible that your future employer (for example) will be one of them. Unscrupulous characters may even seek to use your disclosures against you. So there's some risk. Enough that we should be deterred from self-expression in this context?

This raises a prior question: would one already face comparable risks in discussing controversial topics? One's views are, perhaps, revealing in their own way, though it would seem more conducive to free inquiry for others to refrain from explicitly drawing attention to this in practice. Cf. the very public shaming of a well-meaning libertarian blogger, here:
Ironically for a series of posts concerned with the boundaries of public displays of private sexual behavior, the disturbing thing about EV’s post was that I felt I was getting a window into his mind that I really, really didn’t want to look into. Somebody close the drapes up in here!

Ouch! Though the writer did qualify her criticism somewhat:
[I]n real life, we share polite acquaintanceship with all sorts of people who think all kinds of wrong and crazy stuff. We just don’t usually have to hear about those crazy things. At a party we will edge away from the crazy “let me tell you about my views on minarchy RIGHT NOW” guy. Then again, we might have a great time discussing the latest Italian election results, say, or poor draft choices recently made in the NFL, with someone who was, in fact, a crazy minarchist, but who didn’t go out of his way to tell you about it. Unfortunately, the blogosphere is like an extended drunken party in which the probability of you having to hear the crazy minarchist’s theories about government asymptotically approaches 1. But while it’s appropriate to get into high dudgeon if one of the Catallarchy guys says something you find morally repugnant, it isn’t necessarily a good idea to start picturing him to yourself as some sort of moral monster, slavering away in a basement.

Given my contrarian sympathies, I can't help but feel that there's something disturbingly oppressive about accusations of "thought-crime", and subsequent witch-hunts. But then, I'm kind of attached to the free exchange of ideas, even "wrong and crazy" ones. (I'm sure J.S. Mill wrote a word or two on this once.)

Back to the main issue, consider Nagel's observation:
We don't want to expose ourselves completely to strangers even if we don't fear their disapproval, hostility, or disgust. Naked exposure itself, whether or not it arouses disapproval, is disqualifying. The boundary between what we reveal and what we do not, and some control over that boundary, are among the most important attributes of our humanity.

Velleman notes that deliberate self-exposure doesn't undermine one's status as a self-presenter in this way, though. So it's still unclear why that would be a problem. Perhaps there's a clue in the following:
[O]thers cannot engage you in social interaction unless they find your behavior predictable and intelligible. Insofar as you want to be eligible for social intercourse, you must present a coherent public image.

Would multiple masks/"public images" undermine this coherence? I shouldn't think so. Nagel discusses the example of an author engaging in polite small talk with their harsh reviewer. They both refrain from acknowledging the potential source of conflict, even though it is out there in the public domain. They wear different "masks" at the cocktail party than at the publishing house, and know not to confuse the two.

Still, I've a niggling feeling that I'm missing something really obvious here. So here are two questions for the reader:

(1) Is there anything essentially problematic about public self-disclosure? (See also my related discussion, on a different kind of self-exposure, here.)

(2) Would the world be a richer place if more such (unobtrusive but openly accessible) self-expression took place? Or is it better to keep it locked away in the strictly private sphere?


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