ELAYNE RIGGS: Behind Closed Doors
A few months ago, Google’s map section came out with a new feature called Street View, which had a number of people up in arms. "They’re spying on us!" came the cry. "It’s creepy and inappropriate! Our privacy is being violated by having cameras in public streets capturing possibly embarrassing moments for posterity!"
I’d lay odds that many of these advocates are the same people upset about the restrictions on their rights to, say, film or photograph things on public property in some cities. It reminds me of a line Peter Stone wrote for Ben Franklin in 1776: "…rebellion is always legal in the first person — such as ‘our’ rebellion. It is only in the third person — ‘their’ rebellion — that it is illegal." Google Street Views is "their" invasion, filming in NYC is "our" right.
But what can you expect? We live in a society that increasingly blurs the dividing line between the public and the private. My Mom uses a phrase to describe the kinds of romance novel plots she likes to read: "the ones that stop at the bedroom door." I feel the same way about most entertainment I prefer, as well as about most of real life. I’m not one of those people who believes that public displays of affection are somehow ickier if they’re between members of the same sex; I’m one of those people who believes that most overt public displays of affection are equally icky and belong behind a closed bedroom door.
Of course, I’m clearly in the minority here. I recognize that we’re a culture obsessed with having it both ways. We raise up a storm of protest at violations of our privacy by others, especially government authorities — "keep your laws off my body!" — and at the same time reserve the right to self-violate.
To me, the starkest examples of this self-violation have to do with bare breasts. As the old joke goes, "And now that I have your attention…" Because in our society, for good or ill, that’s what female bare breasts are, attention-getters über alles. It doesn’t matter in what century we’re living, or that people in Europe react more liberally and in the Middle East more strictly, or that Janet Jackson only flashed for a moment, or that one may believe it’s unfair that men can go shirtless and women can’t, or that breasts should be allwed utilization in public for their primary purpose. It is what it is. Baring your boobies invites attention, and perpetuates sexist ogling, and signifies a self-centeredness that doesn’t care about making others uncomfortable. On the most recent "New Rules" segment of his Real Time show, Bill Maher took "lactivists" — folks who believe new mothers have the right to publicly breast-feed infants from the source rather than from, say, pre-prepared mom’s-milk bottles or discreet bathroom lounges — to task for this attitude, and of course the lactivists fought back in the usual cool-headed manner.
The thing is, though, that Maher’s not the only one who believes breastfeeding, like lovemaking and masturbation and other bodily functions like waste emission, is beautiful and natural and best performed in the private realm or, at the very least, by trained performance artists at whom we can all shake our heads and mock afterwards.
But it’s no wonder confusion sets in. We’ve eroded those barriers that used to more clearly separate the public sphere from the private realm. Reality TV voyeurism is excused as "social experiments" by those who profit from purveying it. Our neighbors’ loud domesic disputes interrupt our daily intake of celebrity gossip from ratings-hungry paparazzines. We blog about intimate matters as though our private musings weren’t accessible to millions of strangers. (I still remember how adamant I was, in the days of zines and apas, about not detailing any private romantic liaisons on paper, and how my partner in one of those liaisons had no such compunction and in fact published the details of our encounter as part of a polemic to punish and humiliate me, to rape me in print as it were. It worked; I’m scarred to this day by his blatant and nasty indiscretion, and by how my beliefs about privacy prevented any self-defense.) We go to movie theaters and restaurants and act like we’re still at home, talking loudly to each other and playing with our cell phones as though nobody else were trying to watch the film or eat a meal. We treat a night out as a minor hassle at best, not an event where different behavior is expected.
This past Rosh Hashanah, Mom described a practice among super-religious Jews of which I’d not previously heard, or perhaps had known about but forgotten in the ensuing years, called "erub." The Jewish Encyclopedia explains:
According to the traditional interpretation of Exodus XVI 29, it is forbidden to remove on the Sabbath things from an enclosed space which is private property to an open space which is public property. Likewise it is prohibited to transport objects a distance of more than four cubits within an open space. The only space in which it is allowed to remove things freely is an enclosed space which is the property of an individual. But to modify the inconvenient consequences of the Law the ‘erub was introduced, which, so to speak, converted an open space into an enclosed one. If a space is not completely enclosed, the completion of the enclosure is, under certain circumstances, effected by a single rod or wire placed across the open parts, or by a pole placed at one of the sides of the open part. Such completion may be noticed in some ancient towns and villages in which there is a Jewish congregation, at the ends of streets leading out of the place; and it is known by the name of "’erub."
Emphasis mine; leave it to the Jewish culture to come up with that kind of magic trick to skirt a little inconvenience (G-d forbid we be inconvenienced during a day filled with rituals practically designed to foster same) in the name of placating a sky fairy who traffics in magic. But the way I see it, this practice is also eerily predictive of the way modern culture has become.
When our open spaces and cyberspaces are all converted into enclosed ones, allowing us to go shopping in bathrobe and curlers (after all, we wear less at the beach!) and pass wind unashamed in elevators (hey! natural bodily function, here!) and do the horizontal mambo on a row of subway seats (although, ow, not the bucket ones) — should we be the least bit surprised when our institutions join in the erub and place cameras on the corner and cookies in the browser?
When a pluralistic society like ours, where an unspoken covenant exists allowing cultures with different private customs and beliefs to live and let live in harmony, deliberately ignores or flaunts that covenant (by, for instance, fanatically asserting the primacy of their own private beliefs over others’), that harmony starts to break down and bad things can and do happen. And if we see nothing inappropriate about displaying our private spheres in the public realm, we ought to be prepared to accept the consequences.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor; you should consider yourselves lucky you have no idea what goes on behind her closed doors.