Rochelle Gurstein wrote “The Repeal of Reticence” in 1996 which detailed ― and implicitly bemoaned ― the loss of personal privacy due mostly to intrusive prurient journalism.
“(Reverence for privacy)” she wrote, “should be understood as a highly elaborated form of the age-old wisdom that joins privacy, shame and the sacred at the very deepest level of consciousness.” Without it, humans are reduced to a brutish level of existence not much above that of the average beast on a farm.
It is one thing to have uncouth journalists or Twitter trolls willfully invade and destroy someone’s privacy. It is a second thing if a person chooses to view the pornographic art of Robert Mapplethorpe in a private museum one can choose to pay to see or not. Both are dehumanizing in their own way.
It is entirely another matter for a person to open up their lives, warts and all, and force them on the world at large whether the world wants to hear about it or not.
Reticence is required to maintain a person’s individual privacy and dignity. So is prudence.
If Gurstein were to write a sequel in 2023, she should focus on the deleterious effects of the exact opposite premise for her 1996 book ― people who don’t want to keep their own privacy “private.”
On a trip to Mexico after New Year’s, we experienced several mundane but relevant instances where the lack of personal reticence and prudence were noteworthy ― and annoying.
On the flight out of RDU, a woman next to us was speaking loudly on her phone even after takeoff. She then proceeded to snore loudly for at least half of the 2½-hour flight.
On the shuttle from the Cancun airport, a dozen people got to hear, in excruciating detail, another lady’s in-depth instructions to a family member about how to feed her dog during the deep freeze which had descended on the Midwest. None of us wanted to hear her loud instructions for half an hour, but in the interest of maintaining peace in a crowded vehicle, no one told her to end the call ― even though it would have been welcomed.
After arriving at the resort and staking out a claim the next day in what we thought was the “quiet pool,” a young father pulled out a portable speaker which blared out what might have been loud Brazilian music so everyone nearby could hear it whether they liked Brazilian music or not.
When we escaped the Brazilian samba music festival and found a quiet tributary to the pool, a young woman laid out a yoga mat five feet behind us and proceeded to do her yoga exercises. Which was fine ― except she popped open her laptop and proceeded to lead a class online to whom she gave rather loud verbal instructions for at least an hour.
“If I hear ‘down dog’ one more time…” crossed my mind, but I did not want to blow the whole mood of shanti for her legion of students online.
None of these were earth-shattering events on their own. Taken together, they provided a slew of evidence that people today just don’t know when to stay to themselves anymore. They think everyone wants to know every explicit detail about their lives when the truth of the matter is they don’t.
No one really cares what anyone has to say in public unless there is a reason, and consent, on the part of the hearer to listen.
The freedom to not hear someone else’s speech or thoughts out loud is at least as important as the First Amendment guarantee to deliver free speech in the first place.
As pointed out by Gurstein, Victorian values of civility and gentility prevailed for most of the 19th century in the British Empire and America. No one, the Victorians believed, needed to know what a person ate, drank or, God forbid, did in the privacy of their bedroom. No proper gentleman or woman would dare sully public discourse with any revelation about their bodily functions or most private thoughts.
Reducing human beings made in the image of God to such crass examination lowers the integrity of everyone involved ― the subject of the gossip as well as every consumer of such gossip. If the only things people know about you are your use of crass, vulgar language, your sexual habits or your general shallow and intolerant existence, then that is the very definition of a sad, wasted life.
The Bible once again guides us to the right way of conducting our daily lives: “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
And talk about them. Not your dog’s feeding schedule in a crowded van.