The teenaged girl at the next table was typing away on her laptop, which seemed to irritate her parents, though they were trying—in that well-worn and slightly mad aren’t-we-all-having-a-good-time-on-our-vacation? mode of parents—not to show it.
“What you doing, honey?” the mother asked. “Telling my friends about this awful breakfast on Facebook,” she answered. “You misspelled putrid,” the father observed, leaning over to look. “Dad,” the girl despaired, “it’s only Facebook.”
I was kind of proud of the parents, for they managed to use that answer to start a discussion and draw the teenager back into the family circle, at least until her little brother, growing bored, decided to see how much syrup the little plastic Smuckers jelly cups would hold before they overflowed onto the carpet. And the burden of the girl’s argument was that Facebook wasn’t her diary or even a letter to Grandma. It wasn’t special—the meaning of which seemed to alternate, in her mind, between private and important—and so misspellings and misgrammars didn’t matter.
The family eventually gathered themselves up, wiped one another off, and headed off to see Mt. Rushmore. But there was something in that girl’s line that stayed with me—mostly because she’s right: the concepts of private and public have undergone a strange new shift in American culture.
My grandmother would have said that, for anything done in public, accuracy and convention were far more important than they were for anything done in private. Well, actually, my grandmother would have said that accuracy and convention are important for their own sake. Your true table manners, she insisted, are how you eat when you are alone. But mismanners in public are embarrassing, exposed to view, in a way they are not in private. And we have a duty to behave well in public—and more than a duty: Since only our fellow people have the honors to bestow that are the rewards of virtue, the things we call virtues are particularly significant in a public setting.
This isn’t quite the argument that’s been held recently about the Journo-List, those archives of private discussion among leftist journalists that has recently been made public. Yes, it’s true that every public performance needs a backstage area, a place where the actors can let down their hair and cease, for a moment, to act—even while they continue to be actors, indulging one another as members of their shared profession.
That looks like an argument that publication of the archives is an invasion of privacy. But it’s also true that any private gathering of people of the same profession soon turns into a cabal against the public. It’s true for lawyers, and it’s true for doctors, and, no surprise, it’s true for journalists: The fact that something is private, in the sense of secret, isn’t the same as its being private in the sense of personal. That’s why we have the word conspiracy. And intrigue. And junta. And gang.
Anyway, the Journo-List brouhaha is an argument that’s about what are still old concepts of public and private. What that teenaged girl was noting, however, is a feeling of the inversion of those old concepts. My daughter has it, too, and my godchildren, and many others. The private matters more because it’s private—larger, more real, more dwelt in.
Think of it like a house. The old houses had tiny, monastic-sized monastic bedrooms, with few closets and even fewer bathrooms. They also had large public rooms: parlors and living rooms and sitting rooms and dining rooms. The face a house presented to visitors, its public face, mattered more than its private rooms.
Of course, modern houses have changed all that. Many of them don’t even have a dining room, and the public rooms matter less than the private. The people who built these houses still understood the old world of public vs. private; they just elevated the private. But the children who grew up in the houses that were built this way, what happens to them?
They get an inversion. Facebook doesn’t matter, the girl said, because it’s public. When she writes in her secret diary just for herself, when she sends a letter just for one other person, that’s when it matters. That’s when it counts.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.