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Our Public and Private Selves

Our Public and Private Selves

A brief history of an increasingly fading distinction.

R. Jay Magill, Jr.

If one were to distill a few common denominators from the horrific events of recent years—school and mass shootings, cars smashing through protestors, the Ukraine war, Hamas' attacks on Israeli citizens—one of them would be that many of the related scenes we see in the media have originated from videos made on personal digital devices. Someone recorded what was happening to or around them on a smart phone and uploaded the recording to a publicly accessible platform—YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Threads, X; that clip then found its way onto the television news or the websites of traditional print media. 

This is the way we have encountered such scenes for at least the past decade. This is how we now learn about the world beyond our purview—through citizen journalism: actual humans in actual situations reporting on what is actually going on around them. Our shared knowledge of isolated world events has benefited from the hundreds of millions of eyes scanning for injustice, carnage, and illicitness and then reporting back for the world to see.

Seen in this light, mobile devices have become portals through which private selves experience the public realm, from behind a personal screen that captures and transforms public experiences into private possessions at the push of a virtual button. This act reifies otherwise amorphous public life and satisfies the acquisitive urge—perhaps increasingly in recent years—to possess, own, and digitally store our experiences. 

The reverse of this public-to-private conversion is, of course, even more apparent: the growth of social media use over the past decade—with its trillions of private comments, images, videos and representations of unblemished lives, and comparisons of success and happiness—has ushered into the public sphere the most intimate of scenes. I recall a moment years ago when Kim Kardashian showed up in my Twitter feed standing nude in her bathroom mirror (“when you have nothing to wear”) and my feeling embarrassed for having intruded upon her privacy—only quickly to recall that she was the one who put us in her bathroom. Indeed, friends, loved ones, and acquaintances are able to watch, read, judge, and comment about innumerable personal things posted online that would otherwise be hidden from view. 

This trajectory has been under way for a long time in America; where we are now vis-à-vis selfies and sharing is the end result of a three-hundred-year history. Seventeenth-century New England Calvinist leaders compelled followers to investigate their inner lives for signs of grace. Calvinists believed that God had selected souls to be saved or damned at the beginning of time. Were you at peace? Were you one of the elect? Church leaders wanted to know, because if your neighbor was erring in his or her ways, God’s wrath would rain down on everyone for not keeping one another in line. This internal rumination ultimately led to an outward obsession with others’ privacy as the location of collective salvation. To show others the true state of your soul—sincerity—was thus a well-intentioned, generous act that aimed to keep the community in God’s grace and save it from his fury. 

Americans over the subsequent centuries increasingly honed a unique combination of simultaneous hyper-regard for the self and intimacy with others—a regard that had the effect of blurring the distinct public and private selves that had long formed a model of social being. Even during the Enlightenment—which stressed detachment, reason, and science to arrive at the truth—emotional appeal to the unity of inner and outer self remained a powerful rhetorical device in the disparate Protestant churches dotting the Atlantic seaboard. As religious culture gradually secularized during the 19th century, this unity of public and private self would eventually come to be known as authenticity.

Direct exposure of the private self to the public sphere snowballed in value over time. During the presidential campaign of 1840, for example, Martin Van Buren’s camp penned a jingle that deemed William Henry Harrison “a fake”—a quality that only makes sense if one highlights a misalignment of the private self and its public expression. Though this sardonic jabbing was nothing new in American political theater—18th-century newspapers are filled with it—the 1840 election was the first of its kind to promote showmanship above issues. As Harrison himself cynically quipped about his time on the stump, “The more you talk, the less you should say.”

The melding of private and public was on keen display in early 20th-century America. Popular magazines such as True Confessions and True Story aired the private self by dishing on adulterous affairs and the woes of a boring marriage to readers eager for schadenfreude. Soon, the radio soap-opera portrayed the sad experiences of other people’s lives “so that millions of housewives knew they were neither alone nor unique in their problems,” as historian Warren Susman wrote in his masterly account of the era, Culture as History.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered American living rooms in 1933 via his radio-broadcast fireside chats, bringing the remote world of Washington into millions of homes. For the first time since the country’s founding, citizens had a genuine sense of being close to their executive: “Dear Mr. President, you have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear,” praised a listener after the first airing. “It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me.”

Moral and social values were obviously changing in mid-20th-century America, and by the 1970s the phrase “the personal is political” surfaced as a truism filed under the category of cynical insight. More apt would be to say that the personal became political—not because politics innately gravitates toward that which is personal, but because Americans have been unable to suppress their hunger for authenticity and kinship.

As sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in The Fall of Public Man (1977), 

The modes of authenticity erased distinctions between public and private. That humanity might consist in keeping wounding feeling about another person from him, that disguise and self-repression may be morally expressive—under the aegis of authenticity, these ideas cease to signify. 

In the United States in particular, it became more comfortable for people to wear their private selves outwardly—to eradicate interpersonal distance as quickly as possible—rather than to put on a “pretend” face of, say, professionalism or emotional detachment. Just be yourself at all times. This is why, for example, Americans increasingly demanded to know more about the private lives of their political leaders (childhood traumas, spousal relations, addiction) and to search for a common sense of chumminess, e.g., “I’d like to have a beer with that guy” referencing the teetotaling George W. Bush, or “I’m with her” for Hillary Clinton, whose initial campaign stops in 2015 were categorized as “intimate gatherings.”

Fast-forward to today. In the figure of now-defendant Donald Trump—long a kitschy joke-figure of American pop culture—the personal has been made more political (and vice versa) than ever before in American life. Despite the repeated shock to our high-minded liberal leanings, he is the teleological end of where at least one facet of the American character has been heading for three centuries—not an aberration but a manifestation. The disturbed former President subjects all that is noble and dignified in the public realm to the crass lionization of personal needs and wants. With him it’s politics as vendetta—L’État, c’est moi!—once President, always President. And really, how could such a person lose a U.S. election? It is no wonder Donald Trump so often accuses political opponents of conducting a witch hunt against him. This paranoid style of American politics descends from the Puritan anxiety over a member of the community gone errant whom the authorities must bring back into line—or eradicate completely.

But let us not yet despair: There is a strong countervailing tradition to the religiously-inspired melding of private and public, and it was born in ancient Rome as the distinction between the res publica and res privata. This structural distinction—originally designating property but gradually understood as the elemental structure of society—held that the two realms needed to be kept separate in order for each to function properly and with integrity. Transferred to personhood, the public self did not need to reflect the private self; persuasive rhetoric and sociability were the key to a successful political performance. Today, European polities continue, for the most part, to respect this distinction. The media and voting publics know very little about the private lives of their elected officials, and they do not seek to.  

The ancient separation between public and private came to form the undergirding of the European Enlightenment, which made it into the founding documents of today’s liberal democracies: the separation of religion from politics; of politics from the self; of the three branches of government from one another; of personal interests from emoluments that aimed to curry influence, whether in political office, business, law, or journalism. Such independence implies the detachment of selfish interests from the interests of the polis. This essential, defining distinction would go far toward keeping the long-term public interest distinct from short-term ideological or personal gain.

The array of legal proceedings against the former President reflects the countervailing tradition of intellectual detachment, of the separation of public and private selves. The district court judges, state prosecutors, and Justice Department officials methodically applying the law exhibit the qualities of self-restraint, discipline, brevity, independence, and seriousness. The more that the defendant pushes into personal attacks in public, the more the courts insist upon the distinction between the rule of law and political performance, between the public and the private. The distinction must be reinvigorated if American democracy and the intellectual virtues for which it stands are not to fade away.  

R. Jay Magill, Jr., a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a writer, illustrator, and editor of the Berlin Journal at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull).

Image: A woman records the Woman's March in Boston on her phone. (Unsplash: Alice Donovan Rouse)

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