Public versus Private: For Everything There is a Time and a Place

Lately the issue of public versus private has been on my mind. Many bloggers are describing their feelings of unease over the mixing of the public and the private through the blogging medium. I certainly feel this tension. I have a couple of blogs that I keep up: a personal blog that relays information to family and close friends, and this public one that I use to document general information about my life and thoughts.

I have long thought that blurring private with public is a mistake. The feminist movement had difficulty with these boundaries because the notion of “feminine” was associated with the private life, and “masculine” was associated with public life. Many women thought that in order to bring themselves to the public life, they had to mix private with public. They didn’t consider their capability to take on a masculine, public role. (Nor was it socially acceptable for them to do so.)

Honor of the Queen by David Weber is a sci-fi novel that explores this theme of feminine and masculine roles in society. Honor is a woman, and the captain of the starship, Fearless. She is tall, strong, brave, smart and objective—everything one can hope for in a good captain. In fact, if I replaced “she” with “he” in the story, there are only a few moments where I would feel that the “he” doesn’t fit. At one point, after work in her private quarters, the story briefly describes Honor’s personal enjoyment of hot chocolate and cats. Another point is when Honor empathizes with one of her officers and he becomes embarassed. Here the reader realizes that Honor, to be successful, must keep feminine characteristics at bay. Honor’s mother is another character that highlights how Honor is unusual, and therefore successful. Honor’s mother teases her about men, and love, but Honor is embarrassed by her mother’s comments and gives them very little time, thinking only how unattractive she would be to the opposite sex, due to her size and strength, and position.

I think this story is really talking about public and private roles in society, as well as masculinity and femininity. Codes of masculinity are rules of public, war-like, competitive behaviour, and codes of femininity are codes of private, peace-loving, domestic behaviour. When alone Honor is free to think in terms of love and relationships, comforts, beauty, and emotion. When in her professional role, Honor must be objective, strategic, strong, and brave. Still, Honor is confused about her public and private roles, and does not develop a strong personal life. (This may reflect the author’s own confusion about roles and code-switching in different contexts.)

Throughout time the blurring of public and private has caused problems. Men, who were raised to be knights, warriors, protectors, and hunters, found domestic life difficult because it felt like they were being feminized at home. Some responded to this by leaving, or engaging in risk-taking activities whenever possible to prove they were still men (think of Deliverance) and some responded by acting like aggressive warriors in their own home, abusing and battering their family members when the security of the family seemed threatened. (There are of course many responses but these are generalizations) Women, bringing their private, domestic code into the public life made things very complicated, and they were responsible for creating destabilizing effects in the workplace. Even now there is a real conflict between top levels of government, who must be responsible for protecting the business, organization, or nation, by competitive behavior, or engaging in war (masculine/public roles) and those who are against any type of aggression, muscle-showing, or competitive roles in society.

My opinion is that there is a time and a place for everything. Code-switching is an important skill in all areas of life. We don’t go into a high-class restaurant and act like we would at McDonalds. We code-switch. We try not to use jargon when we go for a job interview. We code-switch. I think, too, that in public life, we need to code-switch. I don’t think that domesticating the public world is any more beneficial to the public, than publicizing the private is to the private life. I also find I’m very uncomfortable in a world that blindly accepts Foucault’s idea that anything private or hidden is shameful and must be brought out into the public eye. There is nothing shameful about the private life remaining private. But that is another topic…

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