In Sight. Out of Touch.

by E. John Winner

The “private individual” is a rather late development in human culture. I could make that case by discussing poetry (especially from the Romantics) or psychology (not by analysis, but by discussing the confidentiality of the therapy session), but I’d rather get into the grit of life that every human confronts at some point, sexual behavior.

The ideal of the private person today – and let’s presume a faithful, happily married individual – is the sexual act taking place behind closed doors, unobserved, and unnoticed by anyone (unless performed in a hotel room, where various sighs and yelps can be heard through the walls). This ideal is now easily realized by the majority of Americans. But it wasn’t always so and it isn’t always so and is actually culturally specific. In the Roman Empire, among the elite, women were expected to keep their pleasures private (because if they were adulterous, this would cause scandal), but men could do it pretty much anywhere, with anyone.

The private marital bed seems to have been an invention of the European upper classes. It did not “trickle down” to the classes below completely until the mid-20th century. In rural America, small land-holders frequently lived in a one- or two-room cabin. The immigrant wave of the 1890’s saw hundreds of thousands of families living in one or two room tenement dwellings, and one of the rooms would be the kitchen. Inuit families in Alaska slept in a single igloo. Extended families in rural Thailand still share a single hut. The notion that this immediacy of grandparents or children necessarily or inevitably prohibits the exchange of bodily fluids among spouses is laughable. When I was first in college, I knew a pair of brothers from Iran, who shared a single studio, and who thought nothing of it if one or the other should bring the woman he was seeing home for the night.

The privacy of sexual behavior is a luxury, and it encourages the sense of the private person that we have come to value in the economically developed world. It is actually a communion between two private persons, a sharing of a secret others must not know. Or at least it was.

With the coming of the internet and its convenient “social media,” which always promises to “connect” us to the world, we may be witnessing the end of the private person. Not through a return to the immediacy or intimacy of the living space shared with an extended family, but by coming to believe that we can share all our secrets with anyone we know, even if we don’t really know them except through some nebulous “online community.” And though we may not share all of our secrets with everyone, every secret will be revealed to someone. How else would we get our “friends” and “likes” and “retweets?”

In a society with few naturally formed communities, we look for communities of common interest to join. These can be support groups, hobby groups, religious groups, fan clubs, sports clubs, or even the neighborhood bar. In the process of becoming a member of such a community, one chooses what to reveal and what to conceal about one’s life. This may take on something of the nature of a confession, sometimes with a measure of anxiety. An alcoholic in AA is certainly confessing, but in a presumably safe environment. A recovering alcoholic attending a book club may “confess” a love of books, but feel too anxious to reveal his/her alcoholism. In the process of attending AA, however, this person might discover a fellow alcoholic who likes books. Attending the book club might lead to the discovery of someone else with a similar issue, and friendships may be formed, each community growing tighter as a result.

On the internet, however, though we still join communities, requiring professions, confessions, and sometimes silence, the nature of the relevant social interactions change in a dramatic way. Our recovering alcoholic begins posting on an AA oriented website, where the conversations are out in the open, for everyone to see. The other participants are unknown to the poster. Some of them may not even be recovering alcoholics, but trolls or people trying to attract attention to their own site to accumulate “clicks” for sales to advertisers. Meanwhile, at the book-club site, where the participants are providing lists of their favorite books, our recovering alcoholic unthinkingly includes the Big Book as a favorite text. Then comes the inevitable interrogations and commentary: “Are you an alcoholic?” “I think Fakename21 is an alcoholic!” “My father was a drunk, and I hated him!” “Why don’t you exercise some willpower?” Under such pressure, our protagonist may suddenly confess his alcoholism. The confession might be made angrily or mournfully, and if done with rhetorical finesse, may earn him the approval of his interlocutors: “Good thing you joined AA! Keep it up!” Regardless, the fact remains that what was a secret has now become a confession in an entirely different community than the one it was intended for. And postings in question are now part of the public record.

Such issues are magnified a thousandfold on “social media” sites like Facebook. There, the communities are shallower and less grounded in shared interests, and the public access is more open and less controlled, though this frequently goes unnoticed by those posting to their page. They think they are sharing with family and “friends” (whom they’ve never met or spoken to, face to face). But their audience may include trolls, their employers, myriad criminals and predators, government agencies, and certainly advertisers.

So, I don’t think it’s largely fame or attention such people are looking for, although that may be part of it. Frankly, I think loneliness is what drives most of them to the internet. It is ever harder to find real communities to join in one’s vicinity, and of course joining those requires the effort to get out, drive the car or take a bus, get jostled in a crowd, etc., all the unpleasantness of real human contact – the internet is so much more convenient. That tells me that something has changed, is still changing here. I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, I may be a grumpy old man concerning such matters. But it doesn’t look like much of a good thing over all.

Let’s consider this through the lens of an interesting article by Firmin deBrabander, “Shame on You,” at the Aeon website:

Confession can feel like liberation, because it seems to unburden us of our shame. It can also be a forum for the display of democratic virtues, including the honesty, bravery and humility evident in St Augustine’s Confessions. But if one believes [Michel] Foucault, it is always a ruse. We always confess to someone – in the presence of an authority, real or imagined. When people post online, it is always for a supposed audience; it is never purely gratuitous.

What manifests itself as a certain shamelessness, then, might in fact be precisely the opposite. The approbation of the digital crowd has come to fill in for the authority of the confessor – or, to put it another way, it acts as a substitute for Socrates’ inner voice of moral conscience. People unburden themselves to their followers in the hope that their needs will be validated, their opinions affirmed, their quirks delightfully accepted. The result is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them. (1)

DeBrabander uses the perspective of French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault to discuss some current cultural formations arising in and because of the internet and social media. Foucault was concerned with the nature of power in modern capitalist societies. But he held that power is diffuse and not centralized. We learn to regulate ourselves in a society in which our personalities are formed by society, a society in which even our darkest and most cherished secrets are available for view and review in particular circumstances. This helps create a web of relations throughout which power, as the effort to control behavior (of ourselves and others), is disseminated through language and shared interests. One essential aspect of such power relationships has to do with how we seek to be seen and how we seek to see others. We may be watched by the state, but first we are watched by parents, peers, neighbors, fellow congregants in a religious institution, as well as the strangers one meets in a shop or on a bus. Of course, society has a hierarchical structure, so those who benefit most from social strictures on behavior will be those with money, influence, or authority.

What deBrabander wants to know is how the internet has effected the diffusion of power, normalizing this interplay with what one might call socialized privacy, and how that generates echo chambers leading to a disunity of communication in society as a whole: “The result, is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.” That is, society as a whole gradually ceases to consist of communities of reasonably responsible individuals with shared values and interests, interacting in order to find some common ground. Instead, society fragments into differing and essentially opposing camps, within which conformity of behavior is expected from participant members. And this seems clearly to benefit those with money, influence, or authority, since the position of watchdog of the whole defaults to those who can afford to maintain and police the system.

Everything about us is shameful in some sense and yet everything must be confessed, and we seem to be constructing a culture around this double imperative. Shame exists as a social function, helping to generate a sense of self with the agency to determine seemingly hidden values and revealed values. However, the sense of shame is indoctrinated by parents and peers, and differing social groups will determine the shamefulness of differing values. Thus, anything about an individual may prove shameful in some circumstance. For instance, a bald head could be considered shameful among the hirsute, especially if religious values are involved. So, in Jamaica, the dreadlock-wearing Rastafarians used shame interlopers at their gatherings as “baldheads,” back in the 1970’s. When values conflict, one either converts and conforms, at least publicly, or one finds a different community to join, or one makes public any private disagreement, and disputes it e.g., “I share your values, but I interpret this value differently.” This last tactic was what ultimately disarmed the “baldhead” shaming tactic. Is the value in question really about hair or is it about living naturally, “as God wishes,” and letting the hair take care of itself? Such interaction modifies the relationship between individuals and the community, and may prove healthy to a durable and open community. What was private (“I lost my hair due to an illness I’ve been afraid to “discuss”) becomes public (“Now I don’t have to wear this dreadlock wig anymore!”), and the community readjusts its priorities in the process. (2)

However, in the globalized social media, groups form around what the participants think are private revelations that are in fact entirely public. There is no real opportunity for the individual to take responsibility or to make a case for a difference in shared values. If we take presumed privacy as a means of protecting the hidden, then everything hidden in the many different groups becomes an object of potential shame. However, in order to participate in any group, one has to reveal what is hidden, even what the person feels ought to be hidden, and so confess. However, since there is no real privacy on the internet, what is confessed is done so publicly. This creates a web of what is hidden from some groups but revealed in others, but available to all in most circumstances, and in other circumstances, available to those with the proper technology. This web supports the social status quo especially those at the top of the hierarchy, with the wherewithal to leverage technological access to all information in the web.

It’s pointless to get paranoid about all of this, but in learning to live with it, it helps to recognize that it is, and to understand what it is. To see this more concretely, imagine a professional football player. Last year he signed a lucrative ten-year contract, this despite his knowledge (known only to his family) that his mother died of Huntington’s chorea, which means that there is a 50% chance that he will likely not be able to fulfill that contract. Obviously, he doesn’t want to confess this fact about himself to his team. But at some point, reluctantly, he confesses to a doctor, in order to receive a proper diagnosis. It’s positive, so in order to better cope, he secretly joins a support group with fellow sufferers. Meanwhile, on his off-hours he pursues an interest in gardening, particularly flowers, but he doesn’t want his teammates to know this, because they will think that such interests are “gay.” While this obviously is untrue, let’s also assume that our player is gay and doesn’t want his teammates to know this either. However, he certainly wants those who attend his favorite gay bar to know, since it’s one of the only venues in which he can find romantic partners and happens to be within walking distance of his  horticulture club. To make things more complicated still, he doesn’t want the people at the bar to know about his horticutlural interests, as it is a leather bar, frequented by “bears” and flowers are considered fey and “twink.” Meanwhile, his alcoholic brother has sobered up thanks to the intervention of a fundamentalist church and insists they attend some meetings there together, which he does to support his brother (who doesn’t know he’s gay), despite the fact that he is also an atheist.

Now you might tell this football player that his participation in various social groups put him in a tense and precarious situation, which could be ameliorated considerably if he only would confess the relevant secrets to the relevant parties. But of course, while his sense of shame in certain groups would be alleviated somewhat, he would be effectively making himself a focus of attention, some of which he would rather not have, especially if, for example, his team’s management decides that his Huntington’s chorea invalidates his contract.

Now imagine the same story, but told within the universe of the Internet. Under various pseudonyms, our football player engages people on sports sites,sites for sufferers of Huntington’s chorea, on gay sites, horticulture sites, Christian sites for relatives of alcoholics, and atheist sites. On each site, he confesses some aspect of himself and his situation that he thinks he’s keeping hidden from those in the other groups he is involved with. But he’s not. That myth is maintained by the acceptance of the pseudonyms he uses and the fact that the people on these sites typically do not communicate with each other. But in fact, all of his pseudonyms can be traced back to him, and everything about him can be known.

The ease of access to the Internet, the rapidity with which we can post on it, the “friending” and “liking” on many sites, the seemingly protective allowance for using pseudonyms and “handles,” have led us to believe that we have control over our presence on the Web. But this is not true. To socialize at all, we surrender something of ourselves to the groups with which we are involved. On the internet, we may end up surrendering everything about ourselves to people we don’t know, and don’t even know exist. Remember, even without posting on the Internet, our browsing is tracked so as to advertise to us. These are provided by software programs, but the information can be accessed by the advertisers themselves. So, there is no invisible presence on the Internet. We enter it revealed, already “confessed” by the websites we visit. And as the construction of the surveillance state continues apace, there may be a time that everything we’ve revealed on the Internet will be registered in a database in some government agency’s mainframe.

Again, there’s no point in getting paranoid, because in contemporary society, there’s no way to avoid these interactions. But it does mean that, the more you engage with social media, the more you lose your once private self. Even today, some lovers post videos of their lovemaking on the internet, and while this is still relativley rare, it eventually may become the norm. Perhaps by then our lovers will be life-like androids; silicon-fleshed robots with about as much soul as we will have ourselves, by that point. The only secrets we will keep will regard a culture we have lost; the one we once shared with the people we touched.



2. Of course, there have always been communities too rigid to allow such inclusive modifications, far too many. But even interacting with such rigidity is simply an inevitable part of the negotiations that individuals must make with the communities in which they live. The question here is whether ‘online’ communities show greater or lesser tendencies toward openness to such modification; and I suggest that the vast majority – since they are primarily verbal communities – show less willingness to permit value-altering disagreements. It’s much easier to say (or ‘shout’) no to a faceless ‘handle’ than to confront those with whom we actually live.






40 responses to “In Sight. Out of Touch.”

  1. EJ: This is fantastic. Beautifully written and an original take on an important issue. Thank you!

  2. labnut

    So, there is no invisible presence on the Internet. We enter it revealed, already “confessed” by the websites we visit.

    Yes, but it need not be like this.
    I have installed two programs, an ad blocker(Adguard) and a tracker blocker(Ghostery).
    I enjoy the lovely freedom from interruption by advertisements that Adguard provides with the secondary advantage that pages load faster.

    On this page there are seven trackers and they have been silenced by Ghostery. Apart from enhanced privacy this also improves the page load time. Page load time decreased from 8 seconds to 3 seconds.

  3. labnut

    Further to my comment above. Some will object that I am depriving web sites of income and so my behaviour is at the very least unfair. My reply is that every time I decline to buy something I am depriving someone of income but that is my basic right and I do it all the time. In the same way, if I decline to buy a magazine or act on an advertisement I am also depriving someone, somewhere of income. If I decline to look at an advertisement the same thing is true. But that remains my right. The seller or the advertiser has a duty(that is if they wish to prosper) to supply goods or services that are fit enough and attractive enough for my needs that I willingly spend money to buy them. I have no reciprocal duty to look at, consider or buy.

  4. labnut

    EJ, this is a nicely written essay. Well done.

  5. EJ

    “To socialize at all, we surrender something of ourselves to the groups with which we are involved.”

    I don’t get this. What is this private self of which you speak if not a product of social interaction?

  6. Mark,
    the ‘private self’ is the Romantic self that you have occasionally argued against. Yet despite its hypostasis, you are right, it is a product of social interaction. But that is not what ‘private selves’ would wish to believe.

  7. labnut,
    Nothing to say about the various programs you mention – although most of us don’t know they exist. But thank you for the kind remark on the article,

  8. davidlduffy

    Two comments in reverse order: I strongly recommend the Privacy Badger (browser addon) of the EFF: it notes this website has 25 potential trackers. Note that some of these have to be allowed in order to post here (but this can very easily adjusted and remembered by the browser)..
    The other is debunking of your argument along the lines of 1. As you note, privacy is a modern invention, a property of city living or of low density (ie non-village) life. Anyone knowing the sexual gossip of small country towns might think the attentions of the social media will be diluted by time more than in a small community 2. The liberating nature of selective disclosure – I browsed a few PubMed papers on disease support groups, where one discusses in one way very personal clinical details without stuff from other domains eg IRL address. Lots of internet-based psychological therapy going on – with appropriate mechanisms for privacy 3. Sexual liberation – eg the 20-somethings reminiscing about the old Grindr community (of 5 years ago ;)).

    So I vacillate between “nothing new under the sun” and uniqueness of the current “pre-Singularity” social world – but probably more the former.. And we know what the good features are, and hopefully can select for them by choosing the right software and platforms.

  9. labnut

    I always keep an eye on the number of trackers on web pages I visit. They all use trackers and often I will find 16 or so trackers on one page. Mostly they are there for benign purposes. Advertisers, news sites, merchandisers, etc, want to discover my interests/needs so that they can present the most appropriate products to me, which increases the likelihood of gaining a sale. This greatly cuts down on the clutter and would seem to be an all round good idea, for the merchant and myself.

    But, and this is the essential problem, as a result I see a homogenised world that reflects my interests and tastes. I think this is a very bad idea as it tends to corral us into like groups. I am denied the diversity and stimulus of being exposed to the fuller world. For example, you and I will read different news from different news sources that increasingly confirm our biases. When we go to Amazon we will be exposed to different kinds of books. Or on eBay/AlieExpress, different products will be presented to us. Netflix is particularly good at doing this. To use an Antarctic analogy, the ice shelf is cracking and we are crowding onto different ice floes that drift away from each other until soon we know little about what is happening on the other ice floes.

    Our sense of curiosity will become dimmed. Our understanding of other groups will be diminished. Our tolerance will suffer. Misunderstandings will grow. Society will increasingly fracture.

  10. As usual I have the feeling I am missing out on something. In the little boring corner of the internet I inhabit people don’t tend to confess secret shames.

  11. Robin: What on earth is the point of a comment like this? Is it supposed to demonstrate something?

    Why not just say nothing? You don’t always have to comment on everything you read. And if you have nothing of any use to say, why not just keep your mouth (or keyboard) shut?

  12. labnut, davidlduffy,
    What I meant when I said that “most of us don’t know” such programs, I mean of course those of us who are well-educated in computers and programs. Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to use them at work, and keep my computer at home from updating as much as possible, so I doubt I could use them without slowing down everything – and my computer connections are sluggish as it is. At any rate, I suspect most of the users of social media, while more fluent in the use of it than I, are probably even more in the dark about these programs, and of the privacy issue, than I am. I didn’t bother with the instances of these that actually occur, trying to keep the essay as generalized and grounded in social history as possible, but they are myriad, and the news-people love reporting them.

    However, I’m not sure such programs really alleviate the problems I’ve discussed all that much. I suspect most of us remain largely in the dark about who really has access to what – largely because there is no center here. Robin writes of a “boring little corner of the internet” but that boring little corner can be easily accessed by hackers from any country in the world with the proper level of technology. I’d actually be less concerned if I knew that only Washington could monitor my internet footprints; but I know that Moscow can, too 0 and any number of other centers of interest, power and wealth as well.

    “But, and this is the essential problem, as a result I see a homogenised world that reflects my interests and tastes. I think this is a very bad idea as it tends to corral us into like groups.” Yes, exactly one of the issues deBrabander raises. Attempting to secure privacy doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but helps generate this new problem of social fragmentation

    davidlduffy: “And we know what the good features are, and hopefully can select for them by choosing the right software and platforms.” Well, as you may have gathered, I’m not very optimistic. Human innovation can sometimes surprise me; human fallibility never does.

  13. What I found particularly noteworthy about this essay was the story it told about the rise of a certain notion of private life that centered in good measure around sex, in the modern era, and which is now receding as a result of technology and its social effects. Equally interesting was the (in my view correct) observation that the return to a less private state of being is not strictly speaking a return to an earlier state, as the sense in which we and our sex lives were not private in the pre-modern era was very different from the sense in which they are not private today. I also found noteworthy the concerns that were expressed about the new un-private forms of sexual life, concerns that I happen to share.

    The essay continues multitudes like these, and I hope the conversation will get around to discussing them all or at least, some good number of them, as opposed to simply focusing on a single element.

  14. Regarding the privacy software, it strikes me as not touching the far more important aspect of the essay, which has to do with the privacy we voluntarily surrender in order to be a part of certain groups. Part of the point of the essay is that such surrenders of privacy are unavoidable, and that they incur a kind of risk in the online environment that they do not when limited to in-person interactions.

  15. Labnut: There’s a whole other essay in the observations you make in this comment.

  16. Just today I watched Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle – a wonderfully entertaining film, and quite unique by any standard. In a scene set in a slum tenement, the camera pans the tenement walkways, and we see a man defecating in an alleyway; within a few feet, two men play cards, uninterested in what goes on around the corner.

    My point is, I could have raised the historical issue discussing our toilet habits. I chose to discuss sexual behavior, because this greater intimacy involves more than one person sharing ‘the secret’ -two ‘private persons’ are involved.

    As for the ‘Sexual Revolution’ of the ’60s that davidlduffy mentioned in passing, I remark the irony – the working class had worked hard to position themselves economically and politically to enjoy the privacy that the Victorian upper classes had enjoyed and spun into an ideology. Then their children repudiated it as a puritan constraint.

    As I indicated in an aside in my comment to labnut, one of the most fascinating facets of historical processes is that the solution to one problem may generate other problems in turn. One reason I think that Hegel (who really did understand this) was right that philosophy is best written when “the owl of Minerva flies at night” and wisdom “paints its grey on grey.”

    Philosophy is about understanding (which may involve prognosis), but not about prescriptions. That is a matter concerning politics.out prescriptions. That is a matter concerning politics.

  17. “Part of the point of the essay is that such surrenders of privacy are unavoidable, and that they incur a kind of risk in the online environment that they do not when limited to in-person interactions.”

    Yes, A large part of the motivation for this essay is to influence readers to think about why they are posting on the internet, what they are posting, and the possible consequences of posting.

    (I apologize for the typography of my previous comment – but we post so rapidly, we sometimes forget to proofread, of course. In fact we forget a lot posting anything on the internet. And the internet invites that. It is ‘instant culture.’ Films are immediately classics, songs go viral, personalities become celebrities, literally within a few million clicks on Twitter, Facebook or Youtube or wherever. And one can post with just the press of a button. There may bot be anything ‘wrong’ here, but there is certainly something different. And it might be well to be aware of that,)

  18. labnut

    Yes, A large part of the motivation for this essay is to influence readers to think about why they are posting on the internet, what they are posting, and the possible consequences of posting.

    Yes, but most people lose sight of the fact that this also represents a very important opportunity. We are moving into the gig economy where we move fluidly between jobs and projects. In such an environment your image and your reputation become your most valuable asset. The Internet presents an unprecedented opportunity to manage your image and maintain your reputation. I always advise people to ask, in light of their career needs, what image they should be presenting, because their prospective employers will certainly be trolling the Internet for evidence about them(they would be foolish not to do this). I then advise them that everything they post must have this goal in mind. Subjects, words and presentation must always and consistently be targeted at this goal of building a suitable image and maintaining a desired reputation.

    I also advise them that seemingly secure communications are misleading because we become careless(sending a scurrilous comment to the wrong group) and people are disloyal(forwarding your scurrilous comment). Whatever the provocations or opportunities, say only kind, useful and thoughtful things. It is a jolly good moral principle in any case.

    We are also members of professional associations, recreational bodies, cultural bodies family groups and groups of friends. This must also be taken into consideration.

    We need to use the opportunity the Internet offers to become our own PR agents. But always in a sincere and thoughtful way. Baloney is easily detected.

    Finally, David Brooks, in a lovely article, comments on Pope Francis’ New Year address,
    He says

    … that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly[for example]. The Pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, “the artisans of the common good.”

    Small deeds, he said, “express concretely love for the city … without giving speeches, without publicity, but with a style of practical civic education for daily life.”

    The Internet is the new public space and it is a place where we can become “the artisans of the common good“.

    This may be the most important thing we can do in this new public space.

  19. Dan

    “Why not just say nothing? You don’t always have to comment on everything you read. ”

    I don’t comment on everything I read.

    In this case the article seems to hinge on a group who appear to behave in a rather peculiar fashion and it seems to be important then to know who these people are and why they behave so.

    My own view (which I had assumed was the usual one) is that when one is genuinely ashamed of something one does then the important consideration is to stop doing it and to confess only if there is something to be achieved thereby.

    To feel ashamed of something, arbitrarily confess to it and to continue doing it, seems perverse to say the least.

    What would ‘privacy’ mean to such people? Do they, whoever they are, even mean the same thing that I understand by the word? Indeed, do they mean the same thing by ‘shame’ or ‘confession’ as I do?

    Probably not.

  20. Seems to me you need to meditate more carefully on EJs carefully constructed examples. Shame often is not deserved.

  21. Dan

    “Seems to me you need to meditate more carefully on EJs carefully constructed examples. Shame often is not deserved.”

    But, again, this doesn’t jell with the way I understand these words. For something to be a confession it has to be the voluntary disclosure of information about oneself, about which one feels shame and it has to be to an audience who would agree that it is shameful.

    It occurs to me that the one thing the footballer never does is confess anything.

    I can’t tell from the description if the footballer feels shame, but he is careful only to divulge the information to those who he knows will not disapprove.

    As EJ points out, everything we do might potentially be considered shameful by some group. If it was a confession every time we mention something about ourselves that some group would consider shameful then every utterance we make might be considered a confession.

    That is too broad for me and seems to remove any kind of social usefulness of the emotion of shame.

  22. OK. I had no difficulty understanding it. Indeed, it resonated with me quite strongly. Maybe EJ can clarify further, in response to your observations here.

  23. Robin,
    I don’t get the misunderstanding here. It is quite clear from the essay, and from the deBrabander article I’m bouncing off of, that we join certain groups explicitly (AA, or sites fellow football players would not visit) or implicitly (gay bars/websites) in part to confess what we would not want others – in other groups to which we belong – to know about. Some sense of shame is clearly driving these choices; but the internet is now redefining these relationships, and that is what, in different ways, deBrabander and myself are trying to draw attention to. The social usefulness of these negotiations is complex, but not all that difficult to understand. What needs understanding right now is the modifications to this in practice on the internet.

    “every time we mention something about ourselves that some group would consider shameful then every utterance we make might be considered a confession.” That’s entirely possible, but really misses the point about why we confess to some groups while avoiding confession to others.

    You seem to suggest we feel the same shame in every group, and thus achieve the same level of confession in revelations we make to every group; that doesn’t make sense. It certainly isn’t anything close to what’s getting discussed here.

    Your usage of the terms “shame” and “confession” seem to me more than a little eccentric, to be honest.

    The definitions of these terms are clear from the usage in the article. Your seeming effort to redefine them I find confusing.

  24. Ej

    You seem to suggest we feel the same shame in every group, and thus achieve the same level of confession in revelations we make to every group; that doesn’t make sense.

    Yes, of course I would feel the same shame in every group – there has to be a reason why I am ashamed of something and why would that reason change when I am conversing with different groups.. What do the bystanders have to do with it? If I was ashamed of something thenI would be ashamed of them whatever group I was in. If I am not ashamed of something, I am still not ashamed of them if I am in a group who think that it is something to be ashamed of.

    As for “confession”, as I said I don’t think confession is the main action pertaining to shame. If I felt ashamed of something it would be much more important for me to stop doing it. Confession is a secondary action and only for a purpose. For example if someone else was being blamed for something I did then it would be necessary to confess. If there was no such purpose to confession, then I am not so fascinating that I need to announce my every fault. I would keep it to myself.

    Are you ashamed of certain actions in certain groups, but not ashamed of them in others? If you were among people who felt that writing about philosophy was something to be ashamed of, would you be ashamed of writing about philosophy?

    That is what doesn’t make sense. Don’t you sometimes get confused and forget what it is you are supposed to be ashamed of in a particular group? I have such a bad memory I would have to keep a notebook in order to remember what it is I am supposed to be ashamed of in a particular group.

    And what happens when you are in a group composed of two groups where you are supposed to feel ashamed about different things? Do you feel shame for both, or neither. If a group from the leather bar turn up to see the game where the footballer is playing, is he ashamed or not ashamed of being gay? If his gardening group turn up for a night at the leather bar does he tell them he is currently ashamed of his interest in gardening and flowers?

    That would turn shame and confession into an arbitrary and confusing ritual.

    Your usage of the terms “shame” and “confession” seem to me more than a little eccentric, to be honest.

    I am pretty sure they are the ones most people would use. I don’t automatically feel ashamed because people tell me I should be ashamed.

    If I was in a group who told me that I should feel shame for enjoying gardening and especially flowers I should tell them not to be so silly.

    The definitions of these terms are clear from the usage in the article. Your seeming effort to redefine them I find confusing.

    I am not redefining them, that is how I have always used the words. That is how the people around me appear to use the words. I don’t know anybody who feels shame about something because people try to shame them for it.

    It is your usage which seems peculiar, perverse to me – I am genuinely puzzled at your position.

  25. I find your usage peculiar and EJs quite clear. Have you considered it might be a problem with you and not with him?

  26. No Dan, that is how I have always used the words, that is how the people around me use the words.. You and Ej are free to use them in any way you choose and we can agree to disagree.

    If you feel ashamed of being a philosopher when you are with a group who feel that being a philosopher is something to be ashamed of then I will take your word for it.

    But it is not a usage of the words that I am familiar with.

    And I don’t join groups to “confess” anything. As I said I don’t know anyone who does this or what purpose it could possibly serve.

    If I feel shame about something I have done it is for some particular reason and not because some group arbitrarily decides I ought to feel shame about them. Those reasons don’t change according to the people I am talking to.

    It seems to me that the football player in question is lying to his team about his health problems and apparently does not feel shame for lying to them or the need to confess that he has been misleading them. On the contrary he has been very careful only to divulge information to people when he knows in advance that they will not disapprove.

    Again, I will accept your usage for the purpose of this article, but it does lead to just the absurdities that I pointed out and it can serve no useful social purpose that I can think of.

    On the other hand “shame” as I have defined it (and as it seems to be used mostly in the world) can be useful for the adjustment of behaviour.

  27. Robin,
    ” ‘Your usage of the terms “shame” and “confession” seem to me more than a little eccentric, to be honest.’
    I am pretty sure they are the ones most people would use.”

    No, they’re not. Doesn’t the fact that Dan, labnut, even davidlduffy (who disagrees with the argument, but not the terms) suggest anything to you?

    You seem to over-intellectualize the situation and ask for positive logical clarification along a very narrow band of the general usage of these terms. And you want to marshal strictly logical arguments that really do not have the relation to general usage you presume they do. Shame is a feeling, and the desire to confess, to be known to someone for something we prefer not – sometimes dare not – speak in public is a well understood impulse. Your usage is really weird.

    “And what happens when you are in a group composed of two groups where you are supposed to feel ashamed about different things? Do you feel shame for both, or neither.” Are you kidding? Grow up.

    Nothing further to argue here..

  28. Robin wrote:

    As I said I don’t know anyone who does this or what purpose it could possibly serve.

    = = =

    Pauline Kael didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon, but he still won the election.

    Frankly, your conception of what “most people” think has never struck me as at all reliable. I find most of your reactions to most things to be quite weird, in truth, which is why we rarely agree on anything.

    If you were to ask me who had a better sense of the zeitgeist, you or EJ, I’d go with EJ every time. And especially on a topic like this.

    Why not just let it drop?

  29. Dan,

    Yes, I have already agreed to disagree on this.

    If you insist that you would be ashamed of being a philosopher if you were in company that felt you ought to be ashamed of it then I will believe you.

    Yes, I am out of touch with ordinary people just the way Pauline Kael is.

  30. “No Dan, that is how I have always used the words”- More the pity for you – “that is how the people around me use the words.” No, and I guarantee that. You have been fortunate to use words in a functionally complementary way to how others do – but not the same way. I’ve read your previous comments history. I know there are some feelings that you just don’t share. Don’t go down this path, on some level you really don’t know what we’re talking about here.

    You have analyzed how people use the word shame, and the appearance of the word “confession.” That is not the same as feeling shame and wanting to confess.

    Let it go. After this, I will, whether you liuke it or not. Really, we have nothing to argue about here. This may sound harsh, but really it is a sign of respect, since there are some issue about which I value your opinion. Please try to understand that and appreciate it.

  31. labnut

    Doesn’t the fact that Dan, labnut,

    Er, no. My silence does not indicate agreement. I have decided to stay out of it.

  32. alandtapper1950

    Robin: You say “I don’t know anybody who feels shame about something because people try to shame them for it.”

    I’m sorry to say I do know people who have felt exactly this. The unjustified shaming of children is especially likely to produce this effect.

    Unjustified shaming should be resisted of course, which I think is your main point.


  33. OK, Robin. Good talking to you.

  34. labnut,
    you may disagree with the argument of the essay, as does, in a different way, davidlduffy. But I see no great disagreement in the use of the words ‘shame’ and ‘confession,’ which is what Robin is having such a difficult time with here.
    After all, you’re a practicing Catholic and I was raised a Catholic, and we both know the power of the confessional and why it is entered into in strictest confidence. The process engages very deep and complex emotions deriving from relationships with others, with the community as a whole, with a perceived higher power that the participants eel a bond to, and wish an emotional attachment with. Robin has, in the past remarked his occasional difficulty relating to others’ emotions. I actually know that difficulty to some extent, in certain areas; but I know that analysis is not going to get me purchase on what I don’t myself feel. Some human behaviors – and their motivations – are not open to strict analysis. Where problems occur, people will attempt resolution in social, ethical, emotional responses – reasoning is used to effect these, but logic does not determine them, and so cannot vouchsafe their success.

  35. labnut

    labnut, you may disagree with the argument of the essay

    I have expressed no opinion as to the merits of your argument.
    I enjoyed your essay and I enjoyed reading the comments. I hope we see many more essays from you.

  36. labnut

    further to my comment above.
    We need to stop thinking in terms of whether or not an argument is correct or not. Who can decide that? Dan-K and Massimo, both highly intelligent, well educated professionals, fail to agree on some important issues. Debate as to who is correct is fruitless since it is irresolvable and in any case largely misses the point.

    As far as I am concerned, it forms a starting point, a spark and a stimulus to curiosity, exploration and deeper thought. It begins a journey whose destination is still unknown. If one’s mind is open, and not paralysed by undue concern with correctness, it becomes an exhilarating journey of discovery.

    Now it is true that debate is an important means of continuing that journey. Opposition sharpens thought, provokes enquiry and refines understanding. But the manner of that debate is all important. Debate that is only concerned with winning the argument or is anchored in some ideological concept of correctness, is stultifying at best, and destructive at worst. It does not stimulate curiosity but instead sets prejudices in concrete foundations. Worse still is debate that is uncharitable and hostile. It provokes divisions, increases hostility. and often results in sotto voce warfare. Should we be doing that?

    On the other hand, complacent agreement among like thinking people is a marshland that traps travellers in stasis for eternity.

    These are the Scylla and Charybdis of human thought. Can we steer the discussion between these two extremes? We can if we agree that this is what we want to do. But do we? Are we driven by intellectual curiosity or emotional needs? We all have emotional needs. The important thing is to make curiosity our dominant emotional need. Robin had an interesting point of view. Did we explore it or attempt to subjugate it?

  37. labnut

    I just can’t resist this, even if it is wildly off-topic.
    From Sabine Hossenfelder, a researcher I greatly respect for her commonsense views about empiricism:

    Science has a problem. The present organization of academia discourages research that has tangible outcomes, and this wastes a lot of money. Of course scientific research is not exclusively pursued in academia, but much of basic research is. And if basic research doesn’t move forward, science by large risks getting stuck.

    It’s also why in the foundations of physics so many useless papers are written, thousands of guesses about what goes on in the early universe or at energies we can’t test, pointless speculations about an infinitude of fictional universes. It’s why theories that are mathematically “fruitful,” like string theory, thrive while approaches that dare introduce unfamiliar math starve to death (adding vectors to spinors, anyone?). And it is why physicists love “solving” the black hole information loss problem: because there’s no risk any of these “solutions” will ever get tested.

    If you believe this is good scientific practice, you would have to find evidence that the possibility to write many papers about an idea is correlated with this idea’s potential to describe observation. Needless to say, there isn’t any such evidence.

    What we witness here is a failure of science to self-correct.

    It’s a serious problem.

    And we thought philosophy had a problem!

  38. alandtapper1950

    Some years ago I wrote a short guide to the art of shaming. Here it is.

    1. Pick your moment. Make sure you have reason to think your victim is vulnerable. Everyone has moments of vulnerability; the good shamer must be good at recognising them.

    2. Don’t rush. Shots fired in haste are wasted. A good point improves with time, for you will have remembered something that your victim has partly forgotten, thus catching him off guard while demonstrating your own vigilance.

    3. Disguise your digs. Outright accusations are too obvious, and they may be replied to. The disguise is intended to hand the victim the knife, disguised, so that he will then — out of shame — knife himself.

    4. Don’t be accusatory. Show some subtlety. Big accusatory words betray your own emotions, whereas your aim is to cause emotion in others. If they see you as emotional they will focus on you, not on themselves.

    5. Muddle the issues. Throw a bunch of things together. No good shamer makes his points one by one. He wants his victim to feel that A, B, C, and D are — however seemingly disparate — all aspects of one thing, the victim’s shame, not separate problems which might have different origins.

    6. Ask no questions. Why should you? The shamer already knows that the victim is the problem; that is all he needs to know. Questions may cause the victim to stop and think. Rhetorical questions, however, are admirable, because they give the impression that a question has been asked, thus adding to the confusion.

    7. Never reveal your true self. An obvious and basic point: attention has to be kept away from the shamer. He recedes behind his mask of righteousness. Peeking out from behind the mask would destroy the effect instantly.

    8. Don’t be wet. Never let it be suspected that you are seeking sympathy. Any tendency towards self-pity disqualifies a person from the shaming game.

    9. Never write anything. Shaming looks dumb on paper. It takes all that matters most — the tone of voice, the drama, the adrenaline — out of the game. Also writing leaves a fixed record of your words, and you might not want that later.

    10. Protest your innocence boldly. If you are challenged, half-heartedness is hopeless. You must be instantly convincing. Be ready, or you will be bogged down in discussing rights and wrongs, and then the game is lost.

  39. labnut

    Alan, you are positively Machiavellian 🙂 I suspect you would make a deadly chess player.

    7. Never reveal your true self.“.
    Here you strike at the heart of the matter discussed in this essay.

    I would modify (8) as follows:
    8) Don’t be wet. Never let sympathy, compassion or empathy spoil your game. Your opponent won’t make that mistake, if he gets the chance.

    And I would add (11) as follows:
    11) Once you have the advantage, ruthlessly pursue it to the death. Don’t be a wet.

    The chess player would understand these only too well. But life is not a game of chess. It is a different kind of game where trust is the vital ingredient that regulates the game, binding individuals into a rich, productive and useful society. The question, I think, that really matters, is this – how do we build that trust and maintain it? This was the question I wanted to discuss, but did not. Why? Because trust was absent.

    Shame, essentially, is the emotion people feel when it is revealed that they have betrayed trust. It is more than that, but this is its core.

  40. alandtapper1950

    Labnut, I’m a hopeless chess player!

    Regarding (8), my scenario was not one rationally self-interested party against another, but one predatory personality against one vulnerable one, so there is no “opponent” in what I was imagining.

    I find with your (11) that sometimes the satisfaction of shaming can be savoured in small quantities, so that going for the kill could be self-defeating.

    Yes, trust is basic to everything, and trust-building is crucial, especially in childhood, where it is especially vulnerable and easily lost.