A few months ago, I posted thoughts (“Publicity, Celebrity, and Salvation”) about my continuing effort to understand how our longing for a more perfect form of action, encapsulated in the term “publicity,” might offer us a compelling language for what we call “salvation.” Our inability to understand this longing for a fuller public life in a theological framework has left us unable to capture the importance of this longing as well as to critique its degeneration into the “celebrity” forms that imperil the publics of our constitutional order.
The ongoing disclosures of sexual assault, threats, and manipulation by powerful men over subordinate and dependent women in all areas of our life lead me to reflect on another facet of publicity, namely its necessary corollary, privacy. From the standpoint of viewing salvation as an ultimate form of publicity, our drive to bring everything into the light of public confirmation, praise, and judgment participates in the process of the perfection of life we call salvation. Coming out of the darkness, secrets, and lies of closets, bedrooms, boardrooms, and prisons is, ultimately, a saving process. This is the dynamic now exposing the abuse of power in private settings today.
However, under the conditions of finitude, fear, anxiety, and inequality (“sin and death,” as traditional theology says), we cannot live in such glaring publicity. We cannot trust others to respect our personhood in a common world of values and commitments. We have to have private lives that cannot be easily penetrated by the public eye. We need them to rehearse our lives, seek the trust of intimate partners, family, and friends, and recover from our mistakes. The elimination of privacy for the sake of the ordinary publicity of our own world can open the door to totalitarian extinction of genuine publics and the publicity they require. Elimination of privacy would make impossible the intimate, loving trust in which friendship, communion, and truly sacred intimacy resides.
What kind of privacy, then, is to be protected at all costs for the sake of a genuinely public life? The short answer is that privacy requires the basic equality of power that is the core of justice in order to sustain the process of mutual confirmation that builds persons who have the strength, courage, and independent judgment to enter fuller publics. These purposes constitute the very basis for safeguarding privacy. Where this equality is lacking we need the corrective power of publicity to expose and assess the justice of specific acts and relationships as well as constrain the abuses of power exercised in private. The task we face, then, is not only that of protecting and nurturing our public life, but also cultivating genuine privacy while exposing the private inequality which prevents people from developing a fuller life as persons, citizens, believers, and, yes, lovers.