Publicity and Public Life
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When reading Susan Okin's argument, I was struck that there is more to say
than she says here about the muddled and contradictory nature of thought about
privacy and publicity in liberal and other political systems. Okin's own discussion
focuses particularly on the dilemmas when "Western liberal societies" confront
multiculturalism. This starting point bothers me. Liberal political theorists
are in the habit of insisting that Western societies "are liberal"; they do
this to promote liberal values and principles. But in Western societies conservatism,
social democracy, socialism, anarchism, and feminism, among other-isms, compete
with liberalism for dominance. The exact admixture varies, according to the
strength of different traditions of social and political thought in a society,
and varying political histories--the contest of different parties and party
systems, for instance, or the lasting salience of different social conflicts.
For these reasons, I will discuss the confusions about ideas of privacy without
assuming a "liberal" setting.
Okin argues that liberalism as much as other ideologies will have difficulty
achieving sexual equality, because gender and sexual relations are central
to culture, culture is reproduced and transmitted to a large extent in households,
and in many (including liberal) cultures sexual relations are thought of as
It's difficult to make strict sense of this privacy claim. In all cultures
and according to all political ideologies, social norms govern household,
kinship, and sexual relations. Deviant behavior attracts a range of interpersonal,
social, and even legal sanctions. Likewise, social and public discourses--religious
and cultural prescriptions, gossip, fictional representations, journalism--focus
and comment on household, kinship, and sexual relations. There may, of course,
be variation in the extent to which comment and action by various agents (neighbors,
socially dominant groups, state functionaries) is considered legitimate. But
it is difficult to imagine any society and polity in which these matters are
If they are not strictly private, to what extent are they public? Publicity
figures prominently in Okin's analysis at several points.
First, there is the contrast between the public row about girls wearing headscarves
in French schools, and the silent or quiet tolerance and subsequent intolerance
of polygamy on the part of the French government. Mechanisms of administrative
and bureaucratic discretion work in response to governmental imperatives,
and may hardly be noticed, let alone debated, by citizens.
Second, in most cultures--whether minority or majority--it is men who articulate
and legitimate group beliefs, practices, norms, etc. That is, men's voices
are audible and men's analyses and prescriptions are promulgated within the
relevant culture and across cultural boundaries.
Third, cultural practices and ideologies of gender have in many contexts
to be publicly justified. Almost invariably "gender" resolves into the control
of women by men. In broadly liberal cultures it is common for this to be denied;
in others, people are much more explicit and honest, and when explaining practices
like clitoridectomy will say out loud that there is a need for girls to be
submissive wives, and the like.
Fourth, in Western societies where there are minority cultures, it typically
takes "extraordinary circumstances" for states and governmental authorities
to be concerned with minority practices such as forced marriages, and for
subsequent publicity in the press and broadcast media.
Okin's analysis emphasizes, implicitly, the political need--from a feminist
standpoint--to publicize what are assumed by members of minority and majority
cultures and states, in a rather muddled way, to be private matters; and to
publicize voices and views that hitherto have been silent and unarticulated.
If we analyze "publicize" by reference to the examples from Okin's discussion,
we generate the following:
1. make a matter of governmental, administrative, and judicial business and
2. make a matter of interest in "the forum"--whatever and wherever that is.
In modern societies "forums" are likely to make use of if not actually be
constituted by the press and broadcast media;
3. make visible and make audible;
4. make inter-cultural.
If the first three conditions are satisfied then, ipso facto, discourse,
discussion, dispute, deliberation, etc. cannot be confined within the boundaries
of one culture. Or can they? Of course, the satisfaction of the fourth condition
depends on the structure of the press and broadcast media, and on the structure
of government and the lines of transaction between it and civil society. If
these are segmented and culturally confined, then "public" discourse can be
Feminist arguments against traditional privacy ideas, and for the politicization
of such matters as sexual relations and interpersonal transactions, have often
been misrepresented by conservatives, socialists, and liberals as licensing
state interference in intimate spaces. This is rubbish--what is actually hoped
for is public negotiation of new gender relations and norms, and their political
adoption. That means: deliberate, principled adoption, with the possibility
that the decision will be changed in further political process. Not: their
coming into being as a result of economic exchanges or cultural evolution.
(Although cultural evolution is an important element of feminist models of
There is a problem, as Okin's examples and discussion make vivid, when "public
deliberation and action" is left to bureaucratic governmental decision making--whether
in a democracy or other kind of polity, whether accompanied or not by public
announcement and articulation and defense of policy. The press is a priceless
resource for the voicing of claims--as Okin's account of journalistic coverage
of women's views of polygamy shows. But journalists and reporters work in
an industry whose production conditions and market logic are not conducive
to the careful evaluation of social science, or the accurate representation
of new theories, or the fair presentation of novel political and social positions.
Though the press and broadcast media may be our "forum," the structure of
the industry can divide it so as to threaten cross- cultural communication.
The feminist project is to provoke serious, public, political discussion
of gender relations, in which women's voices are heard. We can't say, in advance,
what conclusions will issue from those discussions. But we can say that arguments
for depriving classes of adult persons of resources like jobs, legal equality,
or sexual self-determination (that is, the right not to have sexual relations
with any person one does not choose oneself) are difficult to sustain when
they are publicly audible, visible, scrutinisable, and challengeable.