Friday, September 1, 2017

Losing the Soliloquy

I recently read a mediocre thriller by Dave Eggers called The Circle. It's not a good book, but the premise is timely and intriguing. A young woman gets a job at a Facebook-like California social media corporation whose ultimate aim is 100% "transparency," not of the company, but of its billions of customers. Users are urged to "go clear," which means to commit their every activity to film and on-line posting. The rationale is that mutual universal visibility will promote an honest society. "Privacy is secrecy," and secrecy means shame, and why do anything shameful? Allowing the world full viewing privileges to your life will prompt you to behave well. When we all behave well, we have utopia.

Sadly, Eggers fails to develop this premise into a plot with the slightest degree of nuance, complexity, or believability, partly by refusing to let any character raise the argument on behalf of privacy that will occur to most readers. No one in the book objects that a loss of privacy is also a loss of intimacy, since while privacy hides shame, it also allows specialness. (Even the young woman's ex-boyfriend, who is adamantly opposed to the intrusive "Circle," does not hit on this objection.) It also makes no sense that none of the Circle's thousands of young-genius employees questions the
"transparency = honesty" equation. The idea that people will straighten up and fly right if a million viewers are watching them has been proposed in science fiction before, in The Light of Other Days, by Stephen Baxter. Yet I think we already have enough evidence to say this idea is wrong.

What's the evidence? Well, consider our world. You can't board a plane or buy a cup of coffee at Starbuck's or engage in sexist "boys' talk" (though in your late 50s) on a bus with a TV show host without risking a public Internet disclosure of your activities. Folks can no longer walk away from an unpleasant or shameful encounter -- one in which someone swore, or threatened to punch someone over an undesirable seat location, or said something crude or mean at a restaurant table or (again) on a bus -- thinking, "Well, I'll never see those people again." Now, you might very well see those people again, and they you, on Youtube. They might see you a lot of times.

So, do we think twice before acting and speaking? Do we have our ideal, well-mannered, thoughtful society yet? Nope. We do a lot of after-the-act apologizing, and businesses create some new rules for their employees. But it turns out it's not that easy to behave well. What happens instead, as we -- each other's audience -- become accustomed to the display of our dark sides, is that we lower our standards for speech and behavior. When slime is on the outside, you get used to slime.

Ours is a world without soliloquy.

In the plays of Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists (though the tradition dates back to Euripides), the soliloquy was the medium by which a character made his innermost thoughts known to the audience. It was the dramatic vehicle for dreadful musings, malicious plotting, and dire confessions. In soliloquy Hamlet's uncle admits to his brother's murder and to the resultant "double business" of seeming a just king while being a guilty politician. In soliloquy Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III) unfolds his plot to lie and murder his way to the crown, and Iago sets forth his plan to slander both Cassio and Desdemona in his quest for a military lieutenancy. "So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all." The soliloquy's usefulness as a dramatic device requires a gap between the speaker's public and private selves. We, the playgoers, are privy to the soliloquy only because we exist outside the speaker's world. If any character overheard what was said, Iago's game -- and Claudius', and Richard's -- would be up. The tragic soliloquy enacts the necessary difference between private vice and public virtue.

It follows that soliloquies show that public virtue may be a sham. But the soliloquist's impulse to feign goodness at least upholds an idea of right behavior. Four hundred years after Shakespeare, we live in a world where private disclosures ever more frequently become public ones, yet virtue has not overtaken the conversations of public figures (or of anyone else) as a result. In fact, the opposite is true. Shabby nastiness eclipses the virtuous ideal. We accept it. We excuse it. We vote for it.

Things that come out of the shadows do not become beautiful in the sunlight. They stand revealed in their ugliness. Indeed, they revel in their unseemliness. This happens when an Iowa congressman states in a speech that "we cannot restore our civilization with someone else's babies" (we being white folks, presumably). Public ugliness is vindicated, or shown not to matter, when a Montana congressional candidate assaults a reporter, wins an election despite public video of the attack, then reneges on his perfunctory post-election promise to make amends to his victim. And shamefulness is trumpeted when a president's public comments vary so little in degree of outrageousness from his private ones as to make no difference. The examples of this last are so numerous that they've become banal -- that's my point -- but here's a recent one. Trump's revelation that he'd timed his justice-impeding pardon of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio just as Hurricane Harvey was approaching Texas so as to garner high news "ratings" is the type of admission Richard III would have consigned to soliloquy. Yet Trump proudly confessed this plot to reporters. When is a plot not a plot? When it's a Tweet. And unlike for Iago and Claudius when their corruption is made public, there's no fallout or punishment for Trump's unconscionable behavior. We're too used to open horridness.

Welcome to the utopian world which has left secrecy behind. Unfortunately, our leaders' new transparency hasn't made them good. It's only made them -- to quote Shakespeare -- "shame-proof."

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