Sunday, September 28, 2008

On duty, privacy and liberty

A thought and form of words that has stayed with me was Chris Dillow's idea that public life understood as a revelation of one's own personality has profoundly illiberal implications. It's worth exploring because usually it's identified with the opposite - that there's something liberating about 'being yourself' and 'expressing yourself'. Duty, on the other hand, has long been understood as something stifling - oppressive precisely because it implies the opposite; the forced playing of a role that runs counter to one's 'true self'. If the former is really illiberal, I'm wondering if the latter is really more liberal; because it implies limits, it permits privacy in the way that the let it all hang out theory of public life does not. One gets the sense that the very notion of being 'off-duty' is alien to those who espouse this modern work-ethic - for how can one possibly take time off from being yourself?

A couple of recent event made me think of this again. One was personal. I was looking for some temp work to supplement my patchy income so posted a CV to some outfit running an educational helpline. Despite being qualified (able to form sentences; skint enough to accept shit wages) I could not take up the post because I smoke. This had nothing to do with the possibility that I may drop dead at any moment but rather because the employees were also expected to dispense advice about giving up smoking.

Various people were outraged on my behalf but strangely I wasn't. Because this isn't only about smoking but the more general idea that a job is no longer something you do; today it is something you are expected to be. This brings me to the next example, which was Sarah Brown introducing her man to the Labour party conference. Norm is rightly dismissive:
"If this isn't dumbing down for political dummies, orchestrated by the press, it's dumbing down for political dummies. So Sarah loves Gordon - what the hell has it got to do with his qualities of leadership?"
Absolutely nothing of course - but it's a symptom of this general idea of the revealed personality. Blair was never done with this what was for me pretty sick-making stuff about what he believed, felt, was sincere about - as if this should exempt him from further criticism or something.

With Brown this kind of shmultz doesn't come naturally and I for one wish his spin-doctors wouldn't bother trying to change this. As it is, I'm pretty tired of reading about what the 'real' Gordon Brown's like in private already - not least because we already know it's completely irrelevant to how he does his job. For example, we were told that Brown, because he's from a dismal Calvinist background, is 'careful with money'. Fair enough - personally, I'm sure this is true. However, since this obviously serves as no guide as to what's going to happen to tax-payer's money, I don't see how the fact that he served fairly cheap but agreeable champagne from Sainsbury's at his wedding is that relevant.

Hope you can catch the music of what I'm saying here because these ideas still haven't crystallised properly and I'm quite sure others have said it more clearly elsewhere. There is no longer the done thing - only one own's thing. It sounds vaguely Burkean but it was actually a lament that can be found in this volume. It's something to do with the idea that the private should be expressed in public - a general discomfort with the idea of playing a role and of carrying out duty in general. It tends to be expressed in a rejection of formalism in dress or procedure - on the grounds that this is less real, that it is inauthentic. It is why, for example, whenever school uniform is discussed, there is always a considerable constituency that argues it inhibits 'self-expression'.

But I'm wondering if this path we've been traveling down for the last couple of decades at least hasn't doubled-backed to our disadvantage? Bringing the private into the public has resulted in not a transformation of our public lives so much as a shrinking of the private sphere. I find it difficult to describe but it's the process by which the done thing is replaced with one own's thing, only to discover one's own thing is acceptable provided it's the company thing. What today's company expects is not merely for the worker to execute one's duty with competence and diligence. This would never do because this interpretation of one's responsibilities leaves out the need to believe - the essential prerequisite for being your job.

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