When Privacy Goes Public

Flagrant evils cure themselves by being flagrant; and we are sanguine that the time is come when so great an evil as this is, cannot stand its ground against the good feeling and common sense of religious persons.—Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua

It is not only Christians who protest the decadence of the age. Recently actor Emilio Estevez, a self-described agnostic, remarked “There are less and less movies to go to – films without overt sexuality and language that won’t make me blush. We’re all tired of what’s coming out of Hollywood.” Some of my favorite contemporary commentators, Roger Scruton and Theodore Dalrymple (neither of whom are Christian) have been outspokenly critical of public hedonism and exhibitionism.

I write this amid the annual farcical outrage over “banned books” (that aren’t really banned) when we must wallow in the self-righteous libertinism that one segment of the population has hypocritically forced on the rest of us. It gives lie to the cliché that “if you don’t like what others indulge in, just ignore it.”  The problem is that we can’t. Whether it’s bedroom attire or intimate phone conversations, we are forced to endure much more of others’ lifestyle choices than common courtesy demands.

Flagrant vices are more obvious, but they can also be harder to oppose after decades of subtle desensitization. Ever since Lady Chatterley’s Lover was deemed acceptable in the 1960s, we have steadily transitioned from elitist high-brow obscenity to our present mass lewdness. The real flagrancy, I would argue, is not in the excesses themselves but the way in which they have been “mainstreamed.” Overt pornography is still considered bad taste for most people, yet soft-porn (often indistinguishable from the hard stuff in its overall intent and effect) is widely disseminated in literature and entertainment to people of all ages.

If we cannot intrude into everyone’s private life let’s at least be consistent and keep certain pastimes private. It does not seem very draconian or stifling to say that permissiveness should be confined to the fringes of polite society where the moral, psychological and even physical ills they occasion can be minimized. Along those lines, one wonders if we could avoid much of the cant and contention over the “censorship” debate by simply re-casting the issue: it is about preserving meaningful privacy and respecting the rights of people who do not want to share in others’ vices.

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