Out of Character? Folks

October 19, 2003



Out of Character?

Folks are often surprised when Eugene Volokh and other pundit types post recipes. Sometimes Volokh gets grief for cutting corners in those recipes, sometimes folks like them. No links, but you can find all sorts of commentary on his salmon croquettes if you google for them. Often, however, folks are surprised to see law professors and semi-professional pundits opine about things other than law and politics.

I bring this up because Cat Nastey has been having trouble with her commentators every time she changes her focus from her sexuality to the rest of her life. This got me thinking. Many people write blogs that are little more than diaries - I know that if I am at the computer I tend to blog whatever comes to mind at the moment. Many of the more readable blogs are focused in one way or another, whether on politics, or on religion, or on sexuality, or on some other hobby. Many of those blogs will often, as with Volokh and recipes, tell their readers about other interesting things in the authors' lives.

What strikes me is that many biographical blogs or commentary blogs will have an apology before giving Too Much Information - I know one person who puts spoiler space around TMI as if she were telling the plot of a movie. Many others edit themselves before giving TMI, I know that I certainly do. The odd thing is that there is a class of voyeurism blogs, like Cat Nastey's, where the entire point of the blog is that the author DOES give Too Much Information. And, oddly, those are also the blogs where commentators get all bent out of shape if the author has a life, a brain, and a personality. (Ob disclaimer, I sometimes visit voyeurism blogs for the cheap thrills, I read them more than twice for the personality)

Why is it that we are more disconcerted to discover that an exhibitionist woman likes Shakespeare than we are to find that a law professor approves of fellatio?


My first thought is that it revolves around the old Virgin/Whore dichotomy, with men feeling somehow ashamed of their own sexuality at the same time that they feel pressured to gratify their sexuality. They resolve this shame by displacing it onto the people with whom they gratify their physical desires, particularly if they have been engaged in what Gandhi called the sin of "sex without love." This is a common mental pattern among modern Western men, less common than it once was, and a pattern that the feminist in me critiques whole heartedly.

My second thought is that this is more closely tied to the history of manners and of polite behavior. Norbert Elias argues in his The Civilizing Process that manners were invented during the Early Modern era as a means by which people could create social distinctions. In the process they created social conventions that first treated defecation, urination, and filth as "disgusting" and then moved on to create refinements in the tools and methods used for eating. The whole was hinged to the use of custom and behavior to alter the animal actions of our bodies. Those who failed to follow the new social codes were stigmatized or, in extreme cases, treated as deviants.

Now, I am much happier to live in a land of flush toilets and regular baths than in the pre-modern world. The thing to note from this is that, according to Elias, the first animal actions to be marked as deviant are those that deal with elimination. Sexual actions soon followed, and although the limited privacy available before the nineteenth century certainly made sexual modesty and sexual prudery less common, sexuality was still something best reserved for private or for bed. (Pre-nineteenth century beds were often common sleeping places used by several people, not always related to one another. Consider Ishmael and Queequeg.)

Thus, to take an example of an 18th century man trying to learn his manners, the second precept George Washington wrote into his commonplace book in 1747 was "When in company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered" (made known to others) and the seventh was a warning not to go about half-dressed or change clothing when out of your chamber - both involved physical modesty. The last twenty of the one hundred ten precepts all deal with food and table manners. He does not mention sexuality, but it is hard to be sexual without going at least half dressed or putting hands to "Part of the Body, not usually Discovered."

Most of the time when people are disconcerted by Too Much Information, the information involves the groin - either sexuality or excretion. By the same token, someone whose discourse regularly involves those "Parts of the Body, not usually Discovered" has marked themselves as a person without manners or social status. They are, in the Western European caste system, unclean. For an unclean person to claim a place in polite society, especially by participating in intellectual discourse, is something that hits us on the level of basic socialization. It produces a visceral sensation of wrongness even if we can not explain why.

This second explanation for folks' disparate reactions to people who break their pattern is less helpful than the first. We can try to train ourselves not to despise our sexuality and thus not to have to displace it; we can try to train ourselves not to engage in sex without love and thus not to have to despise our sexuality. Do we really want to train ourselves to drop our basic socialization?

Thus I do think that Carly is right, and pornography will never become mainstream even though the mainstream media continue to titillate themselves and their audience with mention of or discussions about pornography. So long as we have a strong acculturation that the groin is somehow unclean and disgusting, those who make their money from exposing their groins will remain outcast.

And yet, this too is incomplete. Let us add location to our discussion. Remember that Washington made two comments about body modesty when he summarized half a dozen books of manners back in 1747. Both involved the notion of "public." Do not touch below your clothes in public, do not go unclothed outside of your chamber. He says nothing about what we do in private. Indeed, because we can not escape the animal nature of our bodies, we resolve our learned disgust by seeking privacy to fulfill the animal need of elimination: the "littlest room." We could very well have decided that we would need privacy to fulfill the animal need of consumption, private dining rooms hint that way, but we did not. What is done in private may be disgusting to others, but because it is kept behind closed doors we effectively tell others that they need not concern themselves with it. In private, we do as we please.

The question of Too Much Information, then, turns from one of manners and the groin to a question of public and private. And, the line between public and private has moved and continues to move. We can continue to agree that some behavior is public and should be carried out regardless of whether others are around, and that some behavior is private and should only be engaged in when by ourselves. We disagree about where the line should be drawn (kissing in public? holding hands?) but we agree that there are some lines (pooping with the doors open).

Thinking in these terms helps us resolve the question of what is going on with the disparate reactions to people who go out of character in their blogs. The question about blogs boils down to whether a blog is a public or a private document. That, in turn, will vary by blog. Greg Easterbrook's blog-column for The New Republic is obviously public, so is Glenn Reynolds at MSNBC. Blogs written for a friend or a family or as the electronic version of a diary are more private. Many of these, the truly private blogs, are either kept locked and password protected or are rendered effectively anonymous through obscurity. If you do not tell anyone about your blog, they can not read it. Thus, most of the blogs that we actually read are semi-public. They are edited glimpses into the author's thoughts; nothing could be more intimate. But these thoughts have been shared, and edited, and selected.

A blog exists in an intermediate sphere, part public and part private. There are many transitory zones like this. Consider that while most work places are public by definition, most people work with a small group of people who get to know over a period of time. You can get to know your co-workers and become intimate with their thoughts and personalities, although you need not do so. Intimacy varies from person to person. We can think of the gradations of public and private in terms of intimacy.

"Too Much Information", then, will depend on the level of intimacy that exists between two individuals. This is something that is difficult to measure, and so to prevent embarrassment most of us limit the personal information that we share with people.

We can now answer the question we first posed, why do some forms of sharing violate some readers' expectations? When Volokh shares a cake, or a salmon croquette he is sharing something that he cares about, that he likes, but that is not particularly intimate. We do, after all, eat food in the company of strangers. It fits with the level of intimacy he has created in his blog. When Kat shares her love of Shakespeare, it fits perfectly with a blog that is a fairly intimate disclosure of the things that she cares about.

I suspect that the people who are offended or bothered by it are bothered because it violates their expectations of intimacy. They had come looking for a fairly mechanical discussion of ballistics (the science of moving bodies.) When she shares her ideas, she has opened up a level of intimacy that does not exist. My blog is in some ways the converse of the sex blogs: I share my mind and my ideas and am reticent about my animal nature. If I were to recount a sexual encounter, or tell you about my latest poop, it would jar and disconcert my readers just as her revelation of emotion and intellect disconcert hers.

And so to post some followups - let me know if you waded this far.

Posted by Red Ted at October 19, 2003 10:34 AM | TrackBack