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On the Origin of ‘Sharing’

It didn’t start with Facebook.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By STEVEN C. MUNSON
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Hers might very well be the question of the century. And it expresses what many of us have become all too painfully aware of: that being talked at by somebody intent on “sharing” is actually a way of making us feel vulnerable. “Sharing” does this by aggressively collapsing the civilized “space”​—​that is, the once-recognized as reasonable and once-experienced as comfortable boundaries​—​between the personal consciousness of the sharer and that of the sharee. Such boundaries were once routinely respected as a result of the use of good manners. Respect for the sensibilities of others constituted an important part of what it meant to behave “in good taste.”

Since the revolution in consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s, the obligation of behaving in good taste has gone the way of everything else deemed to be part of an “unnatural” and “culturally imposed” social role. Rather than thinking of how others might feel or react, as people were once taught and expected to do, being “spontaneous” and “authentic” has been the order of the day. Among other things, this has meant abandoning something previously valued and observed: reticence.

Our age is not the first in which this virtue has gone by the wayside. As Stendhal wrote of his native country, in his 19th-century treatise On Love, “In France, towards 1770, there was no such thing as reticence; on the contrary, the proper thing to do was to live and to die in public, and, inasmuch as the Duchesse de Luxembourg was intimate with a hundred friends, there was, in the strict sense of the words, no such thing as either intimacy or friendship.” 

The same could be said​—​to put it mildly​—​of the times in which we have been living, in which the once common practice of keeping things to oneself is now so unusual as to be a cause for social suspicion. At the same time, it is not uncommon for people who “share” too much to come to regret it. The reason they continue to do it anyway is that the imperative to “share” has been internalized.

The writer Walter Kirn makes this point in contrasting the compulsory “Big Brother” mentality of George Orwell’s novel 1984 with what he calls the voluntary “Little Brother” mentality promoted by the Internet. Kirn argues that today “the private and public realms are so confused that it’s best to treat them as identical. With nowhere to hide, you might as well perform, dispensing with old-fashioned notions of discretion and personal dignity.” But what Kirn calls our “quest for attention by any means” is, again, not the result of technological advance but of our having chosen to embrace the ideas advanced four decades or so ago by such revolutionary social theorists as Reich, Roszak, and Greer.

At the same time, this quest is being expanded and intensified by technology, with consequences well-limned by the novelist Zadie Smith: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. .  .  . It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

It was the “liberal-bourgeois sense of self”​—​along with respect for personal boundaries and the values of modesty, discretion, self-restraint, and reticence​—​that advocates of the revolution in consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s were intent on replacing. Their stated goal in seeking to delegitimize and overthrow this model of a modern individual was the creation of a new, “authentic,” “natural,” and “freer personality” capable of “an exchange of brotherhood and love.” The extent to which this goal has been realized, even if what is being exchanged these days is not “brotherhood and love,” can be seen in what Zadie Smith calls the passing of “a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and​—​which is more important​—​to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed.”

Instead of respect for a “private person, a person who is a mystery,” today we are faced with a kind of culturally authorized, socially approved, and technologically institutionalized impertinence: the impertinence of those who impose on us and on themselves by “sharing,” an impertinence motivated by the desperation that comes with imagining, as Charles Reich and others so long ago encouraged us to do, that “the individual self is the only true reality.”

Steven C. Munson lives and writes in Rome.

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