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Re: Public

July 11th, 2005 · 9 Comments

When a use of language is described as “Orwellian,” usually the speaker means that obfuscatory or euphemistic terms are deliberately being used for political purposes to hoodwink listeners. But Orwell was also always concerned with the corrosive effects of merely sloppy language. A case in point is the ambiguity in the terms public and private.

A restaurant is, in one sense, a “private” place if it’s not owned by the government, yet in another sense it’s clearly a “public” place. If I say something ought to be done “privately” I may (depending on the context) mean only that the government ought not to be in charge of it, or I may mean that it should be done out of public view, by individuals and perhaps their families rather than larger social groups.

At the risk of imbuing words with too much power, I wonder whether that ambiguity hasn’t made it easier for people to accept, for instance, regulations like smoking bans that they’d never dream of imposing on private homes. For many, the idea that the bar owner should be shown the same deference as a home owner, at least in many areas, seems simply baffling. That’s not to say that there aren’t some plausible enough arguments for treating them differently—indeed, in some cases correct arguments—but it seems as though there’s an easy slide, above and beyond those arguments, from thinking of a place as “public” in the sense of open to “most anyone who wants to go in” (maybe subject to some “no shirt, no shoes, no service” type caveats) and “public” in the sense of “subject to the public will in the same way ‘public’ schools should be.”

Which brings us to this Washington Post column, which William Raspberry essentially handed over to quotes from some hack named Kevin Hanson who’s bitter about church-state separation:

“There’s nothing in common sense — and certainly nothing in the First Amendment — that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be ‘secular’ takes you.” [….]

Hasson is not just playing word games. He thinks the notion that religion should be expressed only in private — and never in the context of government — is a serious misreading of human nature.

“We don’t believe in private because we don’t live in private,” he declares in his book to be published in September, “The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America.”

“This has always been the case. We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the ‘Messiah’ and write ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture. . . . It’s how we’re made.”

Note the conflation at work: To suggest that there ought not to be public (governmental) endorsement of religion is apparently tantamount to saying that there ought not be public (cultural, social) expression of religious sentiments. Shouldn’t the “render unto Caesar” crowd, more than anyone, be wary of this sloppy equation of the state and society?

Tags: Language and Literature



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Grant Gould // Jul 12, 2005 at 10:55 am

    I’ve made a conscious attempt to stop using the term “public” to refer to the government, to train myself out of that bad habit. I think that speaking like that is just the sort of fundamental sloppiness that Orwell decried — a word usage that implicitly endorses a political view and neuters opposition.

    We can say all we want that society and the government are different, that the government is not the community, but when we then turn around and speak of “the public sector,” we undo that. Letting the term “public” come to include the government — one of the least public institutions around — was a rhetorical error from the start, and it’s time that we start fighting it.

  • 2 Scott Scheule // Jul 12, 2005 at 2:24 pm

    Fair enough, but public has a long history of being used to refer to government — one of the strongest critiques of classical liberalism is the critique of the public-private distinction, with public referring to government action.

    One could attempt to reclaim the term, but one might as well make a go for retaking “liberal” while he’s at it.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jul 12, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    I actually don’t think getting “liberal” back is that big a stretch. Outside the U.S. (and as a result among many educated folks here… the Economist readers, anyway) “liberal” still carries the connotation of a free-marketeer. Those who used to call themselves “liberal,” restyled as “progressives,” are running like hell from the term, and in political philosophy it’s still generally used in a big-tent way that covers both egalitarians and libertarians. I’m about as likely to describe myself (and others with similar views) as “liberal” as I am to use the word “libertarian”–the former’s actually the one I use more often if I know the people around will know what I mean.

  • 4 digamma // Jul 12, 2005 at 4:41 pm

    In Orwell’s country, a “public school” is what Americans would call a “private school”. What Americans call a bar, they call a “public house”. If your theory were correct, Brits would be quicker to regulate these institutions than Americans. Whether that is the case or not is beyond me.

  • 5 Kevin O'Reilly // Jul 12, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Aha! Julian, I knew you were a librul ever since that piece on the University of Michigan case. Now you actually admit it!

    [Insert obligatory smiley here.]

  • 6 Joe's Little Sister // Jul 12, 2005 at 10:16 pm

    interesting that you bring this up – this Orwellian obfuscatory doublespeak stuff. I was just thinking today about switching my thesis topic (again) to something about that…and relating it to anthropology somehow. hm.

    well, nice to meet you julian. drop me a line anytime. hope to hear from you!

  • 7 Joe's Little Sister // Jul 12, 2005 at 10:23 pm

    p.s. sorry I didn’t read the rest of your entry before I commented on it. it’s clear from my comment that i wasn’t really paying attention. and it’s too bad because you make a really interesting point that would have been interesting to comment on.

    oh well too late now i guess…

  • 8 David // Jul 13, 2005 at 12:41 am

    Note the conflation at work: To suggest that there ought not to be public (governmental) endorsement of religion is apparently tantamount to saying that there ought not be public (cultural, social) expression of religious sentiments.

    I think you’re reading him to literally. When I read the column, I understood him to be arguing that eliminating religion in the public (governmental) sphere has the effect of hindering cultural and social expressions of religion by making a statement in favor of the secular.

  • 9 Nathan Freeman // Jul 14, 2005 at 7:51 am

    Actually, Julian, I think setting this distinction might be more plausible than you think. Observe the software communities adherence to the “free as in beer” meme.

    Maybe you can get something started on these lines. “Public as in forced” versus “Public as in social.”