As our culture increasingly calls for public honesty, Jeremy Adam Smith writes, sometimes we need to hold back.
Recently, the Good Men Project published an essay of mine about the lines of privacy in marriage, in which I argue that spouses have both the right to secrets and the obligation to be as honest with each other as possible, using porn as a case study. That sounds like a paradox to some, I’m sure, and here I want to offer up another paradox: That in the age of transparency, we as daddy bloggers have the obligation to speak out and tell our stories—but we also have the right to privacy.
That’s probably not a controversial point with most readers (striking the balance is what we call a public persona), but I have been challenged many times to “tell the whole truth” about my life—or, in my journalism, to dig beneath the surface of what moms and dads tell me about their family lives, to get at “the real truth.” This often has a lascivious undercurrent, as when people want to know how many stay-at-home dads and moms have had affairs. There is a certain, growing strain of thinking in our culture that worries that anything we reveal in public must be a lie of some kind, that surely we’re hiding something, and of course we are. There’s tremendous pressure to reveal more, more, more. This pressure is social—but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, it’s also financial.
As I write at Good Men, this mirrors a dynamic in contemporary American marriages. Today our ideal marriage tends to be totally consuming, in that we expect total transparency and involvement from our partners. But this is a pretty new, fairly unstable (as measured by the divorce rate) social experiment we’ve got going on here in college-educated twenty-first-century America. There are other ideas of marriage that allow both partners to have extensive, separate lives outside of marriage, in friendships and community involvement—and there are ideas of marriage that allow both partners to cultivate inner lives apart from their partners. In other words, they don’t expect total transparency and disclosure. Spouses are allowed to have some privacy. Many marriages are battlegrounds between these competing ideals, with spouses fighting over every intimate inch of private ground.
A battle between transparency and privacy also rages through the public sphere, online and off. As a culture, we’ve evolved into an exhibitionistic beast in which people reveal the most intimate details of their lives through memoirs, Reality TV, social media, and blogs—and in my view, it’s no accident that this exhibitionism has grown up alongside the rise of the Christian Right in American culture and politics. Moral absolutism goes hand in hand with the assault on privacy, feeding each other. From this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg and Mike Huckabee are allies. We’re at the point where people who cultivate private lives seem suspicious: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why hide?”
In my Good Men essay, I write the following:
In marriage, disclosure and transparency are important—but we must also recognize the genuine doubts and anxieties that hold our spouses back from being completely honest with us. In fact, I’d go further and argue that to make our confessions compulsory robs them of their power. It’s the struggle to reach the point of confession that defines us, not the split-second catharsis of confession all by itself. To put it another way, truth is a road we build as we travel, not a destination. We don’t have to tell everybody everything all at once.
I’d like to suggest that the same principle applies to disclosure in public life, especially for those of us who write about marriage and family on blogs, in books and magazines, through social media. In both in marriage and in the culture at large, for individuals, honesty is important—but it should not be obligatory. In the essay I mention that I had a conversation with my wife about pornography, but I don’t feel the need to share the details of that conversation with you, dear reader, though doing so would doubtless drive traffic and catalyze outrageous comments that would feed the search machine that would drive even more traffic, and thus generate advertising dollars (if we took ads here, which we don’t).
In a very real way, we now live in an economy of confession. Our intimate details can be monetized.It’s up to each person how monetized they want to be. No one makes any money off this blog (and no one ever will). But I’m a writer and I’ve written about my life in blogs and magazines and books, and I’ve gotten paid for it. I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you’re welcome to friend or follow me. But I have rules and lines I’m not willing to cross, which have been set with my wife’s input. We’re selective. I defend our right to be selective. It’s our call, not yours, and people who wants to violate the boundaries we set can go fuck themselves.
So why talk about my private life, or write about other people’s private lives, at all? Why be a daddy blogger? Why write personal essays? Some people do indeed think I should just shut up—more than a few folks have implied that I do this for some combination of money or attention. These are often the same people who demand “the whole truth.” And let’s not pussyfoot around: money is nice, because we need it for food and shelter and books. Attention is important because in our economy attention, like intimacy, can be monetized. And vanity is also a factor in all writing.
However, “the real truth” is that there are better ways to make a living than to write about fatherhood and family. In fact, I suspect doing so has caused some serious damage to the rest of my career as a journalist. Many potential employers worry about hiring a guy who speaks out openly about prioritizing family. Many journalistic employers simply don’t take family issues seriously—I don’t seem “serious” to them since I write about “soft” things like male caregiving. I should be covering wars, business, technology. Man things.
So, again: Why do it? I do it because parents get a raw deal in our society and I want to do something to make it easier for us. I see my writing about fatherhood to be a form of political and cultural activism—among other things, through my work I’m campaigning for more people to recognize that today’s fathers have caregiving responsibilities that demand new public and workplace policies, stuff like paternity leave and flextime. I think a narrow, rigid definition of masculinity has caused an incredible amount of damage to our psyches, our bodies, our marriages. Redefining fatherhood and masculinity demands that we strive to be honest about our lives—to tell the truth, for example, about how we feel when we denied access to our children through divorce or workplace pressures. The more honest we can be, the more powerful our stories will be.
But that is not the same as arguing for verbal diarrhea. As Ernest Hemingway knew and practiced so well, power can also arise from what we choose not to say, from the silences that surround the words we speak. I’ve never been sold on the idea that men and women speak separate languages, but there is certainly a hardboiled male mode of communication (not shared by all men or all cultures) that seeks an artful modulation between silence and confession, secrets and disclosure, which can create a deep pressure that turns men’s inner lives into diamonds. I try to give that tradition—the one that defined our grandfathers—the respect it deserves, and I try to learn from it, build on it, use it to redefine who we are as guys.
I also believe that there are other priorities that can and should undermine public “honesty.” There’s the privacy of our spouses and children; there’s the pressure of our careers, which are the means of supporting our families. These things are important. There are also secrets, our own and others’, that we want or need to protect. That’s OK. Resisting the assault on privacy and the monetization of intimacy (of which porn is an example, incidentally) is a form of activism as well.