Archive for August, 2017

Public Selves

Monday, August 21st, 2017

A young man has decided not to attend Boston University this fall after being outed as a Charlottesville marcher. He’s received death threats which he considers “a liability to [his] brand” and his “academic success.” He’s troubled that the threats come from people he’s “never met…never had a conversation with.”

Conversations with people you disagree with are, of course, to be encouraged (though you might struggle to find common ground with someone for whom “Sieg heil!” is an appropriate public utterance). But the suggestion that people who’ve never met this young man don’t know him bears further examination. It’s a little Trumpian. One of Trump’s responses to Khizr Khan was that Khan had “never met [him].” During the campaign, he frequently complained that people who criticized him didn’t know him, as if his public self weren’t amply on display.

It’s often said by those who know Trump that he’s more reasonable in private; he’s kind to his family; genial to his friends; promotes talented women in his businesses. Only the last has real public implications, and it exists in the context of a long public record of misogyny. Some of Trump’s supporters seem genuinely confused by the differences between his public self and his private one. When during the campaign Chris Christie declared that Trump had dropped the birther stuff a long time ago, he may have been lying; or he may have been thrown by a disconnect between his friend’s private statements and his public ones.

This blurring of the line between public and private has always been a hazard of those with access to wealth and power. It’s too easy to assume that your friends and acquaintances, not to mention your Dad, could never be forces for evil in the world. It’s too easy to forget that the qualities that make someone a good dinner companion or golf partner don’t necessarily translate into goodness in the public sphere.

But the complaint that “they’ve never met me” seems to reject the idea of a public self altogether. We’re not to be judged by our public actions or rhetoric but by who we are inside or in our living rooms. Trump may be right that there were some “very fine people” in the march at Charlottesville—generous to their friends, devoted to their families, supportive of churches and charities. But their public selves were horrendous. And, at the moment, their public selves were what mattered.

On some level, our would-be student understands this. He’s worried about his “brand.” Here, too, he echoes Trump, whose career can best be understood as the development and marketing of a brand. But a brand is not a self. It elides the responsibility of a public self, which is profoundly still a self, perhaps even the most important self. And that might go a long way to explaining the trouble we’re in.