[posting][opinion] Conscientious Objection and Ideological Dominance within Public and Private Spaces

Warning: This a form of musing. The ideas presented here are by no means definitive and have been posted for shared consideration.

Every man’s home is his castle.

Although this proverb is a unsophisticated sentiment which leaves aside the complexities of the interplay between pro-social behaviour and individual expression of conviction, more people than you think act out this principle in more ways than one. For example, should businesses (“a man’s castle”) provide services to people with whom they differ on serious ideological principles? I’m not talking about basic human care – food and health services, but other lesser functions of culture: non-essential products, specific social events, and expressions of personal standards. Furthermore, if a religious baker cannot refuse to cater for a gay wedding, on what basis (or by what right) are businesses able to withhold their advertisements from certain YouTube channels or accounts? Demonetization on YouTube is a big problem; YouTube has been caught “removing ads from offensive or poor-quality videos”, which leads me to wonder about the role of ‘conscientious objection’ as well as the representations and common (mis)understandings of private and public spheres. When and where and how is one allowed to say ‘no’?

Before continuing, I would posit that there are two spheres (in general): public and private. Everyone in society (and culture) participates within these spheres to a greater or lesser degree. As usual with most complex social systems, the delineation and definitions of what constitutes public and private is a matter for debate. From person to person, the manner in which these delineations and definitions are carried out can be very different. For the purpose of this discussion, I would suggest that the public sphere constitutes both material space (a mall or public square) and conceptual space (an institution or nation). Private spheres similarly may be located within the material (a home, a business) and the conceptual (individuals).

A difficulty remains: it is not apparent to me that the difference between public and private are always clear cut. For example, unlike in the old days where usually a single person owned a business or trade, corporations nowadays are directed by boards (groups of people). Also, egalitarian approaches to marriage have removed power from a singular (male) head toward a “couple”-centric leadership. Yet, I would argue that to a certain extent, one could argue that whether an “individual” is composed of a singular entity or a couple or a group of people, the unity of goal and purpose defines the group as a singular body. This pro-social grouping ensures completions of tasks, security, and support, but carries with it the danger of sweeping the individual away in the face of tribal necessity.

A balance is required.

A series of diagrams popped into my head at around 1:30 AM last night, and I ended up scribbling them down in my Note 4. They will become the starting point for my attempt to unravel the intricacies of public-private ownership and our agency within them.

Diagram 1

In Diagram 1, I drew a big blue sphere to represent public and two yellow spheres originally inside the blue sphere. I also drew private sphere circles outside the public sphere. This was my first attempt to consider how we both operate within and without the strictures of society. The self, in this diagram, is compartmentalized between the private and public spheres, which is unfortunate because than we have people up to no good (or up to good) behind closed doors. Examples of this kind of situation that leap to mind are Resistance fighters or people hiding Jews in Nazi Europe OR the breeding of terrorists and the creation of terrorist cells on North American soil. Less hostile situations could include closeted gays or the example of my childhood – homeschooling in secret during the early ‘90s in Southern Ontario. At any rate, the splitting of self may create stress on certain individuals as a result.

Diagram 2.png

In Diagram 2, we can see how stress may be magnified within certain individuals when it comes to negotiating social expectations. The private sphere may differ in focus and effect.

Focus is defined by what the individual determines as important for their well-being and/or happiness. These foci may look like rules or expectations that the person applies to themselves and others (depending on the breadth of the effect). Foci could include basic expectations (the right to live, for example) as well as more specified desires (to be gay, to eat ice cream, to exercise religious convictions, to vote for the Green Party).

Effect determines the impact of an individual’s private sphere in relationship to other private spheres and the public sphere in general. Taking the Big Five into consideration, it is easy to see how people gifted with disagreeable natures would have a larger effect on a social system – especially if they are extraverted. Individuals with greater effect are potentially more aggressive in maintaining and propagating their private sphere foci.

Diagram 3.png

Diagram 3 continues this thought – how strong, aggressive, dominant personalities create larger spaces while less strong, more agreeable, subordinate individuals may end up with little to no voice (or agency). Of course, not all strong people make a splash. I would say that I am a person who has very strong personal convictions about a number of things – but my personality is such that one may not be aware how unmoveable I am until those boundaries are crossed. Therefore, you could say that when two people come into conflict, it is not just a matter of conflicting opinions, but also conflicting expectations. Since some individuals will fight more strongly for personal expectations, others may lose (or recede temporarily). Finally, I would suggest that few individuals remain static their entire lives, as is evident from the rise and fall of empires historically. Just like empires, individuals (and their subcultural groups) gain and lose voice throughout time.

Diagram 4a.png

Diagram 4 is an outline of how the public sphere is mediated within the private. Let’s say that the yellow public sphere is a restaurant. Let’s posit that the restaurant has a smoking section. #1 will be Jill who loves to smoke, and, following the local by-laws, smokes in the smoking section of the restaurant. She is operating within the legal system and is pursuing her desire, her freedom, to smoke. #3 is Karen. She also enjoys having a smoke now and then, but today she can’t smoke because she’s with #2, Toni. Toni, a non-smoker, doesn’t want to be stuck in the smoking section. At this point in time, Karen has to decide whether her freedom to have a smoke is more important than their relationship. In this case, Karen has decided to compromise and not smoke. I place Karen’s private sphere within Toni’s to illustrate this.

I wish that all situations in life were this happy and easy, but they aren’t.  As stated above, basic human care is essential for all, and the legal system should reflect those aims. There are many examples of relationships and political situations where people find themselves permanently in the #3 position, unable to disentangle themselves from #2. North Korea comes to mind. It is a great example of one man’s private sphere enveloping an entire public sphere (that of North Korea). Which makes me wish I had drawn another diagram – one in which public spheres at different levels may be nested within other public spheres. For example, Hitler’s private sphere consumed Germany’s public sphere, which could be seen as the private sphere of a nation which was in turn threatening to dominate the international public sphere.

At any rate, it is clear that conflict will arise within the various levels of public sphere as different groups (and individuals) fight to maintain or propagate their private spheres. Wiccan Rede states: “An it harm none, do what you will” – an attractive sentiment for many but one that must be contextualized, else pedophilia, polygamy, or even retroactive abortion be justified. Even the Golden Rule must be predicated within other foundational beliefs such as the conscience, the sanctity of human life, and a sense of self-worth as a human. As Lord Peter stated in Gaudy Night, “the first thing a principle does is kill someone”. If we don’t want to end up in a shoot-first, ask-questions-later anarchic, survival of the fittest society, we need perspective, patience, and grace all around so that we can live life happily while other folk are pursuing their legal (and societal) rights, like breastfeeding in public, not wearing hijabs, or marrying their gay partner.

Diagram 5.png

Diagram 5 is my 2 AM attempt at drawing the complexity of private-public interactions. The private space is not just a material space (as stated before), neither is it merely the awareness of one (the individual). It may also be any macrocosm wherein a singular aim is embodied within a group of individuals – like a religion or a political party. Within these private, ‘owned’ spaces, the self is considered to be free to make change either in oneself, in the group, or the public sphere. There is an awareness of agency. In some cases, as seen by effect, the agency may be great or limited depending on will. Resources, of course, aid in the implementation of the private sphere within the public sphere (hence the weapons race).

Within the private sphere, judgement is implicit, since the individual consciously and unconsciously acts out values which enable them to make choices. Will you buy a big house or a small one? What kind of car will you drive? What school and what career will you choose? What lifestyle habits will you adopt? Choice will indicate the focus of your private sphere and may automatically conflict with someone else out there.

Of course, the public sphere limits public representation of individuals’ private spheres – and these limitations will change within the historical perspective. Decades ago, smoking was touted as healthy and socially cool. Today, smoking is generally viewed as unhealthy and harmful to others. In pre-modern civilizations, infanticide was a common practice. Today, not so much. After taking this historical trend of taboo and acceptance, the extreme relativist – the post-modernist – may conclude that meta-narratives do not exist, and there is no cosmic order to regulate the private sphere. Yet, the basic standards for human care (the right to live, for example) do exist, and it is upon these basic standards that the legal system is founded. If no meta-narrative is able to mediate private spheres, then we must return to simplistic adages like the Wiccan Rede quoted above (“An it harm none, do what ye will”), which is itself a metanarrative statement. The loophole may not be then the issue of “what is harm” (which is a problematically general term), but also what constitutes a viable private sphere (“who is none?” “who is human?”). It is by seeing others with differing private spheres as being less than human that we are able to justify atrocity. How else is a man able to kill his daughter for not wearing a hijab? The overactive effect of a private space’s foci should be analyzed here, especially as personal conviction becomes involved.

Conscientious objection should never take a life – unless it is sanctioned by the State (ie. World War I and II). That is legally clear. Other circumstances – like the Muslim barber who didn’t want to cut a lesbian’s hair or the Christian baker who didn’t want to cater for a gay wedding – are not. An interesting example is David Christopherson of the NDP who stood up against the 2017 attestation regarding abortion because it went against his ideas about freedom of belief and speech. He was a conscientious objector – just as he was back in the late ‘90s when he ignored his constituency and voted pro-choice as per his conscience. Objecting to something within the public sphere, particularly as a public figure, requires complex negotiation.

So, when it comes to our private spaces – our houses and apartments, our businesses – we can allow or disallow certain activities within reason. La Senza, for example, would prefer you wear proper clothing upon entry. Tammi might enjoy watching porn, but she exercises that right in the privacy of her home. Walmart would like you to use the bathrooms to defecate. Janet, your neighbour, may prefer an alcohol free environment at her party. Jay may enjoy smoking marijuana at home. The question is then, if people have the right to moderate their private sphere, when can this moderation become aggressive?

Diagram 6.png

Diagram 6 shows one private sphere entering the physical (and metaphorical) private sphere of another. Someone is visiting my apartment, perhaps. Although I enjoy alcohol, I find drunken carousing tiresome. My house is a no-drunken-carousing zone. It is also, say, compliant with most legal expectations within my country (with a few exceptions) – so, no stealing allowed in my place or killing people or other forms of violence. When my visitor arrives, they must understand that in order for us to have a working relationship within my space, certain rules and expectations must be met.

In this diagram, the host private space has taken up a large portion of the physical space. That need not the case. There are some folks who adopt an “anything goes” attitude toward behavior in their house. Other hosts may be gracious and attempt a more equal compromise between visitor and owner. I would posit that Diagram 6 exemplifies a relationship where one person maintains perhaps too much control over their space, which may result in lack of relationships long-term. Narcissistic, egotistic, and domineering personalities often destroy any chance for intimacy in their relationships. That being said, the visitor understands that if they want to have another chance to return, they must play within the rules as set out by the host (as long as they are within reason).

Diagram 7.png

Hotels are complex places. Diagram 7 is an example of a hotel. It could be applied to other places – from a pool to a parliament, but let’s go with a hotel. As is obvious, the hotel is a private space (of the owners) run for public benefit. Rules, thus, must be observed – not only legal rules, but also social ones. Dan, a Christian pastor, staying at Holiday Inn for the night, is aware that he is sharing a public space with a host of other people who do not share his beliefs (about, say, fornication) or preferences (ie. smoking).

If Dan is to sustain long-term productiveness as a Christian within society, he isn’t going to pull out a rifle and kill everyone. He’ll abstain from participating in some of the activities going on at the hotel (ie. scamming credit cards), but he may be able to participate in others – enjoying the hot tub, for example. As this is not his private space physically, as it is a public space run by specific private individuals, Dan conforms with social expectation in so far as he is able to, without transgressing on his personal convictions. If this was Dan’s home or his hotel, he would run it differently.

We could suggest that Diagram 7 is an institution, like the Secret Service. When Kerry enters the Secret Service, she has submitted herself to the goals and aims of that service. Not necessarily mindlessly, but in a pro-social manner as befits her job. It would be an odd thing if Kerry decides that important requirements of this public space should not apply to her. Does an agent have the right to not do their job because they don’t like the person they are protecting? My suggestion is that Kerry has a choice – to either follow the expectations of her private sphere (her dislike of Trump) or the expectations of that particular public sphere to which she has bonded herself (the Secret Service). A sacrifice is inevitable.

That is, in the end, the problem. Out of conflict, someone who may not have the power, resources, or will to enforce their private sphere on the public world may end up either silenced or psychologically compartmentalized – or they may end up having to make a sacrifice. Jobs may be lost. Social position may be lost. Loved ones may be lost. If one’s private sphere comes under attack, one has to make a choice whether to protect the integrity of that space or to let it go. It will depend on the issue at hand – and some are easier to compromise on than others. However, if one’s selfhood – one’s castle, as it were – is at stake, the choice will be difficult – but it will be yours.

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