Johnson to discuss ‘present public confusion’ between privacy and individualism



Although technological developments have created a more interactive, engaged world than ever before, Luke Timothy Johnson will argue today’s society is much more private than ancient ones — and there are many lessons about privacy to be learned by looking to the past.

Johnson, a New Testament scholar and historian, will approach the question of privacy and the public from both historical and theological perspectives in his Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

By examining privacy in the ancient Mediterranean world — around the first century of the common era, when Tiberius Caesar and Jesus were both around — Johnson will draw comparisons between that time and contemporary first-world society. He will highlight differences, such as that people in the ancient world often ate, bathed, slept, traveled and used restrooms together.

“In the ancient world, there was very little concern for what we would call personal space,” he said.

Today, Johnson will argue, people possess a “heightened individualism” and a stronger desire for personal space and
individual property. People
in the ancient world likely wouldn’t find such a private life, with a lack of bodies around each other, ideal.

“There’s ways in which we are much more isolated, much more private,” Johnson said. “There are other ways in which, through technology, we are constantly trying to overcome that isolation. The paradox is, the more we try to overcome that isolation, the more it sort of locks us into isolation.”

Additionally, in the contemporary world, religion is very private, Johnson said; people call themselves “spiritual” and not “religious,” meaning religion itself is too public, intrusive and institutional.

Johnson will present some of the ways in which the advent of mass communication since the discovery of electricity has caused deep confusion in the contemporary world about what is private and what is public. 

In many ways, members of society have already “given up the shop,” Johnson said, relenting their privacy.

“We seem to be handing over our privacy to the public,” he said. “We are in public places but we’re tweeting, or we are in public places but we’re taking selfies. This is sort of our present public confusion.”

There are three lessons about privacy to be learned from the ancient world, Johnson said: modesty in self-preservation, control of speech and an awareness of the Divine Presence.

People in the ancient world clothed themselves modestly, Johnson said, and did not present their image to the public. Johnson compared a loss of privacy due to self-presentation to movie stars who cultivate their image but are harassed by paparazzi.

Privacy has two dimensions — control and accessibility — and therefore the more accessible one makes himself to the public, the less control he has.

One way to protect privacy is “not to hand our bodies over to the public gaze,” Johnson said.

“What I see as the point of danger is these efforts to broadcast ourselves, if you will, also make us vulnerable to others,” he said.

Johnson also advised control of speech over constant communication.

“We are obsessed with self-expression,” he said. “We are incredibly verbal in our expression. We’re tweeting, texting, talking, typing all the time. The ancient world valued silence more than speech — brevity in speech rather than length of speech — and I think we have much to learn from that.”

An awareness of the Divine Presence, Johnson said, means putting an emphasis on being answerable in one’s heart to God, and a sense
of being answerable not to the opinion of others but to one’s self. 

For ancient Roman and Greek philosophers, the equivalent of the Divine Presence was an awareness of conscious, he said.

“In some sense we are private to the world but public to God,” Johnson said. “Because we are perceived by God, we do not need to be perceived by others.”