Johnson suggests a return to some prior notions of privacy

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Luke Timothy Johnson, professor and scholar at Emory University, discusses the differences in social behavior between modern culture and the world of antiquity during his Interfaith Lecture Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Personal discipline regulates privacy.

In a technological and global world, citizens judge each other on appearance and an abundance of free speech, available on a variety of platforms. This means the populace must be conscious of what it puts forth, so it can keep some level of control over how much people see of individuals.

Luke Timothy Johnson posed these issues of privacy as elements of character and spirituality. The New Testament and Christian origins scholar compared modern ideas about privacy to historical ones, and looked at the subject from a theological perspective in his 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. His speech, titled “Ancient and Modern Notions of Privacy — Some Lessons from the Past,” was the first in Week Three’s lecture theme, “The Ethical Tensions of Privacy vs. Interdependence.”

Johnson began by outlining life in the Common Era, the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire. People then didn’t have the same perception of personal bubbles that people have today, he said. They bathed in public spaces. They had communal toilets. They gathered in huge public forums to worship, engage in politics and entertainment and to eat. There was no physical private space.

“Life in the ancient world not only required a certain tolerance for existing among the press of many bodies — it encouraged the sense that such an open-air public life was the natural state,” Johnson said.

Today, we dwell in private spaces, he said. We find comfort in our own bedrooms and tiny bathroom stalls. We eat meals alone, and try to avoid means of transportation that cram us together with others. We like to be alone.

Religion has also been privatized, Johnson said. While it used to be a mandated part of public life, the public since separated church and state, allowing people the freedom to practice in public settings or in their own homes.

Contrary to this new idea of personal space, there is also a contemporary thought that one must be perceived by others in order to be seen. Johnson said people are posting selfies and updates from concerts and protests and parties to give the activities a sense of worth and validation.

Technology has allowed Americans — and the larger global community — to keep up a constant flow of communication with people via text messages, emails and social media.

Johnson said that through this, citizens are “mediating privacy in public spaces,” or sharing personal thoughts while still operating in the public sphere.

Mass media, social media and tools of interactive communication have created confusion on what’s private and what’s public, he said. Marketed messages are entering homes through radio stations and broadcasts, invading areas sanctioned as “personal spaces.” Individuals’ YouTube videos and blog posts are accessible to virtually anyone after they’ve been posted on the Internet, and strangers can engage in active discussions about them.

To control the flow of private and public information people are putting forth, Johnson offered a regimented approach.

The first discipline is that of modesty, he said. Ancient Greek and Romans kept a sense of privacy by covering themselves in public places. They wore loose, all-encompassing clothing to protect themselves from the prying eyes of others.

Today, Johnson said we’ve created a culture that thrives on physical attention.

While there is no evidence showing a focus on beauty or physical fitness in the past — the mirror used to be a tool for self-reflection, rather than for personal grooming — it has become an obsession of modern times. Magazines and movies show men and women flaunting their sculpted bodies, setting examples for children and young adults.

 “Modesty in dress is dismissed as a relic of sexual prudery,” Johnson said. “The contemporary eagerness to display the sexual self publically derives from the conviction that perception is reality, and that one does not truly or significantly exist unless one is being perceived.”

People are exposing themselves in ways people never did before, and Johnson said we need to keep our dress conservative while in public in order to preserve our privacy.

The second discipline is having self-control over our speech.

We don’t have impulse control anymore, Johnson said. We need to be heard, always.

Since technology has allowed for constant connection, individuals share even the most mundane thoughts. People feel the need to text others consistently throughout the day and tweet their thoughts, but they’re not actually sharing things of value with each other. Speech has gone viral.

In ancient times, Johnson said, those who spoke abundantly were thought of as fools because they didn’t take the time to deliberate on what they were saying. Words were counted wisely, and silence was appreciated.

“Speech was not just another form of noise,” he said. It had consequences and repercussions, which people don’t seem to think about anymore.

The final discipline is to cultivate an awareness of the divine presence.

Johnson said that if we are conscious of God’s presence, then we can be comfortable being silent and being alone because we know that we are always with God. We won’t feel the need to seek validation from others because God sees all.

Echoing sentiments from Paul the Apostle, Johnson said God judges people by what is held in their hearts, and nothing is kept private from Him. If humans relish in this fact — and accept that God’s judgment is all that one needs — then they can act in private and know that, while their acts may not be rewarded publically, they will be rewarded by God.

“Nothing is ultimately private for humans, in the sense that something can be thought or done that’s accessible to anyone and solely in our control. Everything is already known by God, and therefore everything is already vulnerable to God’s judgment,” he said. “But because I am public in the presence of God, I can be private with regard to the opinion of others. My existence and my worth does not depend on my being perceived by them.”

These three disciplines are all ancient Christian and Jewish notions that have been forgotten over time. If contemporary society revives them, Johnson said he believes individuals can protect their privacy in the new global world.