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The Private as Public: What it Means for Bioethics

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Today I was sitting in an outdoor coffee house and listened to the sounds around me. I heard the jackhammer from the street construction and the beep of a truck backing up. There was the gentleman working on his computer at the next table, playing music from his cell phone, out loud for everyone to hear. There were two women behind me (one actually moved so that she was next to me) speaking in very loud voices while one was convincing the other to use her as a web designer (and complaining about their boyfriends). There was a group of people who had brought in food from elsewhere to sit in this outdoor space and not purchasing any items from the business where they sat: They ate, placed their feet on the furniture and smoked. Another able-bodied young man sat in a seat specifically set aside for seniors and those with a disability while a pregnant woman was standing nearby, not finding a seat.

At that moment I realized that I had become an old curmudgeon because flashing through my head was this question: When had it become acceptable to act in public like you would at home? There used to be private behaviors that one would never do in public. I was taught that in public one should be polite and unobtrusive. As a bioethicist and a former journalist, I have also taken privacy as a very serious matter and yet all around me, people were behaving in a public, outdoor space, as if they were sitting at home alone.

I think this view of “the world as my living room” is rooted in social media and the online life. When social media was new it was interesting to be able to share what you were thinking and doing with others in an easy manner. Some people found it interesting and looked, more often they ignored you and moved on. As more and more people began sharing, however, it became harder to be noticed. What began as, “this is a piece of me I am sharing” quickly became a shouting match to gain attention in a sea of oversharing. We started by showing what we had to share and have now moved to expecting everyone to pay attention to us and to find everything we do and say to be interesting. We feel entitled to be found fascinating. Therefore what in another time would have been boorish behavior has become acceptable because we are all celebrities and everything we do and say should be found fascinating by others. The self-thinking is “I am interesting and shall act in a way that you get to know how interesting I am as well.” The wall between the public and the private falls. The like button when you see something I’ve said becomes the “must see” button because I’ll push my message in front of you. The choice to view becomes an obligation to be seen.

Besides a social criticism and view from middle age, what does this have to do with the world of bioethics? In the beginning, what set bioethics apart from many other scholarly endeavors was our willingness to work with the media and to engage with the public and government. Bioethicists volunteered to sit on national commissions and to explore ethical issues. When reporters called, we talked to them. Forty years later, it seems as if every health, science, or medical news story must have a quote from a bioethicist and every government commission must have a bioethicist or two on board. We have moved from the quiet fringe to the center of the circus. We started with a joy that we had something that a few others might be interested in, to expecting to be part of the action.

For example, I remember a situation many, many years ago when a bioethicist was scheduled for an interview with a national television show. A few hours before the taping, he was told that an appearance was unnecessary because the publicist for another bioethicist had secured that guest spot for her client. Guess who hired a publicist soon thereafter? (No, this is not about me). Also consider the large number of bioethics-related blogs on the internet today, each one clamoring for an audience.

Within bioethics, I have noticed two criticisms of this movement. The first (which has is not heard as much anymore) was a criticism against people who regularly worked with the media. There was a sense that this was anti-scholarly and perhaps misrepresenting the work of bioethics. The second is when people comment on topics about which they have not done research, have not taught, and have little expertise. This is when a reporter asks a question about which the interviewee has little knowledge but being in this situation one has no choice but to formulate an answer even if it is uninformed. For example I had spoken with a television news producer during the Ebola scare that I could talk about public health and ethical issues but not issues of science or medicine. They agreed. I was on the air, being broadcast live and the anchor asked me about the science of how Ebola is spread—exactly what I had said I was not an expert in. My choice was to embarrass the anchor or to answer. Luckily, I had spoken to a virology colleague beforehand about this topic and had an informed answer, but I was not the right person to answer this question. The next time I was asked to interview there, I referred the producer to my virologist colleague who did a great job.

Such out-of-bounds answers, however, can be damaging such as when one expert proposed during the Ebola scare that the pictures of patients be placed on billboards along with their addresses so that others can avoid them. Of course this pretty much leads the mobs with their torches and pitchforks to the door. But such behavior is also disrespectful of scholars who have spent their careers doing research in specific areas. Reporters do not always like talking to such experts because they have “experts” they trust and are comfortable with and not all scholars are good at talking in sound bites.

Traditionally, scholars kept most of their ideas to themselves or shared them among their peers in formal meetings and journals. Today, scholars are taught to “brand” themselves and self market. We are told that we need to be public intellectuals—writing letters to the editors, talking to reporters, posting on blogs. What started as a few willing to share their private musings has almost become a requirement for being a bioethicist. My university puts out a weekly missive on which faculty members have been quoted in the media. We even list on our annual merit reviews how many media interviews we had in the prior year. Part of this has been an effort to connect faculty to the public and show the relevance of our work in order to combat budget cute for what are perceived as irrelevant topics and studies. The idea is that if the public sees the relevance and connects with the scholars, then maybe budgets won’t be cut. And partly this publicizing scholarship is because we live in an age of self-marketing and branding—people only listen when you tell them that you are worth listening to.

The irony, of course, is that I’ve done two media interviews this week and I am posting this commentary on a weekly blog that I have been writing for nearly three years. I will post it on Facebook and on my Twitter account. I am as guilty of branding and self marketing as anyone else. Still, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on our own behaviors and how they impact others. When my talking out loud to myself at home (or to my pets) becomes the same as talking to someone in public, there may be a problem. I think that a distinction between public and private behavior is important and healthy. I certainly weave different stories and describe things differently according to my audience whether that is my cat and dog, my classroom, a public auditorium, or a television reporter. What the private as public movement does is eliminate these distinctions, thus increasing the possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpreting. Not every thought, not every word we have is interesting or worth sharing.

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