"He said, and stood . . ."
—Paradise Regained, IV, 561
It is 1895. Oscar Wilde, the witty Irish socialite and notorious public flaneur, is embroiled in a public scandal over allegations of sodomy. The Victorian public is far less accommodating of Wilde's proclivities than we would be today, and the case quickly becomes a media frenzy as the sordid details of Wilde's private life become fodder for the gossiping masses. They want Wilde punished, and he is. Wilde is sent to prison for two years of hard labour, and upon his release from Reading Gaol, he spends the remainder of his short life in Parisian exile.
Fast forward to 2013. Rob Ford . . . well, I'll assume you know the story.
Public scandal for private (mis)behaviour is hardly a novelty. Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, and, just fill-in-the-blank, are a few of the recent scandals du jour.
I would argue that there is a larger idea at work here, an idea that not simply threatens Ford, but all of us if we continue to hold it. That idea is that in our modern world, there is a great divorce not just between private behaviour and public consequence, but indeed between the private and the public self.
When asked if Ford's private affairs inhibited his ability to run a public office, many of the Ford Nation rallied to their leader's defense. Indeed, many (of my generation particularly) have suggested that Ford's behaviour, if it is kept private and does not inhibit his job, is a non-issue. Ford even admitted that the real problem of his drunkenness was that it was public; he should have been drunk in the privacy of his own home.
Such a radically individualized and privatized vision of morality fails to see that alcoholism and drug use—much like sexuality—are never simply private acts, but have repercussions in our shared public lives. Ford's private actions are destructive to our families, our neighbourhoods, our cities.
If we are to remain truly free as individuals and as a society, we must recognize the bounds in which we exist.
The private life is not simply a life of unbounded freedom, as opposed to the boundaries that other people place on our public selves. Indeed, the boundaries of public life—laws, punishments, the observation of others—are nothing more than manifestations of the private boundaries we should maintain upon ourselves.
In his "Second Defense of the English People," Milton writes: "To be free is precisely the same thing as to be pious, wise, just, and temperate, careful of one's own, abstinent from what is another's, and thence, in fine, magnanimous and brave." Freedom is bound to responsibilities, to limits, to boundaries, and only when it is so are we truly living. Of course, such a notion requires an objective standard that transcends both the individual and the collective.
If there is a great divorce between private and public, we shouldn't be surprised that Ford's public language serves a very pragmatic end (staying in public office), while his private language presumably does not. And look past the current scandal—follow any online discussion board, or simply scan the news for stories of cyber bullying, and it's not hard to see our public-private confusion is damaging language in a bad way. More and more we fail to stand by the words we speak.
If "the truth will out" as Launcelot tells his father in The Merchant of Venice, we need to repair the authenticity of our language.
Back to 1897. Wilde, upon his release, wrote a startlingly moving piece, De Profundis, in which he confessed:
"I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility."
Wilde is much more than sincerely, sincerely, sincerely sorry. This is a language stripped of deceit, and a confession one can stand by. Wilde is humbled by his awareness that the private and the public are harmoniously wedded.
Rob Ford, and most of us I imagine, would do well to learn this as well.