How the distinction between public and private affects Covid management
Dipankar Gupta | 24 Sep, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IN PUBLIC POLICY formulations there is a tendency, the world over, to confuse the distinction between the public and the private, leading to miscommunication between citizens and the state.
Such unfortunate outcomes impact a number of areas that are especially relevant in many contemporary matters. When the significance of what constitutes the “public” and what makes for the “private” are unclear, difficulties arise in establishing a principled position in policy formulations. We can see this when it comes to media policy and also, more urgently, in establishing state guardrails in these Covid times.
We need to begin, however, by realising that for a comprehensive understanding of the terms public and private we must acknowledge that this distinction comes to life only when citizenship enters the historic stage. It is only because this aspect is either overlooked, or elided, as often is the case, we fumble over policies that require conceptual clarity regarding the tie between the public and the private.
Citizenship was never relevant in previous epochs, nor in contemporary undemocratic regimes. In such societies the need to conceptualise and distinguish the public and the private and chart their relationship was irrelevant too. It is another matter that this is not recognised which is why we frequently encounter the terms public and private in historical and journalistic treatises where these concepts do not properly belong.
Once citizenship is inaugurated, a new social dimension opens up with the individual becoming at once both a member of the collective and yet retaining an autonomous space. This duality is a completely novel social fact, in the Durkheimian sense of the term.
Just as other Durkheimian social facts, citizenship too is external, general and constraining, and the last feature needs to be specially mulled over. Thus while there are many things a citizen can do, it is not as if this freedom comes without constraints. It is, therefore, a duplex phenomenon, again quite Durkheimian, but we must now take leave of him and move on.
Citizenship, first and foremost, allows the individual to aspire to a truth that is individually satisfying. Even so, while interacting in society, this person is also bound by restraints. There is then a constant tension between the two, a feature that will never be known in pre- or non- citizenship contexts.
In these other societies where citizenship does not figure, truth is handed from above and Karl Mannheim called that objective epistemology. For Mannheim, it did not matter if this truth was declared from the pulpit of the church or from the ramparts of the fort. Even a non-religious declaration of an objective epistemology that binds all is contrary to citizenship and to secularism too.
Clearly, citizenship will not survive in such societies even if they make spectacular claims of conducting popular elections. This is because the public and the private are not vibrant features here. Yet, democracies often falter for they have an incorrect, or incomplete understanding of these two terms and that impedes the successful articulation and deployment of public policy, thus muddying the waters.
The ‘private’ zone gets activated when individuals exercise their choice from among the options the ‘public’ allows them to. Individual choices are constrained by restrictions imposed by the ‘public’ but if they pass that test then they are available without hindrance to all citizens. This clarifies why the public and the private are complementary phenomena and not butting heads in combat, as is often believed
On account of not fully accounting for the true context of citizenship there is a marked tendency to confuse the public and private as that which happens in the open against things that take place behind closed doors. There is also another extremist interpretation that flaunts the bells and whistles of freedom by proclaiming the private world is superior to the public or, at least, not constrained by it.
In these latter renditions, the private assumes a freewheeling existence and holding it back is considered tantamount to the denial of freedom. This too is unfaithful to the true meaning of the terms “private” and “public”, in fact, it does make light of the relationship between the two and often the public is derided and fired upon from the shoulders of what is erroneously deemed as the private.
With some luck, we hope to make good our claims and demonstrate that with a clear understanding of public and private, policy formulations become more limpid, persuasive as well as mindful of citizenship.
CITIZENSHIP AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE
In line with TH Marshall’s conception of citizenship where it is not just about voting, but primarily a provision in modern democratic societies, that confers equality of status to everybody. This equality, Marshall asserts, is the starting point on whose foundation, individuals can choose to be different in terms of class, or lifestyle, or whatever, but that is the end result. It needs also to be clarified that “status” equality here refers primarily to health, education, environmental conditions and justice; not power, prestige or wealth.
To bring about this equality of status as the starting point, it is important to clarify what cannot be done by anybody, regardless of who they are. These are the constraining features which must not be overlooked. This set of proscriptions properly defines the “public” domain. If it applies universally it is because citizenship confers an equality of status regardless of birth, creed, class or power. The regime of the public must be respected and it is only under its constraints that individuals can choose to exercise options in their “private” lives.
The “private” zone gets activated when individuals exercise their choice from among the options the “public” allows them to. Individual choices are constrained by restrictions imposed by the “public” but if they pass that test then they are available without hindrance to all citizens. This clarifies why the public and the private are complementary phenomena and not butting heads in combat, as is often believed.
Popular perceptions, notwithstanding, the “public” and the “private” are not on opposite ends. They act together in a complementary fashion in order to help put “citizenship” in practice. This takes away arbitrariness from public policies. Therefore, when the private is offended, so is the public, and vice versa. In truth, both are being perjured simultaneously.
Once again, contrary to popular renditions, the “public” and the “private” do not signify the “outdoors” versus “indoors”, or between “open” and “secret” knowledge. This is why the home is not one’s castle as family members were citizens before they were wives and children. For this reason, domestic violence is not “private” but becomes a matter of “public” concern.
In other words, for a truth to rise to the level of the public where it can now exert constraint, it must be general and apply to everybody and, therefore, be seen as a formulation that is beneficial to all regardless of sectional interests. For this we need specialist agencies which have specific competencies to argue out a truth in the public domain before it can be accepted.
Even after this happens, the truth remains provisional and open to challenge but always on the basis of demonstrable facts whose existence is open for all to see, feel, hear and smell. It is thus not limited to a privileged, unspecialised, multipurpose intellectual class that alone is entitled to deemed “truth facts”. In sum, these truths are not what Mannheim would call “objective epistemology” as this knowledge is constantly scrutinised.
Several democratic states implored the public to abide by certain norms and do the right thing, but that did not go down well in far too many cases. All of this, paradoxically, occurred repeatedly in many advanced democracies in Europe and North America, where the idea of freedom was exalted above all else in the name of democracy
The public realm is constituted of measures based on specialised truths and they apply to the whole without qualifications of creed, race, wealth or social status. Rendered thus it might seem that this binds the individual in every dimension, where then does the private matter at all in such a scenario? Is this then another objective truth, not delivered by all powerful agencies such as the state or the church but by clusters of asocial specialists working out of ivory towers?
Indeed, it is only when state proclamations leave room for choice, which is the zone of the private proper, that they truly become public. While the public categorically states what cannot be done, the private explores the options that are available within these constraints. To understand this aspect in a grounded fashion, the analogy of sport might help.
THE PARADIGM OF SPORT
First, remember, the metaphor “level playing field” comes from the arena of sport. So, no favourites, all are equal at the starting point, as in citizenship, and the referee cannot be partial. The whistle will blow only when a foul is committed, but not when a brilliant midfield dribble, or cover drive, is executed. Brilliance comes from choice functioning under rules.
Excellence in sport would not happen if there were no rules of constraint. It is because these rules exist that extraordinary sports people and athletes rise to the top. In earlier times, coinciding with epochs that did not know citizenship, there were no sports, only games. The rules changed constantly, often whimsically, most always dictated by the court and willing courtesans. In such settings, it was far from proper to best the patron in a contest for that would not be de rigueur at all.
At the same time, the referee, it should be noticed, blows the whistle, or declares a foul, when a participant breaks the rules. The whistle never sounds when a player does something innovative within the rules. This pressures sports people to challenge themselves all the more and that is how legends are born on the field.
A Gavaskar or a Tendulkar in cricket, a Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal in basketball, a Pelé or a Messi in football or an Usain Bolt in athletics excelled in their domains because there were rules. Without rules that mark out unambiguously what cannot be done, analogous to the realm of the public, there would never be sustained and ever growing excellence in any dimension of human activity.
When people played games and not sports there was no excellence. It was a pastime, an indulgence. In some so-called “tribal” societies, games were played to bond communities and the question of excellence or victory and defeat never arose, nor was there a codification of rules that were universally known.
We should also bear in mind that in modern sports, where the public and the private zones are clear, the contest is not gladiatorial where no rules apply other than vanquishing the opposing contestant. This is why a cage fight in contemporary times will never rise to the level of modern sports.
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE IN THE MEDIA
After the terms “public” and “private” receive the clarity they deserve, it helps us to effectively deal with the contrary claims of privacy protection and open public information. This issue has dogged many mass media-related policy issues and that they don’t come to satisfactory conclusions is because they commit the original sin of sloppy classification.
In the media world, just as in sport, there should be a clarity of rules of what cannot be done, not what can be done, or should be done. Like in sport, the referee blows the whistle only when a media outlet brings out material without proof, or mines personal information for selfish gain, or trades collective interests for self-interest. Nor should a ‘sting’ operation detailing personal lives, which have no public import, be defended in terms of freedom of expression.
If news items or editorials, or broadcasts, obey public norms but are censored it is like a referee disallowing a legitimate goal. Under these circumstances, public reaction should be just as it is when a referee acts partially. The public too can be threatened if motivated and powerful people, singly or in concert, frighten or bully the umpire, or a media outlet, to alter the outcome of an event.
So, it is important to protect the collective from motivated individuals just as it is to protect the individual from an overbearing collective, even the government. Citizenship helps both causes by clearly spelling out the closeness between the public and the private, and without positioning one against the other as if in battle formation. This is why any decision on whether a media outlet has violated the right to privacy or endangered collective security must be weighed carefully on the scales of citizenship.
Once we are clear about the distinctions between the public and the private their application to the media becomes immediately transparent. The “public” now comprises restrictions in terms of what cannot be published or broadcast by anybody because they offend collective citizenship interests. Freedom of speech and expression must be exercised within these constraints. At the same time, even if certain media items appear tasteless, provocative or vulgar, to some, they cannot be banned if they pass the test of the “public”.
The European Union trade commissioner for internal market said that fighting Covid-19 is fine but ‘we will not compromise on our values and privacy requirements.’ Liberty was seen as paramount, as if without constraints. It was all private and not public which is an affront to both these concepts
Come to think of it, media excellence also comes from individual, private exploration of choices that abide by the limits set up by the public. The exposure of the Watergate scandal is a sterling example of how private decisions taken in full awareness of professional and public conduct rules bring out the best in journalistic reporting. A scoop that breaks all rules is poor reporting. Just as in sports you have media stars too, counterparts of Gavaskar and Michael Jordan, who played by the rules and won.
Unctuousness in the media and favouritism would make this sector more like a game than a sport; an activity where rules are idiosyncratically formulated and weighted in one direction from the start. Naturally, when the media is a game and not a sport, there will never be excellence in the field. The main purpose of the game is to please the patrons or to while away time with no investment on the part of the spectators. Contrarily, when the media is akin to sport, the spectators must also be conversant of rules that constrain and would, therefore, urge media specialists to constantly attain greater heights.
PUBLIC POLICY AND COVID REGULATIONS
The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously taught medical sciences several lessons, but it has also had a profound unsettling impact on a range of social sciences. This experience has also made one aware of the negative consequences when freedom of choice is elevated and considered independent of the norms of constraint. It is not always understood that the constraints the public imposes on citizens bring out excellence by limiting the choices available.
As is well known by now, many societies had great difficulty in curbing free will regarding the implementation of Covid norms. Several democratic states implored the public to abide by certain norms and do the right thing, but that did not go down well in far too many cases. The opposition to them was widespread and received great prominence. All of this, paradoxically, occurred repeatedly in many advanced democracies in Europe and North America, where the idea of freedom was exalted above all else in the name of democracy. Democracy, it must be remembered, is not joyful indulgence in games but one hemmed in by universal rules of constraints, as in sport.
All of West Europe, including the USA, saw significant resistance to such restrictions and hence the pandemic kept growing there. Even today, there are instances of protestors, in very large numbers, who believe these restrictions are undemocratic invasions to their right to privacy. They don’t like to be told “what to do” by a nanny state, or, those with a harsher bent of mind, an “overbearing state”.
According to Richard Posner, the us constitution protects citizens from state oppression, without imposing positive obligations on the state. This is where the lacuna lies in such early configurations of democracy. Liberty was not properly in step with citizenship where the latter was supposed to lead the dance
From Spain to the USA, it has been very difficult to put in place Covid-appropriate behaviour. Obviously, societies that have not taken kindly to relatively non-invasive advisories, such as social distancing and mask wearing, will find contact tracing very difficult too. No surprise then that in the West, both mass testing and contact tracing have fared badly. They were popularly captioned, in several quarters, as edicts which were of a “big brother” genre growing in all directions in a totalitarian fashion.
The European Union Trade Commissioner for Internal Market voiced this fear when he said that fighting Covid-19 is fine but “we will not compromise on our values and privacy requirements.” Liberty was seen as paramount, as if without constraints. It was all private and not public which, as we examined earlier, is an affront to both these concepts.
This brought out an aspect that had hitherto not come to the surface. What became increasingly apparent is that in many Western democracies, Liberty was valued in purely individual terms and not as a corollary to citizenship which also instructs restraint for the sake of the public. Here, sadly, Liberty went wild like a team of horses that have broken free.
There is no doubt that Liberty is important to curb arbitrary state power but not when that is already in check by the rules of citizenship. It was arbitrary, monarchical, irresponsible governments that prompted Thomas Jefferson to say: “When governments fear the people there is liberty. When people fear the government, there is tyranny.” In line with this thinking, Judge Richard Posner of the seventh Circuit Court of the USA said in a landmark judgment: “The men who wrote the Bill of Rights were not concerned that government might do too little for the people but that it might do too much to them.” According to Posner, the US Constitution protects citizens from state oppression, without imposing positive obligations on the state.
This is where the lacuna lies in such early configurations of democracy. Liberty was not properly in step with citizenship where the latter was supposed to lead the dance. The prominence accorded to negative laws that curb state activities gave the individual the pride of place, without restraint. This may seem like an idealised scenario, but there is no denying that such an attitude routinely courses through the ideological veins of a large number of citizens in Western democracies. How else can one explain the quick trigger resentment among sizable sections in these countries when masks, vaccinations and contact tracing were insisted upon in order to combat Covid?
If, on the other hand, one understands freedom and constraints in terms of private and public acting conjointly and in a complementary fashion, strengthening each other, the appreciation of Covid norms would have been greater. In this case the norms too would have been clearer and there would be little fudging, negligible contrary advisements, nor the frequent shifting goalposts.
Media excellence also comes from individual, private exploration of choices that abide by the limits set up by the public. The exposure of the Watergate scandal is a sterling example of how private decisions taken in full awareness of professional and public conduct rules bring out the best in journalistic reporting. A scoop that breaks all rules is poor reporting
That these happened repeatedly in state proclamations regarding Covid control was because free will was elevated beyond citizenship in the streets and the states did not have a reasoned response to all of this. Our elected representatives were themselves unclear of the relationship between the public and the private.
Now to add meat to the bones. If the public norm was consistently a negative one, then that would have encouraged citizens to choose from the range of private choices open to them once the proscription was fully in place. The public, as we have said repeatedly, tells citizens what they cannot do as in rules of sports. These rules do not tell one how best to bend a ball into the net or to execute home runs in baseball. That is left to the individual.
In keeping with this, the public rule should have unambiguously commanded that “you cannot infect fellow citizens”, or something similar in “thou shalt not” terms. After that citizens should go ahead and search for options that this negative injunction allows. The public realm, as we emphasised earlier, only instructs one on what cannot be done, leaving room for the private world to devise what can be done within this set constraints.
Covid rules that were sent out by most states made the first error by not stating the principal command in negative terms. Instead of insisting on “what cannot be done”, which is how the realm of the public is carved out, most governments sent out advisories on “what should be done”.
Accordingly, we were told to take vaccinations, maintain social distance, wear masks and vaccinate ourselves. These were all in the realm of choice and many rebelled at being told what to do. Imagine a cricketer being instructed by the rule book to wield a long handle or a footballer told just how to kick the ball. These are techniques and are at the level of choices and much depends on what suits each player individually.
As the public aspect was dulled, governments kept thinking of more pleasing alternatives for a long time to win back the trust of the people they supposedly represent. This led to sudden changes in advisories, contradictory information on social distancing, ambiguity regarding vaccine periodisation, all of which put together made a dog’s breakfast of the whole matter. Therefore when there was popular resentment at various places, the respective governments kept fumbling for a guiding principle to push forward their Covid agenda. They are still looking!
The public rule should have unambiguously commanded that ‘you cannot infect fellow citizens’, or something similar in ‘thou shalt not’ terms. After that citizens should go ahead and search for options that this negative injunction allows
Instead of approaching this issue in terms of “what should be done”, if governments took a different tack in terms of “what cannot be done”, matters would have been quite different. Obviously, the ground rule regarding public proscriptions have to be in accord with citizenship. This meant it should apply equally and where each citizen is charged to behave as citizens first and individuals later.
Now, had the government directives been based on the principle that “you cannot infect others” then as citizens there would be no ground for people to complain. How can you say it is my free will to harm and infect others? It is similar to saying “my free will to kill as I please” is being taken away. Likewise, the laws against rash driving are there not just to prevent the driver from dying but to safeguard the lives of others on the road as well. It is only after these ground rules are laid out in terms of a blanket negative injunction that the realm of the public leaps to life and takes centrestage. This also activates John Stuart Mills’ “harm principle” but only after there is a clear statement of what actually constitutes harm in empirically verified, unambiguously defined instances. This then provides the foundation for specific laws with negative injunctions.
If you cannot infect fellow citizens, then what are the private options open? Some may hire a private plane to their secluded estate on a faraway island, some may pack a tent along with canned food and head for the forests, some may never leave home and sit out the pandemic as if they were in a bomb shelter. But there may be others who would choose to wear a mask, get vaccinated and maintain social-distancing norms. This would lead to excellence in a variety of ways.
The most immediate innovations took place in the technology that enabled mass production of high quality masks that kept out viruses more effectively than any other such contraption of the past. On a higher level, it encouraged superior science to produce vaccines at unimaginable speed to combat the pandemic. Without this negative rule that you cannot infect others such developments may not have happened at all and, if they did, they would have occurred at a glacial pace.
Instead, because these rules impacted commerce and education, science galloped at full speed at several levels. Specialists in digital communication discovered new technologies and portals to disseminate information. Conservationists also probed and pushed the frontiers on alternatives sources of energy.
Sadly, this relationship between the public and the private where both supply life blood to each other was not fully perceived when Covid norms were flouted. Citizenship was crippled on this account in several Western countries for so many failed to note this vital connection between private and public, between what cannot be done and what can be. The overall lesson is that all knowledge behind public formulations must stem from experts with high source credibility, and these must be uniformly applicable to all and they must allow for private choice because it is out of the latter that excellence develops.
This is as true of sport as it is of the media as it is in terms of delivering the best to citizens in times of a pandemic.
(This is an edited excerpt from Dipankar Gupta’s forthcoming book Checkpoint Sociology: A Critical Reading of Policies and Politics)