Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Public, private or personal?

  • 15 August 2023
I have recently been struck by media columns that have been generated by asking people to describe different experiences. I found many of the resulting columns interesting, even moving. Others, however, crossed the line that I would draw between what is public and what is private. And they did so with no evident signs of hesitation or shame. In this they echoed the self-revelation through images and  words on social media. They suggest perhaps that the private self can only be realised by total and naked disclosure in the public sphere. You might conclude, of course that my puzzlement at this collapse of boundaries between the public and the private reflects a repressive 1950’s upbringing in which any public revelation of self was seen as exhibitionism. But I continue to wonder if the distinction between public and private is too crude to do justice to the way in which we communicate. 

Missing in the conversation and in the understanding of self is another distinction between what is public and what is personal. The sphere of the personal lies between the private and public. The private sphere has to do with the naked body and naked experience. It generally should not be made public because it invites disrespect. The personal sphere embraces experience that is reflected on and the sense of identity that is crystallised in that experience. It is open to sharing, primarily with receptive listeners. It can also be shared with a public audience as seems opportune. 

The difference between the public and the personal spheres is parallel to that between prose and poetry. Both prose and poetry presuppose an audience and personal reflection in the writing. Prose is generally adapted to an audience unknown to the writer. Poetry is often imagined for a more intimate audience, sometimes indeed for the poet alone. But it can also be written for an open audience.

Where do you draw the line between what is private, personal and public?




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.