Public and private selves

DDH wrote a piece about work selves that resonated with me, but I think it’s only the start of a larger conversation.

The gist is summed up right in the opening paragraphs:

If employees are expected to spend the majority of their life at work — pulling those 60-80+ hour weeks — it’s no wonder they in return demand work embraces their “whole self”. But that’s a terrible trade in both directions. What work and you really need is for everyone to show up with their “work self”.

Your work self needn’t be a facade, it can still be you — just not all of it. It’s the part that shows up to be courteous to coworkers (even when you don’t really feel like it), engaged in solving the tasks at hand (even when you’d rather do something else), and with no more of your outside-of-work self than you’d be comfortable sharing with a kind stranger on a long plane ride.

The argument goes on to promote being a bit more reserved and keeping work from creeping into your private life. Valid points.

There’s an important concept in Dutch political theory called sphere sovereignty, to quote Wikipedia:

In neo-Calvinism, sphere sovereignty (Dutch: soevereiniteit in eigen kring), also known as differentiated responsibility, is the concept that each sphere (or sector) of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority or competence, and stands equal to other spheres of life. Sphere sovereignty involves the idea of an all encompassing created order, designed and governed by God. This created order includes societal communities (such as those for purposes of education, worship, civil justice, agriculture, economy and labor, marriage and family, artistic expression, etc.), their historical development, and their abiding norms. The principle of sphere sovereignty seeks to affirm and respect creational boundaries, and historical differentiation.

Sphere sovereignty implies that no one area of life or societal community is sovereign over another. Each sphere has its own created integrity. Neo-Calvinists hold that since God created everything “after its own kind,” diversity must be acknowledged and appreciated. For instance, the different God-given norms for family life and economic life should be recognized, such that a family does not properly function like a business. Similarly, neither faith-institutions (e.g. churches) nor an institution of civil justice (i.e. the state) should seek totalitarian control, or any regulation of human activity outside their limited competence, respectively. (emphasis mine)

In short, no one part of human society should subjugate the rest of society. To this day, Dutch society largely runs along this principle, with governing being a balancing act of compromises with all parts of society. Yes, the role of religious institutions has waned, but trade unions, schools, cultural groups and political parties still negotiate in their limited spheres.

The underlying assumptions are that you’ll never get everything you want, people around you have diverse interests and people from different groups should be able to tolerate one another. DHH, who is very much a product of a similar Northern European Protestant culture, is restating this in a secular and modernized form.

Not surprisingly for a Protestant movement, sphere sovereignty was a reaction again Catholic political thought — that a single institution should subjugate every aspect of human activity. While I don’t see a resurgent Papal State dominating politics any time soon, it’s not uncommon for people to think that their ideology ought to dominate the world, whether it be The Science™, Nationalism or the Wokism.

This isn’t to idealize Dutch Calvinist political thought. Plenty of nasty things also came about under this system, but it’s a starting point for many countries in Northern Europe.


There’s been a steady erosion of privacy in the last few decades. I remember when you could politely decline to give your opinion about something due to not wanting to talk politics or religion. It was a tiny, but vocal minority that put political bumper stickers on their cars.

When I look at the social media profiles of the “thought leader” types in my industry, I can see a timeline of all the big political issues with matching emojis: 🌈😷✊💉🇺🇦

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with any of these things, but it’s the lack of privacy and expectation that I too should have a public position on everything.

This hit me with the war in Ukraine. In the weeks before the war, I’d get asked constantly about it. I don’t have any inside scoop and have access to the same newspapers that everyone else does. Now I’m constantly seeing performative denunciations of Putin.

It’s all too raw and personal. I don’t want to talk about it at work. And I get the feeling that for the emoji-cause crowd, this is just the latest round of reality TV. It’s entertainment. I simply don’t want to be part of this show, and it would be nice if I could avoid it in a professional setting.

Instead, the pernicious idea of “silence is violence” had turned every interaction into parroting the “right” bumper sticker style slogans.

Even something like the war in Ukraine is tremendously complex. The general outline is about as black and white as modern conflicts get, but once we get into concrete policies it gets complicated fast. Are sanctions and collective punishment acceptable? Should Ukrainian refugees be given priority over others? Nobody should have to have an opinion on these at all, much less have to take a public position at work.

That’s why I recommend Don’t feed your conscience to the dogs by Luke Burgis:

We live in a society where people are forced to manifest their conscience on issues ranging from sexuality to geo-politics to abortion—even on whether or not they agree with someone else’s tweet—in real-time, and practically at gunpoint. The threat of ostracization, job loss, or public ridicule lurks behind the slightest deviation from the mimetic moral norm of the day.

With the loss of human dignity come new assaults on the conscience, and I wish we all talked less about ‘free speech’ (which has become something of a conservative thirst trap) and more about what the conscience is, and why it must be protected.

The conscience is the ‘organ’ of freedom, in the words of German Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann—the organ that a person must exercise in order to come to a full knowledge and embrace of the truth, but on their own time and in their own way. This is a vision of the human person that has all but been lost in secular society.

I like this line of thought, that the moral compass is something that must be developed on an individual level. When forced to take a public position on everything, people just repeat whatever is expected of them. There’s no thought, no reflection, no moral development.

Give the complexity of modern political issues, it’s not realistic for everyone to have an informed opinion about everything. But saying that you don’t know, abstaining from the conversation gets you in trouble with the “silence is violence” crowd.

The ketman

This brings to mind Czesław Miłosz’s Ketman, whereby one takes up a public performance of one set of views while privately believing something altogether different.

Even as Miłosz’s fellow intellectuals fell in line with the new regime, they privately insisted that they were acting of their own free will. Ketman helps to explain this seeming contradiction. Persecution has long forced believers to conceal their beliefs. But ketman as used by Miłosz means something more than just simulation. It goes deeper than mere lying. Ketman reaches deeper into the soul than simple hypocrisy. Ketman deceives the deceiver, as much as the person being deceived.

Time and again, Miłosz returns to the metaphor of an actor on stage. It is a continuous performance, allowing those who engage in it to survive the sensation of living with a divided mind. As Miłosz puts it, ketman is a ‘self-realisation against something’. He didn’t view it as something purely imposed from outside. As a poet and a radio broadcaster, he knew that performance, however coerced, can be a source of identification: ‘After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates.’ He saw that deception can carry its own pleasures:

To say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one’s adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one) – these actions lead one to prize one’s own cunning above all else. Success in the game becomes a source of satisfaction.

None of this comes with a definite conclusion or a self-help listicle of five things to do in order to change the world. Rather this is a reflection. Do I need to air my private views on LinkedIn profile or make a point of referencing them at professional conferences or the company chat? Should I expect other people to take public and definitive positions on complex issues? Do I have the space to abstain, to simply say that I don’t know?