We all have secrets, but the ease with which information is transmitted via YouTube, MySpace, and Google has made keep them much more difficult. Lawrence Friedman’s Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets, discussed in a recent Wilson Quarterly review by Gary Alan Fine, looks at our cultures attitudes about reputation by examining when the courts have protected our secrets and when they have not.
We tend to think of those our ancestors as being better behaved than we are today, but Friedman argues that their comportment did not always match the reputation that they carefully maintained. “Friedman emphasizes that life in 19th-century America was rough. Heavy drinking, fighting, and con games were common in public spaces.” Society, and the laws that supported it, recognized that this behavior could never be completely suppressed.
“What resulted, [Friedman] says, was the ‘Victorian compromise,’ the practice by which (most) respectable citizens were protected from being discredited by their moral lapses, except when public notice demanded otherwise. It was a culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ For the middle class and the elite, it was a world of second chances. The working class served as society’s scapegoats. Thus, even though gambling was common at all levels of society, it was the gambling dens of the poor that were raided, not the salons of the wealthy. These miscreants, not so different from their fellow citizens, were discredited, isolated, and stigmatized.”
Today’s compromise has changed, as it is much more difficult to hide transgressions—instead, our public figures have perfected the art of the apology.
You can read the entire review here.