Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Privacy of the Home.

There is a myth that the home is a ‘private’ space that should be free from state intervention or the intrusions of the ‘public’. The importance of this belief has been brought to light most recently in debates over whether B&B owners should be allowed to refuse service to gay people (or any other people) due to their belief system. Is the home a private space where people should feel free to discriminate or is it a public space open to state control? I want to suggest that this division of public and private is a myth- that the home has never been a wholly private space- and that to frame this debate in a discussion of private homeowner rights acts to remove the rights of gay people and other ‘undesirable’ groups.

Far from being a private space, for the last 500 years in Britain, the home has been intrinsically linked to social control. The early modern household (1500-1750) was conceptualised as the state writ small. The ideal early modern home was headed by its married patriarch who exercised control over his wife, children and servants-both ensuring that they behaved in an orderly way and having to personally answer to higher authorities if his household behaved badly. In a time before an extensive state apparatus and police existed to manage social behaviour, this function fell to the head of household. The household was conceptualised as a miniature state and in fact, the relationship between a monarch and his or her kingdom was understood to mirror that of the household. The home provided a model for the operation of the state.

From an alternative perspective, it is also worth considering that the Royal Court- from which the monarch governed the state- was actually part of the private household of the monarch. Separate buildings for ‘public’ or ‘state’ functions were only beginning to be thought of in this period- and most were related to the operation of trade (like Guildhalls). In practice, elite households in particular could double as ‘public’ buildings with their large halls or courtyards being used to hold markets, public meetings and demonstrations.

Furthermore, the home was not conceptualised as a private space. Indeed, openness to the scrutiny of others was essential to social credit and social reputation. The household that had something to hide was clearly up to no good and should be treated with caution. In a world where cash was limited and access to goods depended on reputation, the transparency of the household was vital to its survival. The awareness of prying eyes was meant to enforce good order- both making sure the head of household kept control of his family and ensuring that he did not abuse his authority. It offered a system of checks and balances to the head of household’s power.

At the same time, the household was a fluid entity with a constant stream of changing servants, visitors, lodgers, travellers needing a bed for the night, belying any sense of a contained family unit. Even lower down the social scale where households were smaller, neighbourliness and patronage systems meant that homes were equally open to public scrutiny and to inspection by social superiors. Poor households could be even more socially diverse with lodgers and travellers common means of income and multiple families could live in the same household to save money. Most households also had an economic function meaning that they were not just homes but places of business with all the public functions that entailed.

In the eighteenth century, the concept of ‘privacy’ (which had started to filter through since the 16th century) became increasingly culturally important seen in the separation of servant and family quarters in wealthy homes; the invention of ‘public’ and ‘private’ rooms in family homes; and the eventual removal of the economic functions of the household off into separate buildings. Yet, it should be noted this was a long process that happened to different households at different rates and the importance of home-working today suggests it was never completed. Even in the Victorian period, where it might be argued that the ‘private’ home was in its heyday, it was recognised that the home had both private and public functions- not surprising in an era where visiting relatives for weeks at a time was fashionable.

For eighteenth-century philosophers on this subject, the key distinction between a public and private space was still not whether it was located in or out of the home- but its function. Therefore, public space was economic space- the workplace, rather than places outside the home. Even the world of politics was not initially thought of as ‘public’, although this idea was to arrive quickly when the concept of public became increasingly associated with power. Public space was where people exercised power; private space was without power.

Despite this complexity of meaning, the changing functions of the household did lead to its increased association with the ‘private’ in the early nineteenth century. Yet, this phenomenon did not happen in a vacuum- it was mirrored by the rise of the ‘state’. As the household became more private and the separation of home and work made it more difficult to monitor the behaviour of individuals through household hierarchy, the state was created to ensure social order. The state expanded with an increasingly large and elaborate civil service, a police force, a more formal court system and, by the twentieth century, state controlled welfare systems. This state apparatus was always interested in the workings of the home and the prying eye of the guid neighbour was replaced by the beady eye of the officious state worker.

And from a feminist perspective, it was vital that the state existed. While the functions of the household and social order had changed, the belief in the right for a patriarch to manage and discipline his household had not. Yet, without the prying eyes of the guid neighbour, who was to act as a check and balance of that power? Many of the initial debates and court cases that defined the rights of the state to interfere in home life were brought by women trying to protect themselves and their children from violent or controlling patriarchs. In a sense then, not only was the rise of the state a response to the changing functions and increased privacy of the household, but the invitation to the state to interfere in the operations of the household was both a demand of feminists and required for good social order.

The home then has never been a private space, exempt from the rules of social behaviour or the requirements of society. It is not and has never been the last stronghold against state interference. On the contrary, its ‘private’ nature is predicated on the existence of the state and the right for the state to interfere in its operation. The two cannot exist separately. In this sense, the privacy of the home is an illusion- if one held dear to us. This is particularly the case when you use your home in public ways- such as when you run a business from your home. Because at that stage (whether you realise it or not), any sense of your home as private is removed and its public functions (always present) are once more made explicit.

To argue then that your private rights to discriminate are founded on the privacy of the household is to misunderstand the place and role of the household and the state in society. The question then becomes whether your right to discriminate is greater than the right of other people not to be discriminated against. While discrimination actively hurts people- and so damages society- you being asked to curtail your discrimination does not hurt you. Given that the protection of its members is the first duty of the state, that the law finds in favour of the right not to be discriminated against is lawful, logical and good for everybody.


Anonymous said...

Just another example of gays trying to take away our constitutional freedoms to suit their chosen lifestyle.

Feminist Avatar said...

We don't have a constitution.