Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Consider Staying in the Closet”

  1. When I red your opening paragraph, I wondered "what is the last taboo?" Not knowing that, I couldn't be sure I had not already violated it. Unknowingly, of course. I would never deliberately violate a taboo, let alone the last one.

    "Incest? No," I thought, "I've never done that, but so many people have, it couldn't possibly be the last taboo."

    "Necrophilia? Bestiality? Eating my salad with my dinner fork? No," I thought, "it wouldn't be any of those. Even though they are unthinkable to me, I suspect they don't rise to the level of that singular epithet."

    Then it occurred to me, and though I was alone at my desk, I blushed when I realized I had done it. In 1988, after twelve years of amateurs of both parties in the White House, I voted for the man I though could return professionalism to our national governance. I voted for George H.W. Bush. Sadly, my optimism was short-lived, and I learned my lesson.

    But that one time, I violated the last taboo. I voted for a Republican.

  2. I’m glad you brought this up. I’m still in my twenties, and in school, and it’s difficult to overestimate the centrality of Facebook to social life. It’s now normative to be frequently checking your facebook, to the extent that a Facebook invite is a real party invite, even if you never mention it in person, and a Facebook message genuinely counts as a reliable form of communication — arguably more so than sending someone registered mail. And since, everyone is on Facebook, and posting is supremely easy, that makes it a powerful tool for — well, something!

    The question is what to do with that tool.

    I think most people use it as their miniature soapbox, or a window into their identity, or their primary tool for self-branding: promote the news story you found funny or appalling, educate others on the political view you feel is misunderstood, or log your most recent thoughts, feelings, or activities as people long have in diaries — except this just happens to be online and public.

    I used to do those things, but ultimately it caused me more anxiety than it was worth. Did I overshare? Why did no one like or comment? Do I sound preachy? Underlying that is a deeper question: why did I post that, or anything at all? And what does success even look like? So I stopped, and for a long time didn’t post at all. That feels strange at first, as if you’re faking your own death, but eventually I got used to it.

    But still, not posting on Facebook seems like a missed opportunity. My new approach is to ask questions. Rather than using Facebook to push out a message, why not use it to collect something? Currently I’m optimistic that will 1) entertain me, 2) help me organize / practice expressing interesting ideas, and 3) create a space for meaningful exchanges among friends.

    There’s probably something similar going on when anyone sits down to blog or, even worse, “internet comment”. Is my goal to convince someone of my argument, or to reinforce my personal branding, or is it simply the final product of a process that helps us organize our thoughts?

    Somehow, I think there’s a way to use social media without being a narcissist. But I’m still trying to figure out how.

  3. People do overshare. But there are still large areas of the country where coming out as gay is if not heroic, still very brave.

  4. “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”.

    I believe you dispensed with the first phrase splendidly.
    However I felt you conflated the next two. "the last taboo" seems from your links to be the phrase of the day to promote the idea that something is to use a few of the previous phrases radical, revolutionary, transgressive, edgy, what have you.
    But to come out of the closet is still a courageous act whether taken in Russia, Uganda or New York City. That is the difference between the phrases- one a catch phrase of the day, the other a public act of honesty and courage. As you say, "When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable." But it does not only take place in the past tense.

    1. I should have added links for that phrase but was too lazy. Googling on the phrase just now finds stories about coming out of the closet as someone who has student debt, who is an atheist, who smokes cannabis, who is a Republican, who is a Democrat and who does not believe that humans cause global warming.

  5. "Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star . . ." You're a better man than I am Keith. The checkout-line magazine covers I see identify these people only by first name ("Lauren's Revenge," "Kristen Cheats On Rob!"), never surname or profession, and despite the accompanying photos, I rarely have any idea who these people are (though frankly, I think Rob will get over it.).

  6. It would also help if the Huffington Post would stop placing these little temptations on the margins of the "serious" stuff I like to read, and identify myself as reading. I'll log on to read about social security obligations and then stay for Zach Galifinakis' transformative weight loss.

  7. I think you miss the point entirely.

    These people's importance is not that they are third-rate TV stars or whatever. Many of them are not even that. What they are is individuals who are put into the public eye precisely to serve as a subject of these sorts of stories. They, or their personas, exist solely for this sort of revelation. Their job is to have scandals and divorces, get drunk in public, and so on. They are the classic "famous for being famous" celebrities.

    Breaking a taboo or revealing intimate details, or getting into a public dispute, or whatnot is not an act of courage – it is their job, and it seems to pay well. Think Kardashian. That name ought to become a common noun describing that job.

    "I can imagine a magazine editor announcing that "We need to get two new kardashians for next month's cover."

  8. I'm one of those that Keith would consider to overshare (and I've probably done it in emails to him). In my case, this doesn't really have much to do with Facebook other than that it gives me an outlet to do so. If it wasn't there, I'd still be doing it face to face or any other way I communicate.

    And now I'm going to indulge in oversharing by explaining why I do it.

    A large part of it stems from being autistic. One symptom of it is that we're really fuzzy on social boundaries and have a tendency to be open and say what we actually think. That applies to describing ourselves and sharing. It's just really hard for me not to once I feel comfortable with a group of people, as I do here or among my Facebook circle.

    On top of that, though, when I was first diagnosed with chronic depression twenty-some years ago I told myself that I was going to be as open as possible about it. That was extended when I received my autism diagnosis four years ago. What might seem like oversharing to others is in part my attempt to make discussing one's mental illness normal. I think that's important.

    I recently had a Facebook post about how my interactions with the person that, in high school, I thought of as my best friend affected the irrational social fears I have now. I think it's important to let people understand not only why I behave the way I do but also the ways that life affects mental illness and can even create it.

    It's possible that I'm vastly overestimating my own importance, but, hey, it makes me feel good.

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