The City And Privacy
( Originally Published 1916 )
ONE reason why people flock to cities is that they may be able to mind their own business.
Political economists seek complex and devious reasons for the tremendous rapidity of city growth and for the desertion of the country and of the country town. The cause, however, is quite simple, as simple as human nature. The people go to cities because they "want to." That's all.
Take the village of Podunk. In the first place you would not be allowed to go there to live without explaining why you came, where you came from, and what your business is. You can rent a flat in Chicago, however, and nobody cares a tuppence who you are or what is your criminal record, so long as you are peaceable.
If you do business in Podunk, and usually get down to the store at nine, and some morning you do not appear until ten, the town will not rest until it has found out the cause of your delay.
Your neighbors know all about you and your wife, your sons, and your daughters. The bank cashier knows the size of your pile, the grocer and butcher know what you eat, the dry goods merchant knows what sort of underclothes you wear and how much your women folks spend on corsets, and they all meet and check up.
When you leave town they know it, also when you return; and they want to know what you were doing in St. Louis.
It is all a very cosy family arrangement. You live in the constant glare of the limelight.
Some people like it, and feel lost and lone-some in the city. But more and more that class is growing to whom this perpetual invasion of privacy is disagreeable.
It is pretty generally assumed among moralists that people love the privacy of cities because they wish to plunge into vice. Doubtless some do. But it is doubtful if the average city-bred person is any more immoral than the country-bred.
It is conceivable that a person may wish to live his own life as he pleases, and not under the unremitting supervision of Mrs. Grundy, and that this wish may be prompted not by a desire for secret crime but simply by a desire for personal privacy.
The matter is really a conflict between the old idea that morality is conformity and the modern idea that morality is the responsible expression of one's own personality.
The city means the revolt of the soul of man against moral dictation. Of course, wicked people have always resented moral tyranny. Now the good people are beginning to resent it too. So the country is squeezing out its best and its worst into the cities.