Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Signifiers


A phony-baloney ideal.

Wilfred M. McClay

Sunguk Kim via Unsplash.

“I’m looking through you,” sang Paul McCartney, “where did you go?”

Ah, yes. People of a certain age will recognize these lyrics from a bittersweet song of the sixties about the optics of fading love. (Poor Jane Asher, where did she go?) But more than that, the song also gives us a neat summation of what might be called, with apologies to Kant, the antinomies of pure transparency.

Let me explain. I am sure you have noticed that the adjective transparent has undergone an overhaul in recent years. For one thing, it is suddenly everywhere. It used to be employed narrowly, mainly to describe the neutral quality we expect to find in a window: the capacity to allow the unhindered passage of light. Or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the property of transmitting light, so as to render bodies lying beyond completely visible.” The point was not the window, but the thing the window enabled us to see.

The word has also enjoyed figurative usages, as in the beauty of the “transparent Helena” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in George Orwell’s admonition that “good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” Or in the ecstatic visions of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who experienced unmediated nature as if he were “a transparent eye-ball,” able to “see all” and feel “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” Or less grandly, the word is often used as a negative intensifier, as in the term “transparent liar,” which is used so frequently that it has a Twitter hashtag. In every instance, the general sense of being “completely visible” is paramount.

In recent years, by contrast, transparent has become one of the staples of our commercial discourse, a form of bureaucratic-corporate-therapeutic-speak that, like all such language, is designed to conceal more than it reveals and defeat its challengers by the abstract elusiveness of its meaning. Its promiscuous use is an unfortunate development. In practice, it generally means the opposite of what it promises; transparency would mean irreproachable openness, guilelessness, simplicity, “nothing to hide.” But when today’s T-shirt–clad executives and open-collar politicians assure us, at the beginning of their remarks, that “we want to be completely transparent,” it is time to watch out. They are making a statement about themselves, about what good and generous and open and kind folks they are, and why you should therefore trust them. They are signaling their personal virtue. They are not talking about the general accessibility of their account books and board minutes and confidential personnel records.

Nor should they be. And that’s the point. Being transparent is a phony-baloney ideal, just the kind of ideal a therapeutic society is likely to embrace in theory and find itself unable to carry out in practice. Every shared human enterprise—friendships, marriages, families, churches, business partnerships, and above all, positions of leadership—involves a blend of opacity and transparency, a balance of revelation and privacy, of intimacy and distance. The best human relationships require unstated but inviolable boundaries. There should not be too many of them. But there should be a sufficient number to guard against the desire for complete transparency, which becomes a form of interpersonal imperialism. Although André Malraux was wrong to say that “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides,” he was not entirely wrong. Malraux would have come closer to the truth if he had said that we are always, in part, made up of that which others do not see—or maybe, in cases of profound love, that others may see but not comment upon, knowing that an understanding love does not presume to transgress the distance, does not demand the satisfaction of an explicit recognition.

This has implications for leaders too. They can talk the talk about transparency if they want to, just as long as they don’t believe in it; and on the whole it is better for them not to say what they do not (and cannot) really mean. Effective leaders can neither be too aloof nor too chummy. There has to be an element of the mysterious, the unapproachable, the unknowable, the charismatic, about them. They are human, of course, and need friendship, but they are also keepers of confidences and balancers of interests, whose perspective must take in a more expansive view. Their followers must know them well enough to be able to trust and respect them, but not so well as to presume to intuit their thinking and predict their actions.

Transparency, then, is far from being an unequivocal good. To return to Paul McCartney’s lyrics, we might say that when his former beloved became transparent to him, rather than appear more “completely visible” to him, she disappeared completely. Or to reverse the formulation, her opacities were essential to her makeup as a person, essential to her being someone worth seeing—even if he became incapable of seeing them, and her.

Perhaps we’re just playing around with a figure of speech here. But as we find ourselves living in an age in which our lives are becoming all too transparent to governments and data miners and other voyeurs and sleuths of surveillance, and our secrets vanishingly fragile and few, the ideal of transparency, so benign sounding at first, begins to look sinister, and its alternative downright heroic by comparison. So let us strive to keep transparency to a necessary minimum. Malraux also said that Man is nothing but “a miserable little pile of secrets.” I don’t really think so. But I am certain that we would be infinitely more miserable without them.