Lockdown has destroyed the private sphere

Home used to be a haven in a heartless world. Now we live at work.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

‘You must stay at home.’ With this directive, issued by Boris Johnson on 23 March last year, our homes became more central to our lives than ever before. One of the first revelations of lockdown, at least to those who lead very sheltered lives, was that not all homes are equal. Zoom calls exposed the chasm between company executives in spacious home offices overlooking large gardens and junior employees with the laptop at the kitchen table if they were lucky, or propped up on one corner of the bed if they weren’t. And no, we did not feel sympathy for celebs emoting from their mansions.

Since last March, the purpose – and the very meaning – of our homes has changed. Home used to be the place we would return to at the end of the day; it meant a retreat into the private sphere and away from the glare of the public realm. Home allowed us to recharge and face the world anew the next day.

With lockdown, the public realm has all but collapsed. Of course, many people still work outside of the home. But with schools, universities, pubs and restaurants, shops and hairdressers all closed; with concerts, theatre productions, political meetings and public lectures, church services and sporting events all cancelled, public life has ground to a halt. As Dave Clements has written on spiked, this damages not just our personal freedoms but also risks irreparable damage to the communities within which our lives gain meaning.

The death of the public sphere changes the private sphere of our lives. There is a vast difference between spending time at home voluntarily and doing so under compulsion. The crucial distinction between a rented room and a prison cell is the liberty to come and go. Take away that freedom and, particularly for people who live alone, the difference can seem merely decorative.

It is not just the compulsion to stay put that has changed our relationship to our homes. Houses now substitute for school classrooms and university lecture theatres. It is good that more children are receiving at least some online, real-time teacher input now in comparison with the first lockdown. But the downside of this is not just a new level of exhaustion and isolation among children. Almost every parent has an anecdote about the time they walked into their kitchen singing loudly or inappropriately dressed only for their mortified child to announce that his entire class had just borne witness to the faux pas. By the same token, teachers themselves become subject to far greater scrutiny. What should be a relationship between teacher, pupils and subject knowledge has now expanded to encompass 30 sets of parents. When a teacher’s voice is ringing out from your own front room, it is hard not to listen and judge.

But it’s not just children and teachers who are under greater scrutiny. For many of us, home is now the office and the workplace meeting room. Whether it’s through Zoom or Teams, colleagues and clients, as well as people we have never met before but are expected to work with, are now regularly beamed into our homes. Pets, young children, partners, drying laundry and choices of books and furniture have all made an appearance before colleagues and acquaintances. Likewise, when we turn on the television news, we have become used to seeing into the homes of journalists, politicians and commentators.

Over the past year, the boundaries between work and home have become blurred beyond all recognition. As the working day expands and commuting is replaced by checking emails in bed, we stop working from home and start living at work. Glossy newspaper supplements sell us the latest kit for Working From Bed and the best clothes to look good on Zoom. But the reality of living at work is far from glamorous. Cleaning, cooking and childcare are now done alongside our jobs. The costs associated with working, from heating to wifi, were once covered by our employer, but now we must find extra money ourselves.

Despite the virtual public invasion of our homes, we are denied the water-cooler gossip, end-of-day drinks, office banter and chance to forge new connections. Just as our homes become part of the world of work and education, we become more isolated. Lockdown rules decree what can and cannot happen within our own four walls. We are no longer free to invite friends, or even family members, round for dinner or a drink. Children’s playdates, sleepovers and birthday parties have all stopped. Neighbours have been ordered not to pop round for a cup of tea with someone who lives alone but to spy on one another instead.

Attempts to regulate what happens in our homes go beyond lockdown restrictions. The Law Commission, in a consultation document published last year, proposed removing the ‘dwelling exemption’ from hate-speech legislation, which could see people criminalised for conversations that take place in their own homes. In Scotland and Wales, it is against the law for parents to smack their misbehaving children at home and in public.

Lockdown means our homes are, for many of us, the full extent of our world. But lockdown has changed what home means. When the distinction between the public and the private spheres of our lives is so substantially eroded, our home stops being a retreat, a refuge where we return to gather ourselves before facing the outside world once more, and instead becomes a goldfish bowl where we are constantly on display but never able to escape. We need to lift lockdown restrictions so we can get back out into public life, but at the same time we need to reassert the vital importance of our homes as a private space.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and director of the think tank Cieo.

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