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The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people coming together as a public.
In the past few months, the Covid-19 pandemic took control of the world and has forced most of us to adapt to how we live with several restrictions. Ever since that, the media bombarded us with repetitive cases of violent crimes that appear to have increased during this time.
In fact, one could say that the current climate has exacerbated the most significant event in the past years: the rise of far-right movements. Do you remember the white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charleston, USA, three years ago? Or, to recall more current events, the protest of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland? Only in Portugal, this happened in the past few months:
Putting this all together, one can theorize that perhaps these continuous ignorant, biased and prejudiced movements are happening because, once more, we are giving away our ability to develop and maintain a public sphere. We rather believe in pseudosciences like homeopathy and superstition like crystal healing, in antivaccination (probably the stupidest thing of the 21st century), in rhetorics full of fallacies made by extremists, in religious extremists, in politicians that advise drinking bleach to kill the disease and by tolerating the intolerants.
Strictly speaking, we are voluntarily forfeiting our right to think freely and accept biased perspectives because they are more pleasant and easier.
But what is the public sphere?
The German author Jürgen Habermas was born in 1929 during a troubled historical period, which influenced all his work and writings. Understanding the contextualization of Habermas’ life helps us comprehend his thought’s idiosyncrasies and the brilliance behind The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society
In a short period, the sociologist experienced the rise of Hitler to power (1933), the nationalism-socialist diffusion, the World War II horrors (1939-1945), the post-war hurt by the Cold War and nuclear development, the student movements of the 60s and 70s, the building of the Berlin Wall and its fall in 1989. Indeed, the Nazi period and its consideration were some of the most critical factors that influenced his work.
For Habermas, the public sphere (known in German as Öffentlichkeit) started during the Renaissance, when there was a need for information about products and far markets between merchants – a type of public information sharing based on a mercantile economy. We passed from a feudal system to the appearing of the Bourgeoisie class in the 18th and 19th centuries and the opening of Parisian salons, where thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot debated and reflected about human subjects in an enlightenment perspective, following its ideas of rationality and search for knowledge. The author designates this period the “bourgeois public sphere,” established in a free and laissez-faire environment.
Thus, the public sphere is characterized by autonomy, individual thinking ability, and reason in a free and open space (ideally) to everyone, where a group discusses public interest subjects. It’s not necessarily held in a tangible place (although the salons represent the idea), where “private people” go together to form a “public.” Even though the concept is more abstract than physical, what defines it is the “speech formation” – an informed debate process.
By ‘the public sphere’, we mean, first of all, a realm of our social life in which something close to public opinion can be formed. Access is ensured to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to build a public body.
As Kant also notes, the public sphere is hence directly connected to liberty and democracy, and the cosmopolitan individual worried about Humanity’s problems. Secondary aspects like possessions, status and social position should not intervene in the public use of reason.
The public sphere through the time
Although Habermas stated that the public sphere probably started in the Renaissance, I theorized a few years back that we could pinpoint some forms of it throughout our evolution as a human race, starting with our Greek-Latin heritage.
- Ancient Greece: numerous mishaps (harsh agricultural years in the 5th century, political decisions made by Dracon, Solon, Pisistratus and Cleisthenes, the Peloponnesian War, etc) contributed to the Greek political affirmation, the development of courts, the creation of the political income, the rise of the demos and the idea of citizenship. These changes constituted an effective representation of the public sphere, which became tangible in the ecclesia (court) or in the agora (space where the public opinion has debated). Notwithstanding the Ateneans Democracy sagacity, we cannot forget that it was extremely discriminatory. Only citizens (free men, born in Athens from free Athenians father and mother) could vote and participate in these structures, exerting the public sphere.
- Ancient Rome: Rome was known for its imperialism, not by a democratic system. Nevertheless, the empire was organized with democratic bodies (Senate, Comitia and courts) and the Roman Law. The concept can be found in the forum where significant events were celebrated, like elections, judgments, debates, games, political speeches, etc.
- First Enlightenment ideas: after a long time of oppressive political regimes, the first liberal perspectives started forming in the minds of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine or Diderot
- The American and French Revolutions: inspired by the authors’ works aforementioned and more, the revolutions dethroned the absolute monarchs of the 18th century and marked the beginning of modern society. The ideals of human rights, tolerance, power separation and freedom of speech became tokens of it.
- The press: in the 18th and 19th centuries, an old problem presented itself: we lacked a space to transmit and disseminate information and hold a public discussion. In other words, the human race required a new agora. Through the wonder of printing and thus the press’s massive propagation, the public sphere is retaken. The media is now the “fourth power” of society, guaranteeing the democratic system and transforming the world intelligible for everybody – attributes it still maintains today despite all its flaws and possible corruption.
What can we do to resume the public sphere?
Humans cannot separate the concept of the public sphere from the media, freedom and democracy because they are inextricable. The upkeep of it is both a responsibility and a right, and a warranty for the most possible fair, legitimate and free political system.
Here is what we can do as a group to preserve the public sphere:
Listen to specialists and research
Everyone can say whatever they want in free countries, even if it’s as ridiculous as drinking bleach to kill a virus. It is up to us to think about what we read and hear and study for further information.
We live in the information era: if you don’t know what a term means or have doubts about a concept, investigate using reliable and trustworthy sources. Confront your perspective with opposite ones and get out of your comfortable bubble.
Read the media and by critical about it
Read the website, the physical version, listen to it on television or radio, but don’t forget to: a) not believe anything that it’s said just because it was on the news; b) do your own research and c) every story has more than one side.
Forget the ad hominem arguments and other fallacies. Discuss using reason, logic and include a touch of empathy because not everything is black and white.
Read the campaign proposal, the party’s manifesto, the leader’s perspective. Do not vote without knowledge and, for fuck’s sake: vote.
Think (once more)
Lies and prejudice are squishy and soft. They can fit into whatever shape you want them to be, whereas the truth is grim, spiky and hard to embrace. None of those things is an excuse to have discriminatory views about anything. Read, study and stop being deliberately stupid.
Disclaimer: this blog post is an adaptation of an old college paper I wrote, reduced and transform into an article.