In theory, there’s this great “public sphere” where everyone can come together as equals and openly discuss ideas and opinions, collectively coming to a mutual understanding of what is right and good.
The problem with that sentence is its reliance on the first two words: in theory.
Unfortunately, actualization of that public sphere is far from the reality of most people’s every day life. There are numerous reasons and explanations for this, but there is one I find particularly intriguing.
As Jürgen Habermas writes in The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article:
“Large organizations strive for political compromises with the state and with each other, excluding the public sphere whenever possible. But at the same time the large organizations must assure themselves of at least plebiscitary support from the mass of the population through an apparent display of openness.”
So, Habermas says, the reality shakes out that the people in power make back room deals while engaging the public only insofar as is necessary to avoid losing their power.
Here’s my question: It is better to have no public sphere – totalitarian regimes and institutions which actively reject public input – or to have a courtesy public sphere – regimes and institutions which only make empty gestures towards public engagement?
The question itself is a false one – I see no reason why these two options need to exist alone and in simple opposition to each other. But I find the question compelling nonetheless. Like the game of asking, would you rather be loved and forgotten or hated and remembered?
So, if you’ll play this game with me, which is worse?
I’m no fan of totalitarian regimes. At first glance, it seems hard to imagine suggesting something worse than that. In many ways, having no public sphere seems like obviously the worse state.
Yet I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something terribly insidious about a feigned public sphere. It’s the kind of system seen in the disutopian worlds of 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.
The governments in those books speak passionately in support of peace, equality, sunshine and rainbows. But to the observant few and to us outside readers, their actions reveal their darker intentions.The truth is, these fictional governments are totalitarian regimes.
The thing is – their citizens don’t know it.
And perhaps that how it is with most totalitarian regimes – the majority accept the rhetoric, while a troubled few find themselves imprisoned or worse, for daring to raise an eyebrow in question.
So which is worse?
Maybe there’s not much difference.