Is the Public Sphere Collapsing?

I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s work, A Secular Age (Belknap, 2007). This book is not for the faint of heart. It is a sweeping intellectual history examining the rise of secularism in the West. This is one of those books that other people write books about, such as James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans, 2014). Taylor’s work, while lengthy and technical (about 800 pages), is a masterful analysis of how it came to be that, while it was once inconceivable to be non-religious in Western culture, today it is not only conceivable but rather common. 

With the events surrounding the recent Supreme Court nomination and confirmation, I have reflected on Taylor’s discussion of the rise of the “public sphere.” He describes the public sphere as “a kind of common space… in which people who never meet understand themselves to be engaged in discussion, and capable of reaching a common mind…. [T]he ‘opinion of mankind’ offers a merely convergent unity, while public opinion is supposedly generated out of a series of common actions” (187). In other words, we’re all in this great big discussion (or at least we can be if we want to), which is supposed to lead us to a greater common good through shared understanding. 

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Through much of history we lacked the technology for such discourse. Any consequential discourse took place among elites who made decisions affecting public life. Today, however, we simply take the public sphere for granted. But should we? As Taylor describes it, the goal of the public sphere is to reach a “common mind,” but what happens when we no longer believe we are capable of doing so?

Building on the work of Michael Warner, Taylor writes,

[T]he rise of the public sphere involves a breach in the old ideal of a social order undivided by conflict and difference. On the contrary, it means that debate breaks out, and continues, involving in principle everybody, and this is perfectly legitimate. The old unity will be gone forever. But a new unity is to be substituted. For the ever-continuing controversy is not meant to be an exercise in power, a quasi-civil war carried on by dialectical means. Its potentially divisive and destructive consequences are offset by the fact that it is a debate outside of power, a rational debate, striving without parti pris to define the common good” (190).

I understand that our politicians are supposed to be political (though not always partisan). What happens, however, when the public sphere is so politicized that it is no longer characterized by rational debate? What happens when we can no longer speak of a “debate outside of power, a rational debate… to define the common good?”

Some will say that objectivity is a myth, that there never was any debate outside of power, that it’s all power and always has been. Overstated as this Neo-Marxist critique may be, objectivity is often harder to define than we might think. Nevertheless, what is critical thought if not the ability to distance oneself from the persuasive force of ideas and analyze their strengths and weaknesses? I might agree with something I read and still point out some of the weaknesses in the argument, or I might find helpful aspects of a piece with which I generally disagree. If my goal is to expand understanding, that is what I will do. If my goal is simply to persuade, to win adherents to my side of a political debate, such balanced analysis is not only unnecessary but impeding.

The public sphere may, at this point, be so politicized that there is no hope of reaching a common mind. In fact, we appear to have lost sight of what consensus looks like.  Such is our cultural moment. There are several factors that have contributed to this state of affairs, not least of which is the rise of social media, which tends toward snark rather than substance. Whatever the reasons, however, if we cannot reclaim the disciplines of rational discourse and intellectual virtue, we are in for darker days ahead. If we cannot once again lift up the idea of the common good over partisan conquest, the public sphere will collapse, and this will have devastating consequences. 

7 thoughts on “Is the Public Sphere Collapsing?

  1. Who will adjudicate for us? Who will insist on the sublimity of rational discourse over and against the irrational mob? Will the United Methodist Church model this for us in 2019?

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