The Imperative of the Public Sphere

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

The public sphere is a realm of human discourse that has existed as long as two or more individuals have found it worthwhile to discuss public events, people, or policies. While the subject and scene may vary, individuals and conversation have always been the ancillary components of human discourse. During the Georgian and Victorian eras of England, the public sphere manifested itself as coffeehouses where individuals dialogued about social issues.

In the age of French enlightenment, it took the form of salons – gatherings of invited individuals for the purposes of education and mutual edification. We can also point to the Forums of the Roman empire, the piazzas of Italy, and the plazas of Spain as gathering locales. Modern day examples, such as tweets and online posts, present new horizons for the public sphere whereas Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr did not even exist ten years ago. In the same way, the proliferation and availability of online news mediums have served in democratizing knowledge yet fall short in showing us what to do with this unlimited information.

As a societatis, we have a profusion of opportunities to express opinions and speak to others, but we must admit that these far outweigh the opportunities to speak with others. We’ve created social media outlets and participate in them because they are a more convenient and efficient means to connect with one another. However, I’m not convinced that convenience and efficiency are embedded qualities of effective public spheres. In the 21st century, we can enter and withdraw from the public sphere through integrated online personalities without having to confront or converse with one another face-to-face. If any credibility is to be given to sociologists claiming that body language makes up more than 90 percent of communication, how much are we missing as a society by not talking to one another in person?

To believe in a public sphere as a metaphorical arena in which individuals exchange ideas in order to better formulate opinions, we must awaken our collective curiosity to enter into respectful and purposeful conversation. Effective conversation meets true dialogue when it is a dialogic process that transpires between and among people instead of something that we do to one another (monologue vs. dialogue). This act is critical to the betterment of humankind. In dialoguing with others, we formulate identity, understanding, and opinions of all that encapsulates what it means to be a part of the human experience. We are social beings that require interaction and involvement with others irrespective of social stratification, culture, or country.

Research on the act and art of true dialogue reveals three dimensions:

1 Empathic conversation – Ability to imagine the world as another person understands it.
2 Equitable transaction - When all participants have the ability to voice an opinion.
3 Real meeting – Genuine communication that transcends differences.

Empathic Conversation

To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.
– Chinese Proverb

For the public sphere to function in a way that acknowledges a plethora of worldviews, the skill of listening must be employed amongst those present and participating. Much of the listening that humans partake in is that of appreciative listening – listening that advances one’s own beliefs or objectives. While this type of listening certainly provides us with inspiration and motivation, it doesn’t always afford us the possibility of learning from others with variant backgrounds and viewpoints. Although it is certainly not necessary for us, as Christians, to agree with any of these differences, we should, at the very least, strive to listen through dialogue. Dialogic listening has the potential to nudge us closer to what Scripture admonishes us to embody: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (James 1:19).

The application of empathic conversation has many faces within the praxis of dialogic listening. Here is one recommendation:

Diversify through Difference. As appreciative listeners we consume sights and sounds that are agreeable to us. Unfortunately, by surrounding ourselves by that which we agree with diminishes our emotional and cognitive empathy. Where we work, study, learn, and worship all present opportunities to listen to paradigms different from our own. It might even be worthwhile to take inventory of your social life. Does sameness permeate your relationships? Are there individuals with disparate outlooks on faith, family, and civic life? The Apostle Paul exemplifies what it means to diversify through difference in attempting to become “all things to all people” – a feat made possible by listening well.

Equitable Transaction

Perhaps the best conversationalist is the man who helps others talk.
-John Steinbeck

Within the public sphere, equitable transaction tends to be the most outward-focused of the three types of dialogues. In 1962, the German sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, penned The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas’ work was considered to be transformational in understanding public discourse and remains a source of critique and celebration for any endeavor to analyze or engage the public sphere. One of his main arguments was that the bourgeois dominate the public sphere and thereby overshadow the voices of the poor and oppressed. Public discourse is, in some ways, a public good and should be perceived as non-excludable and non-rivalrous. While a discussion on whether or not there is a “gatekeeper” to the public sphere is beyond the scope of this post, those of us interacting in the public sphere must use our voices on behalf of those without access – regardless of what inhibits entry.

Understand the Underrepresented. Ask yourself whose voice is not being heard. This may take the form of being a homeless census volunteer in your city, as a friend of mine did through The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Or, it may be serving as a tutor to the typically large swath of individuals deficient in reading or speaking English in urban areas. If you are a parent, it may be attending school board meetings to ensure your child’s interests are represented. It is through these encounters that we are able to better identify and be an advocate for those with weakened public voices. Understanding the underrepresented, however, is applicable not only to macro-oriented issues, but also to routine business and social interactions. Maybe there is a team member or family member that needs to have their voice heard anew. We can practice equitable listening by granting these individuals an audience of at least one.

Real Meeting

Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.
– Emily Post

Four years ago my wife and I began inviting friends to our home for the purpose of concentrated discussion on a pre-determined topic. Coffee & Currents, as it came to be known, has strived to concern itself with meeting new people, exchanging ideas, and talking about something beyond ourselves. This form of the public sphere transcends political, religious, and cultural differences in that all individuals are welcome to enter and participate. Coffee & Currents exists to cultivate real conversations and real meetings, but can only be effective if there is empathic and equitable conversation amongst participants. Better yet, a simple “I don’t know” within these gatherings often spawns more genuine probing of the issue at hand and works to disarm any with hostile intentions. Real meetings do not exist to ignore or sidestep the contentious issues. Rather, real meetings like Coffee & Currents, provisions a forum where individuals do not have to worry about being or sounding right.

Coffee & Currents has convinced me that the public sphere only functions when there is mutual capacity to listen, demonstrate interest, and show respect to others with opposing views. Participants may enter the public sphere for a myriad of reasons, but the apologia for remaining and contributing resides in the approach, reception, and efficacy of the dialogue. The public sphere doesn’t exist for itself but in the belief that the collective voice is louder and more dynamic than the solitary one. When this collective voice rises to promote a shared justice rooted in our inalienable rights, our public and private institutions are compelled to listen. This is why the public sphere exists.

The knowledge economy of our society has submerged our collective consciences and curiosity in a surplus of information. As this article has reasoned, the act and art of true dialogue is one of continual creation and improvement. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, conversation is an art that all are practicing every day we live. We’ve become quite proficient in speaking to and past others on religious, political, and social matters we may consider settled. Statements of faith, opinion, and truth must begin to give way to syntheses of faith, opinion, and truth so that we continue learning how to speak with others. This is practiced and achieved at the nexus of empathic and equitable dialogue which lead to real meetings. I believe that where real meetings are found, real meaning is sure to be near.

Whether your public sphere is online or over coffee, this imperative will always hold true: a collection of monologues do not, in fact, constitute a dialogue.

-Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on twitter @jerdavtay.