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The public debate is one of the pillars of democracy. But not many people seem to know the rules of that debate, mostly it is propagated that you should be able to say everything – so to respect the freedom of expression. But participation in the public debate requires more than just freedom, it also requires empathy and resilience, it requires self-control, reflection and nuance. In addition to the persisting in the misunderstanding that everything can be said without contradiction, there are also other developments that affect the quality of the public debate: old media that tend to present a polarized debate instead of a plurality of perspectives view, new media that contribute to the privatization of the debate, and large groups of people that are excluded from the debate. In this paper, I describe the rules of the public debate, its threats and possible solutions.
We grow up with the idea that your own opinion is almost sacred. At school, we learn to emphasize the individuality of our opinion while presenting it in essays and group discussions. Also, if somebody says something bad or stupid in the media and is being held accountable for that mistake, then one may expect references that the right to free speech is obstructed. There should be no limits to our capacity to say everything we want. Or should there?
For a dogma that is found to be so important, it is actually surprising how poorly it is understood what the freedom of speech pertains to. Of course there are rules and restrictions within a public debate. These may not concern the content of an opinion, but they do involve the way in which we have to accept the consequences of expressing that opinion. The misunderstandings about the nature of the public debate and its rules are all the more damaging because the quality of this debate is being undermined by other developments as well. As such, it is high time to clarify these rules and the duties that come with them.
To begin with, it is important to recognize that having an opinion is not so special. Everyone has opinions, about everything. That is how our brain works. What we observe and experience is classified as good or not good. This enables you to make the right choice. In prehistoric times, these choices concerned fundamental questions: is the food safe and nutritious, is an animal threatening or not, is another person a friend or an enemy? Nowadays, they are mainly about matters of taste. You want to eat what you like, read a book from which you learn something, put on the music that you like. Your taste is by definition an individual matter, you can decide for yourself what you like or not.
However, not everything that we have an opinion about is an individual matter. One of the key assets of our society is that we also have an opinion about what that society should look like. That is an individual opinion, but it is one that is intended to contribute to the public opinion, an opinion that concerns matters that relate to society as a whole.
We usually do not realize how special it is to have a public debate about public opinion, but it requires quite some leaps of faith. First, members must recognize themselves as members of a society that is not the same as the political unity of the state. That society does not consist of laws or governments, but it only exists in the heads of the people who are part of it – it is an imaginary.
That imaginary society is given an opinion, meaning that people talk to each other in order to come to agreement about what that opinion should be. It is already difficult when you have to decide with your friends where to go on your next city trip, but that is easy if you compare it with the effort needed to come to a shared opinion about what is important for society as a whole. After all, we are talking about millions of people who do not know each other.
Obviously this is impossible. Also the pursued consensus is an imaginary one: we think that there is such a thing as a shared public opinion, and that representation makes it possible for us to talk about that opinion and act upon it.
To organize the conversation about public opinion, we need media. Once these included only newspapers. But nowadays we have radio, TV, and of course internet as means that enable us to take stock of the repertoire opinions and that enable us to express opinions ourselves. We read something, we talk about that something with friends and colleagues and when we feel the urge to do so we write a letter, give comments or likes, fill in a poll, or write a blog post. In this way we contribute to the further formation of the imaginary public opinion.
The public opinion must be able to give the idea that every individual can contribute to it in a meaningful way. Not that the public opinion is the sum of all those millions of opinions, but it is important that most people can recognize themselves in the opinions expressed in the public debate. This means that the debate must include a diversity of opinions so that we can take note of different visions, which helps us to develop our own ideas.
Nowadays that diversity has become limited to a binary repertoire of meanings that exists of either being in favor or against a certain position, a thumbs up or thumbs down. The aforementioned media strongly contribute to this, with the tendency to invite only supporters and opponents of a certain position in speak out on a public issue. Such a limitation is a serious threat of the quality of the public debate and must be counteracted by all means.
Above I stated that you can see society as separated from the political body of the state, but of course politics and society are intimately intertwined. You could see elections as one of the few moments when public opinion actually becomes concrete. For one day only we know where we stand. What the elected politicians subsequently discuss and decide can be seen as the counterpoint of the public debate. The letters in the newspaper, the conversations in the talk shows and the posts on Twitter are often about what politicians should do or should have done.
It is very important to emphasize the difference between taste and a contribution to the formation of public opinion. Taste is subjective. Whether you prefer pizza over pasta is up to you. It would be really strange if you like Justin Bieber more than The Beatles, but as long as you put headphones on, there is no problem.
Things change when it comes to matters that concern society as a whole. Obviously you can say that people who listen to Justin Bieber should be banned. But don’t be surprised if will become mad at you. Because this opinion concerns society as a whole, it means to be a subjective opinion, it is an opinion that relates to what we should all be able to agree upon. For such an opinion you can be held accountable.
Expressing such a general opinion implies that you open yourself up to criticism. When it comes to taste, someone else can agree or disagree with you, but that’s it. A discussion about public opinion, however, it is not about a personal opinion, it is about an opinion that could be shared. Such an opinion affects everyone and, hence, everyone can also criticize this.
Usually criticism concerns the argumentative logic with which opinion is expressed. In that case the assumptions used and/or the conclusions are challenged. Unsurprisingly, given the low level of opinions stated in newspapers and blogs.
What is not allowed in the public debate is self-interest. Of course your personal background influences your opinion, but that background may never fully determine your opinion. You have to be able to speak from a general point of view and you have to be able to show that you can look at things from different angles. This requires self-control and reflection. Criticasters are prone to show that someone has come to an opinion solely on the basis of self-interest, which can be enough reason to disqualify a person as a credible participant in the debate.
Only in an limited number of times, criticism concerns the content of that opinion. Usually that leads to consternation. ‘You have to be able to say what you think’, ‘don’t we live in a free country’, and other exclamations that suggest that there is censorship and the impairment of individual freedom. People will climb the barricades, exclaiming themselves as champions of the free word. But those are weird reactions: when it comes to an opinion that we should share, an opponent must be able to say that certain opinions are reprehensible. After all, that reaction can also be criticized, so it is premature to talk about censoring ideas.
In principle, everyone involved should be able to participate in such a public debate. But it does not work like that. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, women and workers were not allowed to participate. They were not rational enough or the lack of money compromised their ability to come to a rational decision. At least that was those were official reasons, but obviously this had to do with the power that the bourgeoisie did not want to give up.
Nowadays, children and tourists are still not allowed to participate. Sure, they may send a letter to the paper, but voting rights are out of reach. There are also more subtle forms of exclusion. For example, the nature of the public debate grants higher educated people easier access, they know the right sources and have the right words. People who do not have a good command of a language or have the required self-control will have difficulty participating in a debate.
One problem here is that politics is becoming increasingly technocratic, becoming too complex for many to contribute to a debate in a sensible way. It is certainly not the case that the so-called elite is appropriating the debate, but it is true that a debate that is conducted in technocratic terms excludes large groups of people – which brings about many negative consequences.
Another point here is that many current discussions are about immigrants and refugees. It is striking that these discussion usually exclude those people that are discussed, the immigrants and refugees themselves. There are many people who think that these newcomers should not be able participate, as they are considered not to belong to our society (and yes, that may be said, only one should not be surprised if that raises the objection that this is a morally reprehensible opinion). In addition, they often cannot participate, for reasons mentioned above.
The mechanisms of exclusion described above must be given careful attention, as they lead to inequality and to a failed public debate. Just like the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, many are unwilling to give up their position, but it is necessary for the quality and legitimacy of the public debate that this is organized as inclusively as possible.
You must be able to learn what it means to participate in democratic processes. In a public role, one must be able to reason from the general interest, an attitude that requires the necessary training. You practice yourself as a citizen when you discuss general issues such as art or football. Is Rembrandt a better painter than Van Gogh and who should be the striker of the national team? Irrelevant questions perhaps, but questions that compel you to take an objective and neutral position. You are trained in environments that are generally regarded as private, traditionally they were churches and freemason lodges, later they became coffee houses and football canteens.
But where does the real game start? When do you take a public role and when a private role, when is an occasion a public or a private setting? That is not always clear. Sexist or racist talk can be found acceptable within the private domain of a locker room or a bar. A bad joke on twitter or in a talk show, on the other hand, can lead to controversy. It is just not always clear whether an environment is public or private.
An additional problem is that many social media tend to ‘privatize’ the debate. The algorithms of Facebook and Youtube do not give rise to a diversity of opinions – on the contrary, they construct a proverbial ‘bubble’ which only mirrors and reinforces the opinion you already had. This is their business model, the number of clicks determines how much advertising revenue comes in. The perverse effect is that participants may think that they participate in a public debate and as such they make statements that should apply to society as a whole, and, in the absence of contradiction, they may end up with extremist statements.
What about Twitter? Although apart from Twitter itself nobody understands how Twitter works, it may be true that on this platform controversial claims will be noticed earlier. But as Sabrine van Rossum showed in her thesis, it does not lead to a public debate. Most tweets seem to come from bots and companies, both actors (if you can label them as such) who should not take part in a public debate. After all, their interests are exclusively self-interests. Also here, we are dealing with the privatization of the public debate.
It must be clear what the essence of the public debate is, so that we can understand and avoid the threats presented above. The development of the public debate is too important to be lost. But what can we do to improve the public debate?
First of all, there is a task for education, it is not just about learning how to express an opinion, but also about learning how to deal with criticism. This is not the only thing. It also requires more semi-public environments in which people can ‘train’ what it means to think in ‘general’ terms. Very old-fashioned, but that is primarily a call for the development of a stronger civil society. Associations, clubs, organizations where people can talk about what should apply to everyone. Even if it concerns the quality of the coffee, the minutes of the last meeting, or Justin Bieber.
It is essential for old media to counteract trends of polarization. The template of in favor-or-against is very clear and gives the image of neutrality, but is disastrous for the quality of the debate. Instead, media must strive for diversity and pluralism. That is much more important than the prevailing obsession with ‘fact-checking’. The idea that if people know which choice to make once they have the ‘correct’ information is a textbook example of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, confusing fact that can be verified with opinions that can be debated.
The importance of having a normative diversity is of the utmost importance for involving excluded groups of people in the public debate. These groups must be informed about opinions in which they can recognize themselves, but also about alternative opinions that help them qualify their own opinions. This requires a broad pallet of possible visions and insights. Much more than is currently provided.
New media must be mistrusted as platforms for the public debate. These are meant to make money, not to organize the public debate. Countering ‘fake news’ and deploying algorithms that filter out unwanted opinions will not help – see my points above.
Finally, humility and forgiveness are of the utmost importance. It is not easy to participate in the public debate. It requires qualities that not everyone has. The rules and requirements are often difficult to master. It is often not clear whether someone is in a public or private setting. Errors will be made, just as bad jokes and improper remarks. It is all part of the deal. Of course, a person must be held accountable for making an error, but it is not necessary to persecute the person himself – after all, it is about the opinion that is expressed. In short, we must be able to learn what it means to be part of the public debate, which is not a question of good taste, but it is essential to maintain a democratic society.
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social text(25/26), 56-80.
Habermas, J. (1999). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Borugeois Society. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Van Horn Melton, J. (2001). The rise of the public in Enlightenment Europe.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Van Rossum, S. (2018). Public opinion on Twitter: A case study on palm oil. Delft: TU Delft repository.