Not-so-equal representation in the public discourse

Jurgen Habermas in “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” defines public sphere as “the realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.”

Habermas states that when utilizing tools of free speech, people operate not like a business or like any private individual, but as a public body. He says that “access is granted to all citizens,” and that the public body is able to trasmit information through various forms of media, such as news, cable television, and in our modern world view we can hitherto also include the Internet and the information production and delivery systems included therein, sweetly ignoring the idea that anyone is sitting at the healm of the information systems, ready at any time to hit a button called “Publish” or “Send,” or that many people will never attain access to the control panels of information delivery. He also ignores ideas like those of Herman and Chomsky that media created, which comes from the “public body,” might have already been sent through any kind of filtration system in order  to protect any individual or businesses’ better interests.

Habermas says that the state operates in reaction and reflection of the greater public’s notions and opinions, maintaining rules and standards of conduct that police or reflect the needs and amplify the voices of those in the public sphere. However his critics, as paraphrased by Nicholas Garnham in “The Media and the Public Sphere” argue that Habermas overlooks the lack of access to the media and public outlets of exchange for the “plebeian” classes, and focuses too much on the bourgeouis public sphere and its participation in the exchange of infortmation (359).

Critics also said that Habermas idealized the intentions of the early presses, always assuming that they behaved on the behalf of the greater good. He also failed to recognized “household economy” and its influence on the access of participants in the public, also overlooking genderized inequities both in the market and the home; failed to recognize pluralities in the public sphere; his arguments remained too dependent on the model of the “Culture Industry,” as described by his predecessor, Adorno; failed to recognize distortion and manipulation of ibnformation; and left out analysis of the rhetorical and sometimes whimsical information products often released into public discourse.

Garnham says Habermas’ model is still useful, however, because he shows and unbreakable link between the media and pubilc institutions, recognizes that the exchange of information largely exists outside of the state, (even if it is often influenced by the state) and supports the practices of democratic processes.

Equal access to the media and participation in public discourse (or, the public sphere), is not equal however. For one thing, access to the tools of gathering and delivering information varies greatly by class, Garnham points out.

For a practical example, take blogging. In recent years, the instantaneous and widely-accessibly ability to publish information to the Internet has opened up channels and canyons for private persons to post information freely, and without the umbrella of corporate sponsorship or the “filtering,” editing and abridging of stories by corporate censors. The web has forever changed the face of news gathering with its ease of instant deliverability. Many see blogging as the most democratic form of participating in the public sphere.

However, participation in blogging is not an example of a full, completely democratic process, because it is still inaccessible to some. For those who have no access to a computer, no possible way of connecting to the Web, those who are illiterate or have physical disabilities such as sight or hearing impairments, the Web and blogging are not accessible and it is not possible to participate.

Another point that this week’s readings touched upon is the tendency of dialogues in the public sphere to be steered by the two-party system. Garnham explains the problem of representation: “As Bobbio has argued, direct democracy works best wtih simple either/or choices (e.g. whether or not to have nuclear poiwer) but cannot deal with the variables that are more typical of political decisions in a complex and pluralistic modern society.”

This model of the public sphere, though neat and tidy and capable of functioning fairly productively, is not capable of operating fully democratically. It is not possible to have full, fair and equal discourse, because someone will always be in charge of the tools of (information) productionand will thereby always be operating in his/her/its own best interest and working to censor dissenting positions. Furthermore, it is impossible to escape the proliferation of propaganda, because given only two options to choose from, there will always be a pool of “undecided” persons or skeptics who must be wrangled in or persuaded to lean towards one side or the other for there to be a majority leaning that leads to a decision made between the gien two options.

Not every voice can be heard; only the voices of the dominant two parties are given precedence and value and allowed to participate in the “public sphere.” The system denies equal access to all of those individuals whose opinions fall between or outside of the black-or-white range.

While the idea of a fair, equal and fully democratic public sphere to represent all peoples is a nice ideal, it is rie with shortcomings that inevitably always excludes certain third parties and leads to feelings of isolation and alienation for some, and for others disproportionate pools of wealth and power which are given and maintained by only a few “representatives.”


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