The Public Sphere (III)

I. The pub(lic sphere)


Imagine for a moment a small pub on a Friday evening. A group of friends sit around a table sharing stories of their busy work week, chuckling and smiling while sipping on their well-deserved beers. Meanwhile, a muted television screen broadcasting a local news channel hangs above the group of friends in the pub; two well-dressed men are arguing over a controversial issue which concerns the citizens of the city. After a few commercial breaks, the bartender notices that the debate on the screen looks somewhat interesting and unmutes the television. Suddenly, the voices in the bar fizzle out as the two political pundits teeter on the edge of a shouting match. Whatever the one argues, the other refutes, and so on. Words like ‘immoral’, ‘right’, and ‘justice’ are thrown around violently. The group of friends find themselves watching a few minutes of the debate involving the opening of an abortion clinic in the city. The argument ceases momentarily as the one of the news network’s anchors instructs its viewers to “stay tuned” while their sponsors provide a “commercial break”, but “don’t worry” the anchor says, “we’ll be right back”. The commercial break is a repetition of the previous commercial break; a mid-price-ranged car ad promising that adventure is affordable, Viagra telling the world that love is never lost, Coca-Cola reassures you that life tastes good, and the Ipad implores you to think differently. As promised, the debate returns with where it left off – Pundit A and B throwing words at each other and claiming that the other’s views do not reflect the public’s virtues. The bartender shakes his head and once again mutes the television. The group of friends return to their private conversation. One is on his smart-phone using a social-networking website to prove to friends around the world that he is in fact at a pub drinking with friends, another is on her smart phone looking for new shoes to buy, and a few of the others are listening to another friend go on about how the latest film he saw in the theatre was better than the previous five instalments of the same film. One of the friends, however, decides to bring up the issue of abortion and so asks his friends, “What do you think about abortion?” Suddenly the idle chatter dissipates and the faces around the table become agitated and annoyed at the one friend for damping the mood with such a charged question; a question that demands a serious and honest reply. How can one attempt to engage with a seriously political and ethical issue such as abortion when he is not even engaged with the people and world around him? Perhaps in this situation, the question will be answered by some off-handed and uninformed remark echoing that of the political pundit about how abortion is ‘immoral’. When one has little concern about the political aura around him, he often allows other’s opinions to replace his own.

II. Introduction.

We live in an age of politically disengaged consumers who are more concerned with what they buy rather than what they think and who they are as individuals. The previous anecdote is used as a sort of microcosm of modern society. That being said, the public sphere has been severely manipulated in the modern age. The public sphere is a space in which individuals of a society can meet and discuss societal issues without restriction, but furthermore, such political discussions have the potential of becoming political action. The public sphere is essentially a comprehensive space in which many individuals can deliberate freely and where two opposing views can be tolerated yet remain critically engaged with each other. The hope is that through this critical engagement, individuals can reach an understanding on various political issues.

The main purpose of this paper is to discuss how both mass media and consumerism have created politically disengaged individuals who, rather than speak their mind about issues that matter, prefer to remain in the private realm while pursuing their own economic interests and accumulating goods (Arendt, HC, P5). This discussion leads to a simple, yet important step towards a solution, one must reflect on the important political issues at hand, one must think. Politically disengaged individuals do not have the opportunity to speak their own minds, not because they are physically repressed from doing so, but because their value system has been coerced by mass media and advertisement. Through the same process which dissolves an individual’s concern for politics, democracy becomes devoid of the thing that makes it what it is, namely, conflict. A society in which critical engagement with political issues is neutralized by consumerism is a society in which conflict softens. This ‘soft political conflict’ is further defused by the fact that mass media is entwined with private interests who manipulate information; through highly loaded rhetoric, audience’s personal opinions are corrupted, but furthermore, their priorities are in a sense rewired to value consumerism over thinking. One moves from product to product, always remaining satisfied with one’s situation. This entire process neutralizes the inherent conflict in politics. The term ‘conflict’ is not necessarily reduced to that of violence, but rather, ‘conflict’ can be understood as critical political debate, questioning of the state, and disagreement of policy. What is not yet clear is how consumerism and the mass media soften the inherent conflict in politics which in turn disintegrates the public sphere.

III. Mass media

Mass media is the technological phenomenon of the 21st century in which communication can reach numerous amounts of people quickly and effectively. Its medium consists of newspapers, radio, music, television, film, and more recently, the internet. The problem with mass media is in the fact that it is owned and operated by private corporations and organizations which have their own value systems. These values are often communicated as objective facts. Let us use the United States as an example. The United States prides itself on the superior freedom of the press which can be attributed to the First Amendment of the Constitution. Now, say an extremely large corporation is involved with the production of genetically modified foods (GMOs). This corporation has the financial means to both fund lobby groups and influence individuals involved in journalism. There is no law stopping a private news corporation doing business with another private corporation. Say that the corporation involved with GMOs is accused by an individual or a group of individuals of an immoral act such as environmental damage or outsourcing jobs to children in India who are essentially being paid slave-wages. The news corporation which is financially influenced by the GMO Corporation can essentially spin the story in any which way they desire and broadcast it to the whole of America as completely objective news. One need only look at the examples of Monsanto and Fox news. That being said, the line between politics, ethics, and mass communication is muddied with private interests; the inner workings of special interest groups simultaneously constrain the possibility of an authentic public sphere and benefit from this constraint (Habermas, STPS, 209). The public sphere becomes devoid of an authentic voice and any chance at conflict (critical debate) is swept underneath powerful corporations.


IV. Consumerism

A consumer can be understood as an individual engaged in the act of purchasing and accumulating goods. One can remember that in the days following the September 11th terrorist attacks, President Bush pleaded with the American public to do their duty and keep shopping. Even when The United States was attacked on its own soil, the government’s first message was for the citizens to resume their role as consumers. Conflict quickly transforms into an opportunity. Corporations used the terrorist attacks to their advantage by creating advertisements which specifically exploited the emotional state of America. For example a Budweiser commercial reassured American citizens that ‘they will never forget 9/11’ as they made use of patriotic music and magnificent camera shots of New York City; they also never forgot to slap their name and slogan down at the end of the ad. To be a proud and patriotic citizen, must one drink Budweiser? Here we see that political sphere becomes entwined with consumerism. The public sphere is being overshadowed by politically charged advertisements.

I am not claiming that every individual is being subdued and perverted by consumerism with respect to their ability to critically engage with political matters, but it seems as though the majority of people stand behind their right to express themselves and their political views through the products they own. In the modern age, advertisement has become something regarded as an ‘art-form’. Billions of dollars are spent on forming the perfect advertisement. Focus groups are hired and ads are tested amongst certain demographics. Advertisements no longer sell products; they sell life-styles, opinions, and self-expression. The famous saying from Coco Chanel about a girl being two things, classy and fabulous, still resonates with young women today. We cannot escape the images and words as we are bombarded by them and they become ingrained in our subconscious. Consumerism and mass media have inverted reality in a way that replaces the relationships between people with the relationships between people and commodities, and much of the world around us becomes a mere objective appearance of anything authentic (Debord, SS, 5). Politics is no longer an argument for the mass public. The inherent conflict in politics is manipulated into a pseudo-conflict which is easily resolved by simply purchasing more goods.

V. Democracy and Conflict

Finding a potential solution to the problem of the modern age with respect to the public sphere can be seen in the dichotomy between what is visible and what is concealed in the everyday of politics. Using Claude Lefort’s distinction between political science and political philosophy, we can perhaps build a foundation of how to move forward given the circumstances explored earlier in this paper. We often look at politics as a detailed survey of how society is ordered and then we assign concrete terms to certain internal mechanisms that take place within that order; instead, perhaps we should focus on elemental experiences that are unique to humans in different historical and political frameworks (Lefort, MD, 11). Objectifying politics is what softens the inherent conflict in politics. In the former statement, we can see that by analyzing the order of society and assigning concrete terms to certain internal mechanisms, any critical debate is seen as being outside the system and therefore irrelevant. Instead, focusing on latter statement seems more fruitful because it opens up room for conflict, i.e., critical debate. An objectified approach to politics forces one to pinpoint the source of power, ultimately dismembering the public sphere, whereas a healthy democracy’s source of power is empty, therefore requiring constant debate (Lefort, MD, 17). How does mass media and consumerism fit into this? Corporate news often uses its power to objectify political discourse as to serve its own agenda. Consumerism replaces what is unique in individuals by transforming them into mere customers. Both mass media and consumerism ensure that politics is no longer an argument, but rather, that it provides black or white answers. The public sphere is in between the black and white, it exists in the gray uncertainty. It is conflict.

VI. Conclusion

To accept the political realm through an objective and detached lens is to undermine the act of thinking. To be engaged in critical debate about political issues of our time, one must realize that politics is essentially conflict. The problems that face our existing political systems are intricate, complicated, and demand a critical discussion. We cannot simply prescribe solutions to the problems at hand. The modern world demands a system where society is structured and ordered in an objective manner. This way of approaching politics is irresponsible because it forces average citizens to be coerced into allowing others to think and subsequently act for them. Mass media solidifies this irresponsibility by manifesting its private interests as objective truth. Consumerism depersonalizes relationships between people and sells us inauthentic modes of living, and more importantly, it sells us uncritical ways of thinking. We must remember that mere complacency is not political freedom. Above all else, we must think for ourselves.


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