Upholding the Public Sphere
The 2020s so far have seemingly shown the best and worst of humanity – two extremes that perhaps best represents growing social, political and economic divides. A collective anxiety and uncertainty have blanketed populations across the globe, with each new breaking news headline promising to add another layer to the pile. As someone on Twitter once put it: “I’m tired of living in unprecedented times.”
In the midst of these unprecedented times, our social, political and economic institutions have come under sharper, more critical focus. From viral speeches and tweets by aspiring politicians, to op eds and conspiracy theories, once trusted organisations and institutions have increasingly come under pressure across the political spectrum. If we are collectively struggling to trust the people and spaces meant to represent our best interests, and if on a societal level we are struggling to trust in one another as citizens, is it possible for public spaces, conversation and action to rise to the occasion? Or will they become yet another victim of the unprecedented times that is the 2020s?
German philosopher Jurgen Habermas theorised the idea of the public sphere as it is known today. In writing on the digital public sphere, Mathias Vermuelen writes of the public sphere: “in its tolerance of opposing views and opinions, its belief in the power of rational argument, free expression and the autonomous individual, it is embedded in our public institutions and in a media that holds power to account.” In this model, everybody is an equal participant in discussions affecting society. Although far from being a flawless ideal (it has valid criticisms), the public sphere is influential for governance, community building and social cohesion. However, it's a space that’s increasingly coming under threat. It certainly doesn’t help that so far 21st century life may not be so socially close: more people are living alone, and a 2021 survey by Ipsos shows that an estimated 33% of people in countries across Asia, the Americas, Europe, Africa and in Australia feel lonely.
Is it possible to uphold (and in some cases, recapture) the spirit of the public sphere? If so, how? Digital technology has often been presented as a solution. Cyber optimists preach the gospel of the Internet as inherently beneficial for society. That argument has some merit: the digital sphere has played in social awareness campaigns and movements such as BlackLivesMatter, EndSARS and vaccination campaigns. However, as noted by journalist and author Courtney Radsch, this same digital space can be hijacked, manipulated and used to weaken social trust and discourse. After all, the Internet doesn’t let us do things, we do things with the Internet.
What of community spaces and activities? The more we interact with each other in informal, social settings, the logic goes that we become more invested in each other as a whole and in maintaining those interactions. An example of such a space is Living Room Conversations, an American NGO which focuses on “revitalizing civil discourse through conversation and Padare, a Zimbabwean NGO that holds forums and spaces for men to discuss and advocate for gender equality and justice.
The truth is there is no magic bullet solution for addressing and reducing the seemingly unsolvable divides. However, there are people and organisations dedicated to upholding, improving and strengthening what has been called the ultimate defence of democratic systems: the very public itself. Ghazan Global supports the implementation and success of the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG17: Partnership for the Goals and revitalising global partnerships. Our work focuses on inclusive, sustainable development that works with people, communities and organisations to protect, uphold and enhance principles of global governance and development.
Photo by Kevin Moquete from Unsplash
Jem Bartholomew. 'Gaming the Algorithm.' Published 19 September 2022 by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Mathias Vermeulen. 'The State of the Digital Public Sphere.' Published 1 June 2021 by Open Society Foundations.