In late May, I met my friend and G&L colleague Jonathan Rue for drinks in Washington’s Chinatown district. The day, even as evening approached, could best be described as scorching, a sign of the curiously hot summer to follow. My conversation with Jonathan was typically wide-ranging, but one topic we discussed at some length was the contemporary public sphere.
You may or may not agree — and the purpose of this blog entry, somewhat atypical for my offerings, is not to persuade — but we both had a very sour view of the contemporary public sphere. Bear in mind that “public sphere” is a broad and somewhat amorphous term. When some people use it, they refer to the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and the like, as well as op-eds in major newspapers. Other definitions are more expansive, including blogs and perhaps even that curious beast known as Twitter. I would submit that the more constrained definitions are overly narrow: as Robert Gates has noted, today we have “hundreds of cable channels, blogs and other electronic media,” a dynamic that ensures that “every point of view, including the most extreme, has a ready vehicle for wide dissemination.” G&L is indisputably a part of the public sphere; and so too, I would say, are the various observations, discussions, and running jokes made on Twitter — as annoying or profound as they may be. The inexorable conclusion that Jonathan and I reached was that the public sphere was failing despite — or perhaps because of — our efforts.
Now, the title to this post is not some admission that we at G&L have failed in our mission. Rather, it is a way of saying that when I, or you, criticize the public sphere, we are not attacking some distant object in which we have no role. We are attacking a sphere of which we are a part — and so, perhaps, no one is innocent. As I said, the purpose of this post is not to persuade, but rather to ask relevant questions that I think can define any discussion about the shape of the public sphere:
- How much of what you read represents intelligent thinking about an issue? In contrast, how frequently could you have predicted an author’s conclusion, reasoning, and perhaps even evidence deployed even before reading his or her offering? Is intelligent writing found more or less frequently when you look to writers with the biggest audiences?
- How much of what you read teaches you something new? In other words, how much of what you glean from the public sphere provides new angles, insights, or even data points?
- In contrast, how often do those writing in the public sphere deploy their evidence dishonestly? How frequently do authors write in such a way that readers who either aren’t fact-checking them or else are ideologically predisposed to agree will feel persuaded –when in reality the authors are manipulating their data points in large or small ways? Are the most prominent of polemicists, those with the biggest audiences, more likely to honestly or dishonestly deploy facts in service of their arguments?
- How many of the pieces you read seem ideologically predetermined? That is, how often has the author apparently made up his or her mind in advance, constructing arguments around the conclusion that he or she wants to reach?
- Further on the ideological predetermination point, let me assert that we live in a complex world. Few answers are obvious. Yet how many commentators offer Manichean visions wherein answers are falsely portrayed as simple, and those who disagree must be either evil or stupid? How many commentators, in contrast, can deal competently with complexity, ambiguity, and epistemological limitations? Moreover, do those who embrace a false Manichean vision find their career harmed or helped by doing so?
- More on ideological predetermination: how often are commentators stigmatized on the basis of not thinking like “we” do? (And “we” is used broadly here. That is, how often is non-conforming thought stigmatized in rather nasty ways by the left, the right, or some faction purporting to protect a specific set of interests?) How often does this stigmatization only half-comprehend the argument it is attacking, portraying it in exaggerated, cartoonish, or otherwise inaccurate terms? Is the growing tendency to go after the livelihood of those with whom we disagree healthy?
- How much truly innovative or cutting-edge work is the public sphere producing? For the great volume of material being produced, how much represents an improvement in our thinking? How much simply rehashes the conventional wisdom or talking points of some section of the political spectrum? And, if you think non-conforming thought is stigmatized, does the climate tend to discourage truly innovative thought?
- How much of what you read is actually capable of persuading someone with a different outlook, or different ideas? How much of it is simply preaching to a choir of one ideological stripe or another?
- Let me put a question I’ve hinted at a couple of times more bluntly: as commentators gain bigger audiences, do laziness and bad habits set in? Does their perceived need to weigh in constantly on a myriad of issues outstrip their ability to do so intelligently, and to master the evidence that supports (or refutes) their argument? Do they become more of a predictable “brand” whose reputation dwarfs their actual production?
- To what extent does the public sphere make good use of the innovative technologies with which we are blessed? Does our massively expanded access to information and ability to publish instantaneously result in better work? Or do commentators spend more time talking and writing about big news of the day, to the exclusion of building depth of knowledge — or, perhaps, focusing on more vital issues?
With the above in mind, is the public sphere succeeding or failing? (I know, big terms, and defining success or failure is no simple task.) Is it better or worse than it was ten, twenty, thirty years ago? I offer no conclusions, nor do I claim that we are faced with a monolith. I agree with Andrew Exum, for example, about the many benefits available to a policy researcher who is engaged with social media. So, as Eric Cartman says, I’m just asking questions. I will be writing about the public sphere here from time to time, and this is an initial post anchoring the discussion.
But many who read this are a part of the public sphere, in small or large ways. That is a choice: being a part of the public sphere does not happen by default. To that extent, many readers should (presumably) have an incentive to make sure it reaches its potential. Is the public sphere reaching its potential, or is it falling short? If the latter, how short does it fall? Are debates in the public sphere more important than an amusing diversion? Or are we, to a greater or lesser extent, wasting our time?