According to sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas the public sphere is
“a sphere which mediates between society and the state, in which the public organizes itself as the bearer of public opinon”.
This means that individuals can come together and freely discuss problems of common interest and through this discussion influence political action. An ideal and successful space like such implies that everyone has the right to participate as the public sphere and assumes a celebration of diversity, equality and tolerance. However, Habermas’s “ideal” bourgeois public sphere was dominated by white, property-owning males and participation was thus limited. Oh, and it didn’t include women. I won’t take it personally as this book was written long before I was born, 36 years before to be exact, but who is counting…
Habermas’s idea of a perfect public sphere is similar to the Athenian democracy. Athenians were meeting in the public market called Agora and were voting on legislation and executive bills. However, this “power of the people” expressed by democracy was not open to all residents. One had to be an adult, male citizen and women and slaves were excluded.
Luckily, things look better for the women living in my age in contrast to those living a few centuries or even decades ago. This being said, I still don’t feel like we achieved the perfect public sphere. If before, individuals were meeting in salons and coffee-houses and were having critical debates about political oppression and other matters of general interest, how do things look today? Because whenever I pass a Costa or Starbucks window I mostly see people glued to their phones or laptops and rarely see an actual conversation.
Habermas mentioned how the public sphere was oppressed in the welfare state capitalism. Not real oppression, but subtle, mind hypnotizing sort of oppression. As politic, economic and media elites managed the public opinion they have transformed a sphere of rational debate into one of manipulative consumption and passivity as part of the social control. With the rise of consumerist mass democracy, the public opinion was (and still is) shaped by advertising and public relations.
It is a popular belief that media tends to represent particular ideological and political positions and manipulates what people read. However, I think that now, more than ever we have the opportunity to express how we feel even if it is not the popular opinion. You won’t be afraid that you will go to prison or randomly disappear if you say something offensive towards the system. The 1933 book burning period is over and we have the opportunity to educate ourselves. But do we? We are constantly fed with external stimuli from all kinds of media which makes us neglect actual serious information and focus more on consuming.
Habermas’s ideas made me reflect on my magazine producing process. In a way, magazines can be a paper-based public sphere. For example, our magazine has a section dedicated to the readers and their contributions. At the same time, we write for both male and women. We provide social media platforms were people can interact with us and give us advice on improvements. However, at the end of the day, it is still us who decide how the magazine turns out. While our magazine, “360” is on a quite serious topic and its purpose is to inform and make the world a better place, some magazines or tabloids are purely used as profit tools and have no intention on informing the public.
Did we achieve the ideal public sphere or in fact, it was never a reality? I will let you decide in the comments.