The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Political Discussions in the Public Sphere: Designed to be Powerless August 27, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,public theology — Joel @ 5:59 am

Continuing from my previous post on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I want to reflect on a point that Taylor makes regarding the public sphere.  He makes an interesting distinction between the public sphere of our modern age and the public sphere of the ancient republic or polis.  Both historical scenarios include discussion outside the decision making body.  The difference, he says, is that, in the ancient polis, “the discussions outside….prepare for the action ultimately taken by the same people within it.  The ‘unofficial’ discussions are not separated off, given a status of their own” (189).  The experienced reality of “discussions” in our modern era, on the other hand, operate very differently.  “It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power.  It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power.” (190)

I find this very interesting.  We, as citizens of North American style democracy, are taught to view our views, opinons, and discussions as important.  At the same time, I think most people are left wondering how these things actually contribute to the decisions made in the end.  If Taylor is right, our voices don’t figure in unless those in power decide that they should.  Our much touted public sphere of free voices is actually “extra-political,.. a discourse of reason on and to power, rather than by power.” (190)

Now there are good reasons that Taylor cites for the implementation of such spaces as extra-political.  If our discussions on the street are apolitical, then they are less likely to be as charged with violent partisanship.  This unfortunately doubles back on us, creating a modern arena of “political discourse” which seems completely centred around entertainment.  Watching Fox news, imagining it to be a stand-up routine, is an example of how important we view our discussions to be.

How can our discussions become poweful?  How do we side step (or can we?) such a circus of “political discussions” devoid of actual power?  I’m not sure how invested Taylor is in an answer to these questions, but he has done a good job of laying an interesting stage that I had not noticed before.

I don’t think that we have the “right” to be heard.  If we lean on ideas of rights in order to be heard, we only play into the system which has labled our discussions apolitical in the first place.  Instead, if we want to be heard, if we want our discussions to have power, then perhaps a more communally centred approach is the ticket.  In our society, a good measure of whether or not we are truly discussing with political power would be if those “in power” consider our discussions dangerous.  We wouldn’t have to be discussing radical issues, I don’t think; it would instead depend on the strategic place and persistence of our speech.


One Response to “Political Discussions in the Public Sphere: Designed to be Powerless”

  1. Lorraine Says:

    Hmm…interesting point on the power of strength in numbers, even when it is in the realm of ideas. Our society has so much to learn from the past in terms of what true democracy is all about and how we should go about doing it.

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