Syndicate content

Public Sphere

“I contain multitudes": Is Logical Consistency an Illusory Ideal?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
-Walt Whitman
 

The possibility of rational debate and discussion in human affairs remains a stubborn and persistent ideal. This is, I suspect, mainly because we have a lot riding on it. Without the possibility of rational debate and discussion, it would be close to impossible to work in groups, and for the groups to be productive, to get stuff done. Deliberative processes would also be unworkable; and would in fact not exist.  Parliaments and similar legislative assemblies – allegedly the great deliberative forums of liberal constitutional democracy – would not function without some attempt to promote rational debate and discussion. Democracy itself celebrates the ideal. The whole idea of  a public sphere rests on the notion that citizens can meet in the virtual public square-- constituted today by the mass media system in each country– and exchange views on the great public issues of the day, from which process-informed public opinion might emerge, and so on.

Yet, the ideal of rational debate and discussion requires (a) certain personal disciplines, and these disciplines are not easy to practice; and (b) personality traits that are not evenly distributed within any population.

If You Want a Better Media System in Your Country…Build a Movement

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Far too many of the people and organizations working on strengthening media systems in developing countries focus on how to secure funding from donors, preponderantly donors in the West; and they still mostly do the easy stuff, like organizing training seminars for journalists. Too few of them are taking on the real challenges of bedeviling media systems in many transition countries and far less developed ones.

When you focus on donors you have to do what donors are willing to pay for, reality be damned. And when you focus on donors, you have to worry about short term ‘results’, the ‘evidence of impact’ and so on. It is all too tempting to do only what is easy to count and measure. And donor priorities change all the time: the ministers change, the officials change, the lingo changes, the demands change. It is almost always a dizzying ride. Yet the problems facing the media in developing countries, the lacks that prevent them from playing their classic roles as watchdogs, public forums and agenda-setters, are persistent and long-term. Their rhythm is not that of fickle donors.

#8 from 2012: How Does Your City Make You Feel?

Darshana Patel's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on April 4, 2012

Cities are often associated with mixed emotions. They can sometimes make us feel insecure, disconnected and lonely, even in a crowd; while, in other moments, they provide the setting for the happiest events in our lives. 

Whether we are conscious of it or not, urban spaces have a huge impact on how people participate in public life. Regular readers of this blog know that the original concept of the public sphere originates from the agora in ancient Greek city-states. The agora was a physical place where people gathered to deliberate and exchange their opinions – a true marketplace of ideas. The modern public sphere has now shifted more into the virtual realm, through various technologies and social media.

When the Intellectual is a Thug

Sina Odugbemi's picture

As a rule, when intellectuals contribute to public debate on any issue of public concern in any country, it is an entirely wholesome development, and one deserving every encouragement. That is truer if the intellectuals involved know how to communicate even the most abstruse area of knowledge vividly, clearly, compellingly. For, when we say we desire ‘informed public opinion’, one of the best ways of bringing that about is by encouraging well-trained minds on any subject relevant to a public policy question of general concern to help their fellow-citizens by throwing a bright light on the subject. That is why news and current affairs editors everywhere try to maintain a roster of experts that can be called upon to comment on issues occasioning public controversy.

Is There a Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

One of the ways in which the world we live in today feels very different from the one we lived in even a decade ago is how ‘connected’ we all feel these days. It does seem that there are issues that we all talk about, personages and celebrities that we all know, and technological means of information sharing and exchange that we all share.  Yet, can we say that one of the consequences of globalization is that we now have a global public sphere, especially now that Fareed Zakaria of CNN calls his talk show ‘The Global Public Square’?

You will recall that a public sphere is a metaphor for a space that still exists in some contexts: the village square, the town hall… a place where people come together to talk about common concerns, a process that leads to the crystallization of public opinion.  Beyond the level of the village or the small town --- situations where most inhabitants can conceivably gather and talk – the public sphere becomes a grand metaphor, but a useful one. As Denis McQuail asserts in his classic text on communication theory, in most national contests today the ‘media are now probably the key institution of the public sphere, and its “quality” will depend on the quality of the media’. [See McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, Fifth Edition, page 566.]

Is Candor Terribly Overrated?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In both the professional life of the individual and in the operations of the public sphere, candid communication is reputed to be A Very Good Thing for two reasons. First, it is reputed to promote integrity, and, second, it is reputed to further the search for truth. In an ideal world, both things are probably true. Yet, when you think about some of the hard realities of these two domains, you wonder if candor is not overrated.

Let’s begin with professional life. In the workplace, candor has at least two great enemies. The first enemy is a truly formidable posse: the fragile egos of bosses. Dale Carnegie’s ubiquitous self-help manual, How to Win Friends and Influence People, has as one of its pragmatic lessons this one: To win an argument is to lose a friend. If that is true, what happens if you out-argue or puncture the fulsome intellectual balloons of your boss? Perhaps we should adapt Carnegie and say: ‘Candor kills a job –yours.’ Still, it is amazing how many meetings open with the boss saying: ‘I want everybody in this room to be frank. If I am the one messing up, let me know point blank’.

Right. It is no surprise that 360 degrees evaluations of bosses are usually made anonymous.

Learning from the Last Five Years: CommGAP and Good Governance

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

As CommGAP draws to a close, I've been reflecting a bit on what I've learned from the program over the last five years and the many interesting research, practice and policy questions still left to be explored.


For me, CommGAP was one of the first programs to take a critical look at the phenomenon we call "good governance" by drawing linkages between the related but conceptually distinct strands of accountability, transparency, access to information, citizen voice and mobilization, civil society capacity building, media development, public opinion formation, democratic deliberation, and state capacity/ resilience/ legitimacy. I still remember a conversation I had with Sina at a conference many years ago, asking him how he envisioned the "connective tissue" between all these concepts. The CommGAP program, in a sense, was Sina's answer, and I've been lucky to be able to help articulate some of this work.

Post-Conflict Lessons: Reconstruction, Stabilization, Governance . . . and Gryffindor?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

For those who haven't yet seen, this Foreign Policy piece presents a detailed, highly nuanced plan for stabilization, reconstruction and post-conflict reconciliation and good governance - as applied to the world of Harry Potter after the (er, spoiler alert, I guess) defeat of Voldemort at the end of the last book.

I appreciate the section on good governance and the nod to public sphere issues in particular - media diversification (the Daily Prophet really could use some serious competition), involvement of new media, etc. Could use a bit more emphasis on the role of civil society in the wizarding world, both in holding the new Ministry of Magic leaders to account as well as in helping create a post-conflict consensus around the legitimacy of the transitional government. But, overall, it's a decent plan - and a nice refresher on some major post-conflict issues. 

Answering the Right Questions

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

In good governance circles, we love to champion accountability tools: citizen score cards, civil society-local government linkages, participatory budgeting, etc. They sound wonderful on paper, and frequently work well off paper, but one can sometimes detect a certain weariness on the part of the supposed recipients/beneficiaries of these tools. These initiatives may be effective at times, but they simply don't address the underlying power structure, development practitioners often hear. What is one supposed to do about the shadowy but real network of frequently unaccountable elite, particularly in the context of a developing country that features a culture of impunity and lacks deeply rooted institutions of accountability?

A Peaceful Face of the Arab Spring: Morocco

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Moroccan citizens on the street in Rabat after the King's speech on constitutional reform. Just over a week ago I had the privilege of witnessing the Arab Spring unfolding - in a peaceful, and even joyful manner. On Friday, June 17, I joined several hundreds of Moroccans outside the Parliament building in Rabat, where they celebrated the reforms King Mohammed IV had announced that evening. In his speech to the nation, Mohammed IV spoke about establishing a new constitution that focuses on the rule of law and strong democratic institutions. The changes include the establishment of a democratic and independent executive branch of government, the recognition of the Amazigh language as official language alongside Arabic, the strengthening of the legislative branch, establishing an enabling environment for Parliamentary opposition, strengthening the autonomy of the judiciary, and strengthening good governance through, among other mechanisms, the establishment of an independent agency for the prevention and fight against corruption.

Pages