Cruelty is always senseless; selflessness, inspiring. I have been deeply moved for the past few weeks by story after story of individuals, maimed and mutilated by those who should be serving them, heading back out into the public arena and risking it all to fight tyranny. A way to make sense of individual sacrifice is by reflecting on what it might gain for the larger community. I find comfort in the idea that human suffering could eventually lead to the opening up of inclusive public spheres wherein considered public opinion keeps power in check.
But the move toward egalitarian outcomes seems to be disproportionately borne on the backs of the courageous. Those who don’t get involved will likewise benefit from a better functioning public sphere. There may very well be good reasons for self- exclusion from shared sacrifice. But how might we make sense of this when the very possibility of self-exclusion is purchased at a heavy price paid by others? And even when the dust has settled and the turbulence has passed, some will still be more active than others, while all will benefit.
I’ve recently come across an online resource that provides access to thoughtful pieces that can help one think through these types of questions. Public Sphere Resources is a joint project of the Social Science Research Council and New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge. The site is an online repository of an extensive topic guide on the public sphere and an essay forum featuring some of the top thinkers in this area of study. With regard to my musings above, I found a couple of lines provocative:
“Of fundamental importance is the empirically difficult relationship between public deliberation and inclusion”, writes Andreas Koller, the site’s creator and editor. “This refers”, Koller continues, “to the question of how civic inclusion and the capacity for reasoned choice can be most effectively coupled…”
Or purposefully decoupled, perhaps, by self-exclusion? Something further down pointed me in a more hopeful direction:
What is at stake is also specifically education. As Enlightenment thinkers and the American founders emphasized, a free and open public sphere itself is education. Any recovery of the public sphere is therefore at the same time also an educational improvement.
I’m not an expert on public sphere theory, but I think the quote above may have something to do with the conviction that a well functioning public sphere can inform all who are in it on matters of public consequence. This dynamic process of education has, in itself, the persuasive power to attract all to do whatever may be in their means (and beyond) to contribute meaningfully to something larger than themselves.
Photo credit: Flickr user RamyRaoof