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You Can't Say That. It Doesn't Matter Who You Are.

Antonio Lambino's picture

The media have recently been going ga-ga over what many consider to be appalling public statements made by prominent figures in various fields --music, sports, domestic politics, and just today, international diplomacy.  From the U.S. Open to the U.S. Congress, to the august halls of the United Nations, public figures have said some terribly inappropriate things and, come the very next news cycle, have suffered sharp rebuke by pundits in the mainstream media.  Some have even claimed that these events portend the end of civilized society.  I think they exaggerate.

The outpouring of outrage simply suggests, to me at least, that certain social norms and expectations were violated.  Since the violation of expected behavior – in sporting events, awards ceremonies, and speeches made by heads of state -- resulted in reproach (although rewarded by some!), perhaps we can take comfort in the idea that cherished norms that underpin civilized society are, in fact, still in place and in good working order.

One of the most obvious ways to see norms operating in the real world is by paying attention to what pundits say about statements of public figures.  Relevant to this point is the very old Greek rhetorical concept kairos which, simply put, means that people are expected to say certain things in particular situations.  For example, winners should be praised during awards ceremonies, not negatively compared to other nominees, and citizens should be made to feel safe and united during national crises, not insecure and alone.  If speakers do not fulfill the expectations of the moment, or if they say something strange, then they fail the rhetorical challenge and sometimes pay dearly for it.  

While norms provide guidance and sanction to individual-level behavior, they also undergird interactions among the foundational elements of an effective public sphere.  And here lies the relevance to governance and public participation.  To be effective, citizen participation in public policy making and implementation must also be governed by social norms, such as civility, reciprocity, and openness to a plurality of views.  And if the media system is empowered to put these norms into practice, then it is more likely that participation will actually make a difference.  If, on the other hand, vested interests monopolize public discussion, then demagoguery gets in the way of meaningful participation.

When members of the public lend their ears, they give particular individuals and institutions the privilege to be heard.  For this reason, speakers can’t just say whatever they want in whatever way they like.  No matter the lofty position they might hold, they run the risk of public reproach, losing face, and as seen recently, being pressured to make public apologies, sometimes more than once.  Those who speak should be held accountable for what they say.  The Greeks knew this a long time ago, and we can see from recent experience that social norms still do a pretty good job at it.

Photo credit: Flickr user robertpaulyoung

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