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The Case Against Civility

October 8, 2018 in Blogs

By Aeon

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas believed democracy is best served when the public sphere is open and anarchic.

Have we become unreasonable? In democracies around the world, anxious commentators exhort their fellow citizens to be more open-minded, more willing to engage in good-faith debate. In our era of hyperpolarisation, social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues, many have turned to civility as the missing ingredient in our public life.

So, how important is civility for democracy? According to one of the greatest theorists of the democratic public sphere, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, not very. Habermas is deeply concerned with protecting our ability to solve problems through the use of reason. Yet he believes that democracy is best served when the public sphere is left open, anarchic and conflictual.

For Habermas, the function of public debate is not to find a reasonable common ground. Rather, the public sphere ‘is a warning system’, a set of ‘sensors’ that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus. And if we worry too much about civility and the reasonable middle, we risk limiting the ability of the public sphere to detect new political claims. To get those claims on the agenda in the first place often requires uncivil and confrontational political tactics. 

Habermas’s vision of politics focuses on the power of a wild public sphere. His great fear, one he expresses already in his habilitation thesis in 1962, published in English as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, is that large-scale, formal political and economic institutions are increasingly shutting themselves off from public criticism. Habermas traces the development of the idea of the critical public in 18th-century Europe, one that would hold state power accountable through the use of reason, and then its decline in an era of public-relations management focused on minimising the role of the public in political decision-making. While Habermas has been accused of romanticising the European Enlightenment, his goal was to draw attention to the stark gap between the ideals of the critical public and the reality of political and social domination.

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