The public sphere should be open to conflict.
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.
Like other individuals associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Habermas has always been guided by the hope of creating an emancipated society – one where the use of political, social and economic power can be fully justified to those potentially affected. To this Frankfurt School ideal, Habermas adds an insight that goes back to Aristotle – that the central human capacity is language. The fact that we can understand one another, Habermas argues, means that we are committed to using reason to resolve disputes. In our day-to-day life, we have to continuously use language to organise our lives and make plans – instances of what Habermas in 1981 called 'communicative action'.
Habermas thinks this has radical consequences. In all these instances, we accept, just by entering into the continuous flow of communication, that the only thing that should count are reasons that everyone accepts. Habermas's critics point out that, in the real world, social differences in power affect whose voices are heard and whose ideas are recognised in all deliberation. But this point is not incompatible with Habermas's insights. From his early work, he has seen reasoning as a fundamentally social practice, one that must always include moral and political questions. Bringing to light these subtle forms of power and exclusion helps to realise the ideal of rational enquiry.
What follows politically from Habermas's theory of communication? Again, one possibility is to find some way to make people live up to an ideal of disinterested, civil deliberation. In the face of increasing polarisation and the potential breakdown of the rules of the game, we should search for some way to restore the underlying norms of mutual forbearance that ensure politics does not descend into civil war. But this is hardly the direction in which Habermas goes. It's not that he then prizes incivility in and of itself. Rather, Habermas worries that a public sphere shackled by excessive regard for the norms of deliberation and rational debate loses its essential function. And that function is to bring to light questions, issues, concerns and needs that are currently invisible to political leaders and the larger public. In Between Facts and Norms (1992), he argues that 'liberal misgivings about opening up an unrestricted spectrum of public issues and topics are not justified'. Rather, because of its 'anarchic structure', contestation in the public sphere can enable the perception of 'new problems' and help to overcome 'the millennia-old shackles of social stratification and exploitation'.
Confrontation, protest and incivility are all components of deliberative politics as Habermas understands it. These forms of conflict, of refusing existing norms and institutions, are what bring to light whether those institutions and norms can survive rational scrutiny. Habermas goes so far as to call the ability to withstand and even celebrate civil disobedience the 'litmus test' for the maturity of a constitutional democracy. Even as Habermas has a famously ambitious understanding of our capacity for the collaborative search for truth, his is an activist's view of politics. Consensus is not the highest good. Rather, the possibility of a society based on rational consensus becomes visible only in moments of dissensus, when the failure of existing norms is unmasked. Enlightenment comes about when social groups show that the dominant social organisation fails to take into consideration their legitimate claims and concerns. This is why Habermas is clear that he is interested, not in rational political communication as such, but 'the history of its repression and re-establishment'.
Habermas's recent work has focused on the fate of European integration, of which he is a prominent defender. This activist current in his thought has receded as he has worried more and more about the lack of long-term political vision on the part of Europe's leaders. Yet he has also more recently come to recognise the dangerous failures of those institutions to produce their own legitimacy. The more those institutions, such as the European Union, insulate themselves from the unruly forces of the public sphere, the more they provide ammunition for whoever can claim to speak on behalf of a suppressed public opinion. Large-scale political institutions, from the European Union to the modern administrative state, approach politics as a set of management problems, best solved without extensive input from a potentially recalcitrant public.
Democracy, according to Habermas, requires a vibrant political sphere and political institutions that are able to respond to and incorporate the energy that arises from debate, protest, confrontation and politics. Perhaps it's not citizens who have become unreasonable. Rather, their leaders have too long refused to listen, instead treating the public as nothing more than a periodic reservoir of votes, an obstacle to be managed on the path to smooth, technocratic governance.
How the German political philosopher called out Henry David Thoreau on civil disobedience.
This minor act of defiance would later be immortalised in Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' (1849). There, he explains that he had been unwilling to provide material support to a federal government that perpetuated mass injustice – in particular, slavery and the Mexican-American war. While the essay went largely unread in his own lifetime, Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience would later inspire many of the world's greatest political thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi to Martin Luther King.
Yet his theory of dissent would have its dissenters, too. The political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote an essay on 'Civil Disobedience', published in The New Yorker magazine in September 1970. Thoreau, she argued, was no civil disobedient. In fact, she insisted that his whole moral philosophy was anathema to the collective spirit that ought to guide acts of public refusal. How could the great luminary of civil disobedience be charged with misunderstanding it so profoundly?
Thoreau's essay offers a forceful critique of state authority and an uncompromising defence of the individual conscience. In Walden (1854), he argued that each man should follow his own individual 'genius' rather than social convention, and in 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' he insists that we should follow our own moral convictions rather than the laws of the land. The citizen, he suggests, must never 'for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation'. For Thoreau, this prescription holds even when the laws are produced through democratic elections and referenda. Indeed, for him, democratic participation only degrades our moral character. When we cast a ballot, he explains, we vote for a principle that we believe is right, but at the same time, assert our willingness to recognise whatever principle – be it right or wrong – the majority favours. In this way, we elevate popular opinion over moral rectitude. Because he places so much stock in his own conscience, and so little in either state authority or democratic opinion, Thoreau believed that he was bound to disobey any law that ran counter to his own convictions. His theory of civil disobedience is grounded in that belief.
Thoreau's decision to withhold his financial support for the federal government of 1846 was, no doubt, a righteous one. And the theory that inspired that action would go on to inspire many more righteous acts of disobedience. Yet despite these remarkable successes, Arendt argues that Thoreau's theory was misguided. In particular, she insists that he was wrong to ground civil disobedience in the individual conscience. First, and most simply, she points out that conscience is too subjective a category to justify political action. Leftists who protest the treatment of refugees at the hands of US immigration officers are motivated by conscience, but so was Kim Davis – the conservative county clerk in Kentucky who in 2015 denied marriage licences to same-sex couples. Conscience alone can be used to justify all types of political beliefs and so provides no guarantee of moral action.
Second, Arendt makes the more complex argument that, even when it is morally unimpeachable, conscience is 'unpolitical'; that is, it encourages us to focus on our own moral purity rather than the collective actions that might bring about real change. Crucially, in calling conscience 'unpolitical', Arendt does not mean that it is useless. In fact, she believed that the voice of conscience was often vitally important. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), for example, she argues that it was the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann's lack of ethical introspection that enabled his participation in the unimaginable evils of the Holocaust. Arendt knew from the experience of Fascism that conscience could prevent subjects from actively advancing profound injustice, but she saw that as a kind of moral bare minimum. The rules of conscience, she argues, 'do not say what to do; they say what not to do'. In other words: personal conscience can sometimes prevent us from aiding and abetting evil but it does not require us to undertake positive political action to bring about justice.
Thoreau would likely accept the charge that his theory of civil disobedience told men only 'what not to do', as he did not believe it was the responsibility of individuals to actively improve the world. 'It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course,' he writes, 'to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it…' Arendt would agree that it is better to abstain from injustice than to participate in it, but she worries that Thoreau's philosophy might make us complacent about any evil that we aren't personally complicit in. Because Thoreauvian civil disobedience is so focused on the personal conscience and not, as Arendt puts it, on 'the world where the wrong is committed', it risks prioritising individual moral purity over the creation of a more just society.
Perhaps the most striking difference between Thoreau and Arendt is that, while he sees disobedience as necessarily individual, she sees it as, by definition, collective.
Arendt argues that for an act of law-breaking to count as civil disobedience it must be performed openly and publicly (put simply: if you break the law in private, you're committing a crime, but if you break the law at a protest, you're making a point). Thoreau's dramatic refusal to pay his poll tax would meet this definition, but Arendt makes one further distinction: anyone who breaks the law publicly but individually is a mere conscientious objector; those who break the law publicly and collectively are civil disobedients. It is only this latter group – from which she would exclude Thoreau – that is capable of producing real change, she implies. Mass civil disobedience movements generate momentum, apply pressure, and shift political discourse. For Arendt, the greatest civil disobedience movements – Indian independence, civil rights, and the anti-war movement – took inspiration from Thoreau but added a vital commitment to mass, public action. In sharp contrast, Thoreau believed that 'there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men'.
'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' is an essay of rare moral vision. In it, Thoreau expresses uncompromising critiques of the government of his era, while also capturing the powerful feelings of moral conviction that often undergird acts of civil disobedience. Nevertheless, it is Arendt's account of the practice that is ultimately more promising. Arendt insists that we focus not on our own conscience but on the injustice committed, and the concrete means of redressing it. This does not mean that civil disobedience has to aim for something moderate or even achievable but that it should be calibrated toward the world – which it has the power to change – and not toward the self – which it can only purify.
'Dorozoku' map crowd-sources the whereabouts of noisy kids in Japan – but who's being anti-social here, exactly?
- Highly urbanized, Japan is the noisiest country on Earth, and it's driving people to extremes.
- Extremes like reporting their neighbors to a website that has mapped 6,000 public nuisance hot spots.
- But who are the real anti-social actors here: the noisy children or the people reporting them?
Kinkaku-ji, the beautiful and serene 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion' in Kyoto. Not what everyday life in Japan looks (or sounds) like.
Credit: Henry Ngo, CC BY 3.0
Think of Japan and you may dream of serene temples and quiet gardens. Of meditative introspection in an ocean of silence. Shows how much you know.
Japan is one of the most urbanized countries in the world: 92 percent live in cities. Most Japanese spend their days blanketed in an omnipresent and near-constant cloud of ambient urban noise.
Japan has a culture of constant public announcements, both official, commercial and (at least in election season) political. In fact, a 2018 report by the World Health Organization found that Japan was the noisiest country in the world.
One oft-cited example: due in part to the barrage of electrically amplified messages, busy Tokyo train stations such as Ueno and Tameike-Sanno generate a noise level of about 100 decibels, which is almost double the WHO's recommended limit (53 dB).
With levels of noise pollution constant and high, peace and quiet are a rare and fleeting commodity for most Japanese. With that in mind, a phenomenon like dorozoku starts to make sense.
'Dorozoku' literally translates as 'street tribe', but it has come to denote a particular kind of person: the kind who obstructs free passage, talks loudly and, in general, is a public nuisance, flaunting the inalienable right of everybody not to be bothered by everybody else.
The term was popularized by DQN Today, a website that crowd-sources reports of noise pollution and other examples of close-quarter grievances, purportedly helping prospective house hunters to avoid neighborhoods plagued by playful children and overly talkative adults.
The bigger the city, the more complaints; and most of all in Tokyo – a megacity of more than 37 million.
Credit: DQN Today
Each grievance is pinned to an interactive map of Japan. Zoom in on the dorozoku map, and the country comes alive in a riot of icons and colours, each showing particular types of noise pollution. In all, close to 6,000 noise hotspots are listed, all reported and described by disgruntled locals.
The map was started back in 2016 by a Yokohama resident, who prefers to remain anonymous. The forty-something systems developer, who works from home, was prompted by a bunch of noisy children hanging around his house, messing with his concentration. He wanted the map to help other people avoid moving into noisy neighborhoods like his.
The webmaster reviews all reports submitted to the website and filters out about one in ten, because of personal, slanderous or potentially malicious content (e.g. "Only girls in this area"). He also, though more rarely, receives requests to take down reports because the issue has been resolved.
Although they probably lose something in (Google) translation, the complaints make for fascinating reading. Some examples:
Near Kashiwazaki, in the otherwise rather quiet prefecture of Niigata on the western shore of Honshu.
The voice of a kid living in a
residential area around here
is not noisy; it's like a monkey
in a zoo that is always making
noise with a strange voice.
In Hadokate, a port city near the southern tip of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, it's not just sounds that offend but smells as well.
There are many households
that roast meat even though
the space between houses is small,
and on a clear day, it smells
like roasted meat in the town.
Japan's southernmost complaint comes from the small island city of Ishigaki.
Why do you get together in the evening
Whatever the day is, multiple families
With children gather around 5 pm
To ride bikes, ring the bell loudly, play ball
And make strange noises in the parking lot.
Parents chat by the window, and children
Play on the stairs as an athletic substitute.
Tokyo is teeming with complaints. Here's just one.
Back road of shopping street
Parent-child baseball metal bat noise
and catch ball noise in a dead-end
The voice of the family who whispers it
Strange voice etcetera.
Even smaller places, like Kashiwazaki in Niigata prefecture, have their share of complaints.
Credit: DQN Today
Initially relatively small and unnoticed, the website has gone on to nationwide success, especially since the start of the pandemic a year ago. Overall noise complaints have increased significantly in Japan (+30 percent in Tokyo) since everybody–and their kids–has been stuck at home. And the number of complaints to the dorozoku website has shot up by thousands since last year.
And it seems Japan's thirst for quietude is colliding with one source of noise in particular – not traffic, station announcements, or shop music, but children (1).
With notoriety came controversy. While most observers would agree the map is a symptom of Japan's changing attitude towards children, some see it as part of the solution, others as part of the problem.
One pro-map argument goes like this: Japan is no longer as deferential a society as it once was. Where once parents would respond to criticism of their children's behaviour by disciplining them, they are now likely to direct their anger at those who complain, rather than those complained about. The online map is a non-confrontational way to vent frustration and call attention to the problem.
Crowds at Ueno station, where noise is at double the level recommended by the WHO.
Credit: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images
A counterargument: Japan has a particularly thin-skinned attitude towards children's noise. Women who carry noisy babies on public transport have been known to receive vocal, harsh criticism for it. In 2012, residents near a daycare centre demanded that it reduce its noise levels, citing a bylaw banning noise over 45 decibels. In 2014, the bylaw was adapted to exempt younger children.
So, while the map can be seen as a repertory of anti-social behaviour, a case could be made that the real anti-socials are not the 'street tribes', but the ones who feel compelled to report them.
In the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Norihisa Hashimoto, a professor emeritus of acoustic engineering, pointed out that whether noise is irritating depends not just on the noise, but also on the listener – more specifically on their current mood and general degree of social isolation; both of which are likely to have worsened due to the coronavirus. People who complain may feel they're reasonable, but they could actually be fueling intolerance, he said.
Kids at play are noisy. And so are neighborhoods and streets bustling with life. Could it be that the dorozoku map is an expression not of rising levels of noise pollution, but instead of lowering levels of tolerance for what could be construed as 'normal' street noise?
A final factor, and perhaps a decisive one: Japan is experiencing a demographic bust. Reversing that would actually require a higher level of tolerance for youthful exuberance. Instead, dorozoku looks like a symptom of an aging society, irritably requesting that the young'uns "turn the damn volume down" and "get off that lawn."
Many thanks to Jeremy Hoogmartens for sending in this map. Images found at DQN Today.
Strange Maps #1072
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(1) To be fair: not just children. The New York Times reported a recent case of a construction worker stabbed to death in his parents' Tokyo apartment by an older resident in the same building, who told police "he couldn't stand the loud footsteps and voices".
User-driven sites lead to user-based bias.
Movements like #MeToo have drawn increased attention to the systemic discrimination facing women in a range of professional fields, from Hollywood and journalism to banking and government.
Discrimination is also a problem on user-driven sites like Wikipedia. Wikipedia's 20th birthday is on Jan. 15, 2021 and today it is the thirteenth most popular website worldwide. In December 2020, the online encyclopedia had over 22 billion page views.
The volume of traffic on Wikipedia's site – coupled with its integration into search results and digital assistants like Alexa and Siri – makes Wikipedia the predominant source of information on the web. YouTube even started including Wikipedia links below videos on highly contested topics. But studies show that Wikipedia underrepresents content on women.
Signs of bias
Driven by a cohort of over 33 million volunteer editors, Wikipedia's content can change in almost real time. That makes it a prime resource for current events, popular culture, sports and other evolving topics.
But relying on volunteers leads to systemic biases – both in content creation and improvement. A 2013 study estimated that women only accounted for 16.1 percent of Wikipedia's total editor base. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales believes that number has not changed much since then, despite several organized efforts.
If women don't actively edit Wikipedia at the same rate as men, topics of interest to women are at risk of receiving disproportionately low coverage. One study found that Wikipedia's coverage of women was more comprehensive than Encyclopedia Britannica online, but entries on women still constituted less than 30 percent of biographical coverage. Entries on women also more frequently link to entries on men than vice-versa and are more likely to include information on romantic relationships and family roles.
What's more, Wikipedia's policies state that all content must be "attributable to a reliable, published source." Since women throughout history have been less represented in published literature than men, it can be challenging to find reliable published sources on women.
An obituary in a paper of record is often a criterion for inclusion as a biographical entry in Wikipedia. So it should be no surprise that women are underrepresented as subjects in this vast online encyclopedia. As The New York Times itself noted, its obituaries since 1851 "have been dominated by white men" – an oversight the paper now hopes to address through its "Overlooked" series.
Categorization can also be an issue. In 2013, a New York Times op-ed revealed that some editors had moved women's entries from gender-neutral categories (e.g., "American novelists") to gender-focused subcategories (e.g., "American women novelists").
Wikipedia is not the only online resource that suffers from such biases. The user-contributed online mapping service OpenStreetMap is also more heavily edited by men. On GitHub, an online development platform, women's contributions have a higher acceptance rate than men, but a study showed that the rate drops noticeably when the contributor could be identified as a woman through their username or profile image.
Gender bias is also an ongoing issue in content development and search algorithms. Google Translate has been shown to overuse masculine pronouns and, for a time, LinkedIn recommended men's names in search results when users searched for a woman.
What can be done?
The solution to systemic biases that plague the web remains unclear. But libraries, museums, individual editors and the Wikimedia Foundation itself continue to make efforts to improve gender representation on sites such as Wikipedia.
Organized edit-a-thons can create a community around editing and developing underrepresented content. Edit-a-thons aim to increase the number of active female editors on Wikipedia, while empowering participants to edit entries on women during the event and into the future.
Our university library at the Rochester Institute of Technology hosts an annual Women on Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in celebration of Women's History Month. The goal is to improve the content on at least 100 women in one afternoon.
For the past six years, students in our school's American Women's and Gender History course have worked to create new or substantially edit existing Wikipedia entries about women. One student created an entry on deaf-blind pioneer Geraldine Lawhorn, while another added roughly 1,500 words to jazz artist Blanche Calloway's entry.
This class was supported by the Wikimedia Education Program, which encourages educators and students to contribute to Wikipedia in academic settings.
Through this assignment, students can immediately see how their efforts contribute to the larger conversation around women's history topics. One student said that it was "the most meaningful assignment she had" as an undergraduate.
Other efforts to address gender bias on Wikipedia include Wikipedia's Inspire Campaign; organized editing communities such as Women in Red and Wikipedia's Teahouse; and the National Science Foundation's Collaborative Research grant.
Wikipedia's dependence on volunteer editors has resulted in several systemic issues, but it also offers an opportunity for self-correction. Organized efforts help to give voice to women previously ignored by other resources.
This is an updated version of an article originally published in 2018.
1895 map of New York City shows 'concrete socialism' in red, 'private enterprises' in white.
- As this 1895 map proves, the political argument about socialism in the United States is not new at all.
- The map makes the point that socialism isn't foreign or alien, but as American as the pavements (and parks) of New York.
- It shows 'concrete socialism' in red, and 'private enterprises' in white - each make up about half of the city.
A dirty word
Painting of the Bowery, in the south of Manhattan, in 1895.
Credit: William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900) – Public domain
Socialism is a dirty word in American politics. For many, it stands for heavy-handed government intervention. It is the enemy of individual freedom. It reeks of the Gulag, and it can only end in self-inflicted impoverishment. You know, like in Venezuela.
Or it stands for freedom from want and fear, based on the principle of collective action. Because collective action generates superior outcomes in terms of public services, including but not limited to healthcare. You know, like in Denmark.
The argument is ongoing, and perhaps never-ending. Outlying voices on the left will argue that maybe Venezuela isn't all that bad. Their counterparts on the right will make the point that perhaps Denmark isn't all that great.
Is it too simplistic to presume that the truth is somewhere in the middle? Perhaps so, if it's only one side that is making that argument.
If you define 'socialism' as anything paid by and operated for the public, then America already has plenty of socialist institutions, including its Armed Forces, its National Parks, and its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, those leaning towards the left would argue.
This map makes a similar point by claiming that half of New York is run on 'socialist' principles already. It dates from 1895, proving that socialism has been providing combustible material for political debate in America since way before the Cold War, and even the Russian Revolution.
"For the common benefit"
New York City is only half capitalist (white) because it is already half socialist (red) – a striking cartographic argument by W. Vrooman in 1895.
Credit: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Maps – public domain
The map appeared in "Government Ownership in Production and Distribution," a book published in Baltimore in 1895, subtitled "An Account of 337 now Existing National and Municipal Undertakings in the 100 Principal Countries of the World."
The author was Walter Vrooman, a socialist reformer who saw 'fraternal socialism' as the logical – and indeed inevitable – next step, following the present system of 'paternal individualism.'
Born in 1869 in Macon, Missouri as one of Judge H.P. Vrooman's six sons, Vrooman became a Christian Socialist and ran away from home at age 13 (or perhaps the other way around). He also managed to get into Harvard some years later.
In the 1890s, as a reporter for the New York World, "Vrooman was always heroic, seldom tactful, and once successful in his two-year drive for parks and playgrounds for New York's children. That he attained the unique success as a news gatherer few would dispute, for 'he created most of the news he reported'. (1)"
His 1895 book gives hundreds of examples worldwide of activities taken over by municipal and national governments from private enterprise. Over the centuries, societies have nationalised services that affect the public realm, such as policing and the dispensing of justice, designing and maintaining streets and pavements, distributing utilities, providing public transport, etcetera.
Even New York, capitalist America's premier metropolis, can't survive without socialism, this map argues. "Although the centre of plutocratic lawlessness in America, (it) shows that nearly one-half of (New York's) surface is administered by the public, by means of City, State and National governments, for the common benefit of all the people."
In 1895, Vrooman married a Baltimore heiress and a few years after, they travelled to England, where he studied at Oxford and helped establish Ruskin College, which offers education to the disadvantaged.
He may not have turned New York red, but he did do his part in keeping parts of the city green.
Strange Maps #1057
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(1) Writes Harlan B. Phillips in 'Walter Vrooman: agitator for parks and playgrounds', in New York History (Vol. 33, No. 1 – January 1952)