Reworking the Public Sphere

Reconsidering how we define public sphere is necessary in order to ensure rhetorical listening and inclusion of all people in public and political discourse. A public sphere “may be defined as a discursive space in which individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment about them. It is the locus of emergence for rhetorically salient meanings.[1] Described in another way, a public sphere is where people come to discuss a common situation that is affecting them and their community and from the discussion are hopes of coming to common grounds or an agreement as to solving said issues. This type of model of public discussion is representative of public opinion in Western democracy. Best known for their theories on the public sphere is German sociologist Habermas who believes the public sphere, “as the sphere of private people who join together to form a ‘public.’ … The public sphere was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one’s education and qualification as a property owner. Habermas emphasizes the role of the public sphere as a way for civil society to articulate its interests.”[2] With this model of the public sphere, this being the current model that Western democracy relies on, only one public sphere is identified as major, while other minor spheres are secondary. American theorist Nancy Fraser provides her critiques on the Habermas’ definition of the public sphere and includes what it might be missing. Fraser’s main critique is that the bourgeois model of the public sphere has very distinct exclusions. It was based on the exclusivity that democracy was created by – a space only allowed for white males.

This tendency allowed for the main public sphere to solely focus on majority issues, which in most instances would be bias to white Western culture. Fraser concludes that this model allows for hegemonic dominance over women and marginalized groups. Smaller public spheres surrounding the main one would be made up of demographics that fall into the “minority” category. This current model is subjective to how certain systems (patriarchy, supremacy) render certain people as more important than others. Although concurrent with the current frame of how we view and how we treat certain subject matters, it is problematic to continue framing public spheres in this light. With this model, we continue the problematic framework that allows certain issues to be considered more important than others, or certain issues more important to pay attention to. This allows for continuous unequal treatment of people and their societal issues as well as enabling of disregard for cultures that are different from one’s own. In order to ensure proper rhetorical listening and inclusion, we should understand public sphere as not only more than one sphere, but as all spheres being equal, rather than a main sphere surrounded by minor public spheres. We must also understand that public spheres intertwine and overlap with one another in order to understand  that although there are public spheres that we may not identify with, there is an affect on our lives when one sphere is treated unequally.

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