Gettin’ Punchy With the Pontiff

My latest for Whale Oil blog

The Public Sphere and the Private Domain in the Free Speech Wars

This post for Whale Oil blog was originally intended to be a much longer article for my A Devil’s Curmudgeon, but I necessarily edited it down for brevity. Mostly I cut some material from the second part, illustrating the pitfalls of the public and private spheres overlapping with a real-world example. I’ll update this post to include that shortly – watch this space, as they say.

“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch” – Pope Francis

When Pope Francis argued that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had invited violence on themselves because they had insulted Islam, just as if someone had insulted his own mother, he didn’t just contradict basic Christian teaching. His threat also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of an important tenet of free speech, namely the distinction between the public sphere and the private, and the norms appropriate to each.

While the idea of public versus private life goes back to the Ancient Greeks (doesn’t everything?), the modern idea of “the Public Sphere” was coined by Jürgen Habermas in the 1960s. Habermas defined the public sphere as the “domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed [where] citizens … deal with matters of general interest”. Habermas thus contrasts the public sphere with the private, the realm of family, interpersonal relationships, and work.

Just as the public and private spheres serve separate domains of our social lives, each has separate behaviours and governing norms. The rules of the public sphere are not necessarily those of the private, and vice-versa – and this is what the Pope and other anti-free speech campaigners utterly fail to understand: the private sphere is not like the public.

At home, we don’t hold elections to determine the family power relationships, or make decisions. Nor do we always comport ourselves in public in the same manner as at home. The public and private spheres are different.

The public sphere is particularly the domain of democratic participation. Habermas associated the rise of the public sphere in the 18th century particularly with the rise of liberal democratic society, and the increasing ability of the public to discuss ideas openly, free of the constraints of authority. The public sphere hosts free speech. Free speech enables the public sphere.

Free speech necessarily includes speech that offends, speech that mocks, villifies, blasphemes, even so-called “hate speech”. “Democracy is not a polite business,” as Salman Rushdie reminds us.

But what about the Pope’s mother?

If Dr Gasparri were to insult Senora Bergoglio’s memory to her son’s face, that would be a private matter between the two men. As an interpersonal affair – belonging to the private sphere, in other words – Gasparri’s unwise words would not be entitled to the protection of free speech norms, and the papal biffo would be on for young and old.

Another bomb regularly thrown by the free speech deprecaters is, “go up to your boss and call him an asshole – see how far your free speech gets you then, smart guy”. But this ignores that both the ancient Greeks and the modern Habermas attributed the world of work and economic production to the private sphere, not the public. The workplace is not part of the public sphere, and when your boss not unsurprisingly hands you your smart ass in a cardboard box along with the contents of your desk, pleading free speech is rightfully going to get you nowhere.

That said, with the ubiquity of social media today, work, private and public life can sometimes bleed into one another. Sometimes the distinction between the public sphere and the private become blurred, making it difficult to determine where the public sphere right of free speech ends.

These are the pitfalls of social media. Which is why many workplaces have specific social media guidelines. That’s also what pseudonyms are for. Like “Lushington Brady”. My employer and family shouldn’t be affected by anything controversial I write; though it’s a fact of life that in 2017 you can’t write or say anything without offending somebody, let alone running foul of social media snitches always ready to denounce their next hapless victim.

So the sad lesson of the expanding public and shrinking private spheres in the age of social media, and self-righteous, Stasi-like snitches, is to either watch what you say, or learn to at least cover your tracks.

Otherwise, you never know: the Pope might take a pop at you.

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