Yale philosopher Seyla Benhabib interviewed by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen
Seyla Benhabib: Political philosophy has been my first orientation in philosophy for a very long time. What motivated this was primarily the fact that I’m the generation of the student movement. And the kinds of questions that we seemed to be asking in ’68 led to a certain intellectual orientation. Thirty years ago (1977) I wrote my dissertation on Hegel’s political philosophy, on a comparison of his concept of right with the natural rights tradition. Before that, my senior thesis was on Hobbes. So this is a long standing concern and interest. Of course, over the years one evolves and changes. The most important recent shift came around mid-90s after I started working more empirically on questions of multiculturalism, citizenship and immigration within the European Union. I took a more institutionalist and empirical turn by beginning to look at some concrete discussions. Immersing myself in the new literature about European Union, immigration and women’s rights, I had a feeling that to be able to do the political philosophy of the present as opposed to studying the history of political thought. One had to come to grips with the society around one and with the transformations that were taking place in the current moment.
Karin Wahl-Jorgensen: People in journalism studies are particularly familiar with your work on Habermas and ideas around public space and the public sphere, so could you talk about the ways in which you’ve been influenced by Habermas, and about how you part ways with him, both in his work on the public sphere as well as in subsequent work?
SB: For me, Habermas’ s most important contribution has been his reformulation of the concept of rationality, in terms of communicative rationality. He sees communicative rationality as reason-giving; as concrete practices of answering, response and interrogation. For me as well this concept of rationality is a foundation and a premise. I would say that all my work presupposes the validity of that transition to communicative rationality. I have been most interested in the connection of communicative rationality to ethics and deliberative democracy and in this sense the public sphere concept has been crucial. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was so significant because it also contained his exchange with, or distancing from, Hannah Arendt. For Arendt, the public sphere is dominated by a visual metaphor. It is a metaphor of those we can see, who are united in a public square; it is the metaphor of citizens being present to one another. Habermas disembodies the public sphere from the Greek model by saying that the public evolves into the reading public with the advent of Enlightenment and modernity. This is more a virtual community of authors, readers and writers, and one does not need to be present to one another physically. But this reading public is at the same time also the embodiment of critical public opinion. The book, however, is about the structural transformation of the public sphere of the 18th century into the 20th and towards the end he describes a further transformation where there is s shift from the ‘reading public’ to the ‘culture consuming public’ with the rise of the mass journalisms and radio. Because the book was published in 1962 the electronic media is not discussed, but already the emergence of mass journalism with daily circulation, radio and to a lesser extent, television, are commented upon. In a mode quite typical of Theodor Adorno’s thesis on mass culture, Habermas presents this transformation as a kind of decline. We often forget the really negative evaluation of this transformation in the second half of the book.
I am also interested in whether the notion of the public sphere can have critical purchase in our kinds of societies. This is also the point where the contribution of scholars like Nancy Fraser and Craig Calhoun is so important, in terms of trying to critically rethink the public sphere. First of all, you have to decentre the model of the public sphere. We cannot keep assuming that there are these clearly defined boundaries; the very use of the term ‘sphere’ always evokes for me this image of a glass ball of glass with a smooth circumference, even if the boundaries are transparent. But if you talk about the public more in the sense of publicity, public opinion, and public opinion formation I think you will be able to understand this process better. In Habermas’s later writings, we encounter more formulations such as ‘oeffentliche Meinungsbildung’, as processual formations and transformations of opinion, which take place in disembodied spaces, and which are not necessarily located in specific bounded communities. We have not been able to come to grips with this idea of the ‘disembodied’ public spheres: increasingly everyone is using the metaphor of the network; the anonymous network of interlocking conversations. But the reason why the more hierarchical models of the public square and the public sphere have holds on us is that politically this is the agora; it is the space of public decision — the public square of the people — . The model returns in our work because it is difficult to understand how to connect decentred anonymous networks of flowing and interconnecting conversations to a decisional public sphere; the centred model. I think that one of the most interesting normative questions is how to conceptualize the interaction between these networks of communication, information and opinion building on the one hand, and public articulation in terms of decisional articulation on the other.
KWJ: In relation to that, how do you see the current reality in terms of the relationship between weak and strong publics?
SB: What is emerging now is a dangerous disjunction. There is a way in which the political process is shielding itself from both the media and public opinion and public pressure. Those in power no longer think that they are accountable to the public: there is a diminution of accountability and also a loss of sense of respect and honour about holding public office. Certainly in the United States today the decision-making bodies are becoming increasingly impervious to the democratic conversation. The influence of weak publics upon the strong decisional public is increasingly weakened. There was and is an incredible amount of knowledge and information out there, around the Iraq war and about the truth or falsehood of the premises that led the United States and Britain to war. At the same time there is a disjunction between the level of information that is available and the decisional processes.
I used to be more optimistic about the possibility of social movements and civil society institutions impacting the strong public. And I still think that this is the only thing that we can hope for and the Obama candidacy shows that civil and political movements are not completely asleep in the USA. But the last 10 or 15 years I have been increasingly more struck about the fragmentation of the public sphere. The emergence of new media technologies, and new centres of information is leading to everyone doing their “own thing,” so to speak. It’s as if people are going around with bubble wrap around their brains. And inside the bubble wrap is the informational world that they themselves have generated. When we first articulated this model about the interaction of the strong and weak public spheres in the late 1980s and 1990s, many of us were thinking of transformations in Eastern Europe, the emergence of civil society movements, strong women’s movements, ecology and youth movements in the West, and so the model was one of a decentred, weak public sphere of anonymous conversations and networks that would then have some impact on the decisional public sphere. Now, we need to reconsider this model in the light of the complete proliferation of the electronic media and public spheres – the rise of FaceBook; YouTube; community and citizen journalism, etc…
KWJ: So you’re suggesting that one reason [for the fragmentation of the public sphere] might be the emergence of new media technologies?
SB: One always has to be very aware of attributing too much causality or blame to the media. But I was asking myself, what is the concrete experience of my daughter’s generation, for example, who was born in 1986? These are informed college students who are interested politically and who want to be political activists, but what do they do in the morning? They turn on the computer and they have the news sent to them either via AOL or via the New York Times if they subscribe to it. So on the one hand, we are facing a generation who is getting all its information online, and on the other hand we have an increasing centralisation and monopolisation of news production among the major newspapers. The consequence is that one’s points of reference are so multiple that they may not intersect and a common world may not emerge. The negative side of decentring is fragmentation. But fragmentation can also bring effervescence. Look at internet sites such as Talking Points Memo and the DailyKos in the USA – they are changing the public political sphere. But who exactly reads them besides the politically aware intelligentsia of the East Coast and political activists and aficionados? There are lots of contradictions: On the one hand the kind of radical analysis and news that you find in the blogosphere is so much more advanced that anything in the newspapers, but on the other hand it’s not clear that the blogosphere is widespread enough or that it filters everything that is posted on it. What I see are both trends: on the one hand the blogosphere is very often run by amateurs and this can lead to misinformation as well as misrepresentation. But on the other hand sometimes you find more information and news on the blogosphere that force the more established media to stand and take note. And actually, this is a good process on the whole because it imposes more checks on the printed media.
KWJ: Some theorists attach great hope to developments like the emergence of the internet, seeing it as a kind of democratising development that gives voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the public sphere, what do you think about those kinds of arguments?
SB: I think that there is some truth to this but one should not get too carried away. It’s certainly the case that the blogosphere and list-serves create a kind of conversation. They are quick; they move in real time and they permit the back and forth of exchange. But democracy and democratic decision making is not just about an exchange of opinions and views, it is also deliberating about how to live together over a period of time, so you need sustained commitments over a stretch of time. It is important not to confuse democracy with the unfettered exchange of opinion alone. Certainly, one can talk about procedures [of discussion]. One can say a procedure is democratic, or a procedure is not democratic. But democracy is also about a way of life, about binding decisions and commitments into the future. Agreeing on X in democratic processes means that I will have to contribute more out of my income to certain kinds of improvements in the neighbourhood, or to the health care system. The danger in talking about the ‘internet democracy’ is that it confuses information and exchange of views with action commitments that need to be made over a long period of time. So these new [technological] developments, are certainly helpful in terms of challenging the monopoly of existing powerful media, but they are not enough to organise people as citizens. In other words, I’m trying to establish a distinction between this virtual conversation and concrete commitments of living together and life forms, which is what democracy is all about. I think that some theorists are getting too carried away by the virtual conversation, and not paying enough attention to what needs to happen on the ground.
KWJ: In a way, a similar charge has been levelled at some varieties of deliberative democratic theory, where critics might say, is talk really intrinsically valuable? Is it really valuable for us to sit around and talk, or do we need other kinds of commitment or other kinds of power, so in a way you could level that kind of charge at other kinds of interaction?
SB: I think that deliberation is different from information and exchange of opinion… Deliberation is about a specific agenda which itself may be called into question and which itself may be challenged. In deliberating I assume that there is always the urgency of a decision, the urgency of coming to some kind of conclusion; as Aristotle pointed out, we deliberate about what we can do. So deliberative democratic processes necessarily involve a kind of framework which stipulate what we need to undertake. Everything can be open and up for questioning but deliberation is different than the kind of back and forth conversation that goes on [online], because while deliberating I have to assume that there will be a commitment to some kind of resolution or action together at the end. And so, deliberation isn’t just talk; it is about a certain kind of talk leading to certain kinds of action.
KWJ: So you subscribe to a definition of deliberation according to which it’s not enough just to talk about matters of common good but people actually resolve to make decisions and act accordingly?
SB: Deliberation is used as an alternative model of institutional decision making but it is nevertheless a decision-making process, it isn’t just having a conversation.
KWJ: In the context of media studies and journalism studies what people are really interested in is to try and think about how these ideas around deliberation can be applied to the organisation of media in particular. So to what extent would you say that media allow for deliberative democratic conversations to take place?
SB: I think that the media can never be the primary medium for deliberation. But it can be an assisting medium, in the sense that actual processes of deliberation themselves require a great deal of information, some of which cannot be had right at that moment. You can see this in community networks of information, [for example] like community listserves where you are already hashing out certain questions and you’re already aware of the pros and cons and the varieties of perspectives, which can be tremendously helpful when you go to meetings where you need to deliberate. The media are absolutely crucial to provide this sort of information that is necessary for the deliberative process. And sometimes you can use the electronic media to test out certain kinds of propositions as well. But I would be against collective decision making and quasi-democratic polling via the media. Not only because there can also be tremendous abuse and fraud [a discussion currently going on about the use of electronic polling machines in the USA which produce no paper trail], but also because I think that committing oneself physically, is part of the political process. Our time for public life is limited and we’re all glued to our computers, to tv, to ipods and other gadgets all day long. Sp, as science fiction movies forecast we might become a totally virtual community of electronic interconnectedness and that’s not really a living community of responsibility towards one another.
KWJ: So are you suggesting implicitly that ideal forms of deliberation take place in a face-to-face setting?
SB: I think that at the end of the day, deliberations will need to take place in face-to-face settings, there will need to be meetings. One can go back and forth between varieties of fora, and certainly the media — the electronic media and the print media — are all forms of virtual fora but at some point citizens must somehow and somewhere see each other in contexts of decision-making.
KWJ: Are there any ways in which the media are not fulfilling some kind of role that they’re supposed to in that process?
SB: One medium that is in great crisis is television. As a result of increasing commercial pressure, the nature of both the news and the communication and articulation of it have changed. There are sociological studies that show the increasingly shrinking ‘sound bite’. This is a real problem because television is still the most dominant and most popular medium. But it is letting people down because it is simply not conveying sufficiently informative features and news. There is a lot of superficial talk and self-congratulation on television. I would say that the major network news – ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN ¬– are increasingly hopeless. I happen to think that this has a lot to do with the economics of television [as] news analysis and in-depth features are being displaced by commercial concerns.
KWJ: What would be your ideal kind of media arrangement, to allow for a healthier public sphere?
SB: I think there needs to be more openly conversational, public political conversational shows. What you don’t have now [in American media] are citizens, as opposed to experts, discussing public political issues. What you don’t have is public deliberation presented through the broadcast media. Apart from some shows on PBS – the Public Broadcasting System – you never find somebody who’s a teacher, someone who’s a construction worker, someone who’s in the health industry, come together as a kind of citizens’ forum on television. All you have are the ‘talking heads,’ circulating themselves ad nauseam. At prime time, I would like to see a citizens’ forum, rather than these continuously self-referential talking heads and so-called experts. It is an increasing monopoly and you can understand why people are angry and turned off by the big network news and seek other, smaller media of communication.
KWJ: So are you concerned about the overly elitist and insider nature of media?
SB: Oh absolutely. I think it’s a club and you have particular columnists and pundits talking to the very predictable journalists. So television, of all the media that we are talking about, has my deepest anger and contempt… Reality TV and television talk shows are certainly not edifying or really transforming public opinion. You also have the soap operas which seem to be very important for women. These sometimes have an enlightenment function, like the Oprah Winfrey show, because they talk about things like sexual abuse, rape, obesity; problems which are serious for a lot of people and for women in particular. But on the other hand, soap operas and talk shows reproduce and augment reality in such a way that they pick up on the sensational and the ugly. They exaggerate conflict, such as when estranged husbands and wives are confronted with one another and are asked to disclose their secrets on television. I look at this and I just really think this is worse than the Roman mob who saw the early Christians being fed to the lions. I don’t think that feminism means that an individual person should appear in front of 10 million viewers and cry and moan and reveal herself. To me this is complete scandal mongering and a degeneration of what we thought was going to be the serious conversation about private issues.
What I sense being violated in some of these stories and some of these shows is fundamental human dignity, which has to do with the sense of the inviolability of the other and with certain limits that you should not transgress. I don’t mean in art and in literature but in the communicational media. There has to be a kind of respect so that you have to recognise the other as a being entitled not to reveal themselves. Having the choice not to disclose oneself is part of what integrity and dignity are about. At times, the feminist point about “the personal being the political” has been misunderstood because it seemed as if one was asking for compulsory self-revelation or compulsory self-disclosure. This is not the case at all but we need to make these distinctions clear repeatedly. About story telling, I think that we are basically creatures who create narratives. We think of ourselves in terms of narratives; we live our narratives, our lives are based on the narratives that we tell ourselves, others, our recollections of others’ narratives and so on. That seems to me unavoidable. If you have temporal consciousness you also have narrative consciousness.
I’m interested in the way in which more structured narratives or public narratives and story-telling can aid in the formation of an enlarged mentality and in the ability to take the standpoint of the other in deliberative processes. This is where there is a special role for the right kind of journalism and media because journalism is really what makes present to us – re/presents – those whose stories we cannot hear or share first-person. And in this respect recent war journalism, for example, has accomplished a tremendous amount. I think there really has been a transformation of global consciousness as a result of this kind of work. It is one of the most interesting and hopeful developments when journalists, be it broadcast or a print journalists, sometimes at great risk to themselves, travel to these areas like Darfur, like Rwanda, like Iraq, like Bosnia, like Kosovo, like the Ivory Coast, and making us aware of war, ethnic cleansing, genocide. I’m not exactly sure about the evolution [of war reporting] historically, but it seems to me that this kind of journalism is very much part of the new global consciousness that is forming, and it does matter a lot. With something like the genocide in Darfur, we’re all in this situation of experiencing tremendous anger and disappointment and yet being caught by the inability of the official political process to put an end to genocide. But then there are many citizen groups who are involved and who are trying to do something about it as well. In the past, there were times when this kind of news reporting was blocked and censored. For example, at the time of the Holocaust some of the news being filed back to the USA about the camps was censored by major newspapers and the Roosevelt Administration because the United States did not want to have to get into WWII too quickly. The world has changed, nobody is about to censor this kind of news – although they tried in Iraq, by “embedding reporters,” and they cannot physically and actually do it, because of the proliferation of the electronic media and that’s a great thing.
KWJ: So when you’re talking about a journalism which creates compassion, or creates a global consciousness as you call it, are there any specific instances that you made you think of this?
SB: Reporting about Srebrenica, reporting about the mass killings in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda; these are the most prominent examples that come to my mind. In addition to some of the most fantastic background work done about the Taliban, and also some of the independent journalism, such as Naomi Klein’s, concerning Iraq. So I think that these are examples of what I would consider really important journalism, and the interesting thing about these efforts is that they do maintain the line between the generalised and the concrete other.
KWJ: All of these examples are reflecting a globalised world and that could be construed as attempts of creating what you yourself called post-national solidarity?
SB: Absolutely, and it is also about creating the enlarged mentality, by teaching us to see from the standpoint of others, even when we do not agree with them. We extend the boundaries of our sympathy by understanding the conditions of others who may be radically different than us. At its best journalism does this; it extends your vision of the world by making you see the world through the eyes of the others. It informs you, as well as stretching your empathy across time and space. The best kind of journalism has this capacity of uniting the dignity of the generalised other with empathy for the concrete other.