Hard Pressed

This is about the need for slow, reflective, public media where social groups are large and pluralisitic.

An aggregative conception of society in individualistic liberalism in general means that it is assumed that individuals expressing their convictions naturally coalesce around solidarities. This purportedly occurs through affinities that are reflectively revealed to underlie all preferences. On other, more communitarian, accounts we see a civil society that is constantly reflecting upon what it is and ought to be. Politics has the task of facilitating these reflections and permitting the elucidation of these discursively-constituted identities.

What is missing in either of these accounts, however, is a medium for these aggregations and discourses. What’s ever present, moreover, is the assumption that resolution of difference is possible and desirable. It is presumed that through carefully-worded procedures, we will always be able to find a ‘third way’ to trump divergent convictions. There is continual talk of ‘getting around the table’ or moving beyond difference.

How to deal with the plurality of values that constitute the perspectives of real people in public reasoning when systems of procedure aren’t enough?

In the main, in concrete scenarios, few have any problem with saying and doing less than they possibly could. In a supermarket, I can refrain from bellowing my political convictions. I expect shoppers aren’t there for that. Watching a game in some sport, I don’t expect points to be awarded or subtracted based on what I yell. I expect the referee’s word to be final. In my workplace I don’t expect to proselytise or be proselytised to as there is a broader context of work that it seems ought to trump any need to yell my deep convictions.

It seems apparent that in many circumstances, perhaps a majority of circumstances, we understand that restraint is the civil option. Not restraint in the sense of ‘knowing one’s place,’ or for fear of causing offence – restraint in the urbane knowledge that the continual expression of every conviction deforms the broader space in which we coexist. In so deforming that shared space, the private space becomes impossible since the boundaries blur and a latent power struggle becomes active.

Politics should be seen as a power struggle, in fact, never settled. Political goals should be continual interaction, not stasis ‘beyond difference.’ Those who would seek to end the conversation should be viewed with suspicion since doing so amounts to closing off ways of seeing the world.

This is why we need a free press. There ought to be no legal intervention in the regulation of the press beyond the law of the land. The prestige of newspapers was, and ought once more to be, their pedigree as institutions that devote time and resources to carefully examining public issues and then taking a position based on the time and resources spent. Their worth is at least their judgement on issues that are of concern to all, but that aren’t easily examinable by all.

In a sense, a newspaper is akin to the chat one has with friends in a pub, on the street, colleagues in the office, but with an institutionalisation beyond the scope of those chats. The newspaper ought to feed such chats with high grade, reflective judgement based on an appreciation of the issues at hand.

Moreover, in a pub chat versus a workplace conversation we see again restraint of the sort just mentioned. With friends and a beer, we utter more and other things than we might at work. Why? Because we don’t expect our personal moral views to trump public civil realities. The two may sit uneasily in our heart of hearts, but the virtue to be realised in breathless pursuit of realising a personal moral vision is that of zeal. In a public we know not to share our moral visions, we ought to court civic virtue not moral zeal.

The newspaper is an essential part of this. Part of the objections against the ‘dead trees press’ is that it is yesterday’s news. It’s slow. Media 2.0 (or what have you) is immediate, breaking the news. But the virtue of the newspaper is just this. It is s reflective, sober and restrained medium.

Where the goal of a society is civic virtue and the continuance of the, sometimes awkward, negotiation of difference, this is essential. Twitter and other such sources are the opposite – they encourage and thrive on the immediacy of reaction. This has a place in a public discourse but in enabling and encouraging the expression of every little thing, these media deflect discourse toward the zealous end of the spectrum.

This isn’t to say these media are bad things. Newspapers can wear a badge of zealotry just as easily as a tweet can be restrained. But the point is a broad one: newspapers are poised to take on the urbane mantle of the informed commentator, taking responsibility for feeding quality well-judged information to the continual negotiations of shared living among individuals and groups of differing convictions. Where they fall short, they should face consequences as any other voice that purports to be responsible: no more and no less.

Lastly, it might seem all too easy to say that a real part of the change required to realign the edifying potentials of a free press with the actualities of sophisticated multi-dimensional societies is the responsibility of the people constituting those societies. But this seems to be the case. Where a free press can stand as a restrained, urbane medium of the negotiations of difference among a plural group, there must be a cog for it to turn. Treating Tweets as mere Tweets and journalism as food for thought requires a self-possessed public as much as it does a serious press.


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