My view on the public sphere and social media

You could call this idiosyncratic explanation of where my ideas come from a “mission statement”. In any case, these are my views/convictions and they do not represent my employer in any way. The theoretical points are maybe quite simplified and do not justice to the (usually thick) books they come from. This “statement” is also quite related to public sociology, by the way.

On nearly the shortest day of the year, on Frank Zappa’s birthday, when we return to light (especially welcome in Finland) I feel I should explain my relation to Facebook and social media and more in general, to (public) life, which explains a lot of my attitudes. Yes, I do link to cat videos and funny pictures (on Facebook, mostly), because I like them. They brighten up what I think is a sad state of affairs in Finland, the Netherlands, Europe and the Earth. I mention racism/xenophobia, extremely bad policy making (economic policy making, welfare state policies, science and education policies), war-mongering (“Russia is the enemy”, “We are at war with ISIS”, Japan vs. China, NATO vs. whoever seems appropriate) and of course most critically, the climate crisis.

My very first point is in some sense obscure, but relates to most of the crises above: the book The Imperative of Moral Responsibility by Hans Jonas has given me the anchor for how I see what we do here on earth. I do not claim I myself live up to this imperative, but the main idea is that moral philosophy demands from us that we think much more of the generations that come after us, and try to leave the world a better place (which I see as kind of Nussbaum/Sen sense, that everybody should have the capability to be free and not be constrained by e.g. lack of education, basic needs, threats to personal/communal safety – either physically or mentally, etc.) I don’t think we succeed very well at that, and that is one basis for my perhaps perceived radicalism/politicalism.

Having made that clear, even though I publish lots of links to cat videos etc, my view of Facebook is not as a source of entertainment. Facebook for me is an extension (or part of) the public sphere, in the sense that Hannah Arendt meant it – a space for political discussion in terms of the “Vita Activa”, i.e. where speech is also action. Arendt’s book The Human Condition has made a large impact on me, although it is also a book which has been criticized a lot. The distinction between work (repeating activity with no end), labour (a process with a beginning and an end and a result) and action (“great deeds and great words”, which can only take place in the public realm) has shaped a lot how I see my own contributions to life, and in particular e.g. my blog and other comments on issues that affect the public realm. In this way, my relation to Facebook is also somewhat related to Habermas’ discussion of the public sphere and how it relates to equal society. (The public sphere is an “area of social life where indiiduals can come together and freely discuss and identify societal problems and through that discussion influence political action”). Yes, I know Facebook is a company, and that it can censor posts (or that users can help it censor posts). The point is that in my current life I don’t have many other opportunities to participate in the public realm that through digital media.

Therefore, Facebook is part of my social realm, where individuals can and should discuss societal problems. My view is that all citizens (and I use this in a wide sense, not restricted to a juridical sense) should participate in public discussion and not leave it to lobbying organizations, civil servants and elected representatives. Yes, this is a very idealistic view of democracy. But we should at least try!!

Regarding criticism and making fun of politicians (or whatever habits) – I grew up with Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly, Frank Zappa and a host of Dutch comedians. Satire and irony are my favourite forms of humour (and criticism). I do not think there is one single reason why we should be overly respectful to whatever authority. These people in authority are there to serve US – not the other way. Otherwise our fine European democracies are nothing more than monarchies with some rituals designed to make us think we have some power. In particular in Finland, but increasingly in the rest of Europe also (nowhere more than in Germany and the Netherlands I think) it is necessary to be extremely sceptical of whatever the daily newspapers write (especially about economics) because newspapers are often just an extension of vested interest. In this sense, we come to one of the central thinkers for our current aga: Gramsci. The idea of hegemony is very useful to think of the policitcs in our society – whom do they benefit, and whose interests do they represent. Currently, in Finland, it is so very explicit that it is just the interests of (big) business owners and share holders that are served. This Spring’s events in Greece show the force of this hegemony: Greece was and is simply not allowed to follow a political course which challenges the interests of European banks, neoliberal politicians and Greek elites. Excluding for the moment political change in Spain, there is no European country in which existing political parties have had no part in policy making for the last 30-40 years (ok, extremists such as the Dutch PVV are also excluded, so far..). This means that in practice all political parties are directly or indirectly implicated in this policy making and therefore all parties should be regarded with scepticism. On a personal level, although I am a member of the Finnish Green Party, I still do not support everything they do/advocate. I know many people have similar experiences and this is a worrying reason for declining voting activism (but that is a besides).

Furthermore, coming from the Netherlands, I am extremely wary of any kind of nationalism and patriotism. Even though a country has a legal complete entity, it is still an “imagined community”, which may be nonetheless united by common language or common history, for example. Similarly, I roll my eyes at sentences like “Finland should become more competitive” – that is just total nonsense. Politicians often use language with doesn’t make sense (or aims to obscure issues) and we should call them on that.

So in sum: there are many reasons why I publish what I publish. A personal reason is my lovely son Jelmer – I want him to grow up in a world where he as the freedom to be what he wants to be and to participate freely in society, preferably on an Earth that is habitable. I criticize European and Finnish policy making because the current hegemonic neoliberal economic framework will prevent a good future, and this framework is too largely shared by too many parties and other institutions. I don’t deny you your freedom to support e.g. the Finnish National Coalition Party, but don’t expect me to be uncritical. The desire for consensus, which is especially strong in Finland, is in my view quite dangerous. Finnish consensus is the “sharing of a single truth” instead of “arriving at a shared opinion with different arguments”. Alexander Stubb talks a lot of dangerous nonsense, which obscures that Party’s goals. The NCP is not a party for common people, it is a party for the elite and by the elite. I support a large part of the ¤analysis¤ of the Left Alliance and the Green Party, but not necessarily their solutions. This is politics – parties get support for their visions and in representative democracies they have to hammer out a compromise to be able to be in government. That is both the great thing and the bad thing about democracy. Comprimise can be born as long as parties remain in the hegemonic ideas, when they challenge these, compromise is not possible. In Europe, there is much more need for a challenge to the political hegemony – by individuals, media, artists and collectives. Non-violent and based on science. Only then is a true discussion possible – because you can’t argue on the basis of imagined sources of knowledge (be it religion, nationalism or “gut feeling”).

Do what you want with this post. Life is political. We are our democracy.