Andy Blunden. August 2007

How is rational discussion possible on a mass scale?

Since the eighteenth century, when the idea of the people of a modern nation-state making their own laws first got going, philosophers have agonised about the ethical problems involved in the idea of popular self-determination.

Kant must have thought that everyone could think like he did. After all, if the subject itself was a ‘nothing’ = x, known only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates, and if reason was an innate capacity available to all subjects, then it made sense that ethics could and should be founded on universal maxims, whose truth was compelling in the light of reason.

Doubt about this led Fichte to suggest instead that ethics was something elaborated by individuals through interaction with other individuals. Hegel in his turn was sceptical about the idea of each individual being the starting point and centre of a system of ethics, and proposed instead that individuals appropriated a moral sense through interactions with each other, mediated by a material cultural inherited from the past.

These German philosophers of the late eighteenth century, whether inspired by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution or the ideal of the ancient Greek polis, asked what shape a rational, democratic order could take in a large, modern, secular nation-state.

The central idea of modernity, first elaborated by Kant, was that every individual ought to be able to exercise self-determination and must be treated as such. So, given that a social policy decision affects everyone, how should debate about social policy be conducted? With this problem in mind, Habermas sought to elaborate the pragmatic presuppositions of an inclusive and non-coercive rational discourse between free and equal participants so that an ideally extended “we-perspective” could emerge. But is it plausible to propose that people in a large modern nation state resolve differences over policy only by recourse to good arguments, rationally argued from evidence and premises which are shared by everyone as if the issues were going to be resolved by people sitting around the table together in cafés, salons and council chambers?

Habermas seems to have taken for granted that resolution of the problem at the level of a discussion between individuals speaking on their own behalf, would be generalisable to a situation where the public sphere was dominated by mass communication. The most powerful institutions of modern society (like universal suffrage) have a formally inclusive, noncoersive and egalitarian structure. Nevertheless, with the public sphere dominated by the mass media, they function as strategic instruments of social control. So, it seems that the problem of ascertaining the special conditions for inclusive and rational discourse at the mass level is not at all trivial, and may lead us in different directions.

When individuals are speaking on their own behalf, then it is possible to require that only those linguistic resources are used which are shared by all, and that participants put themselves in each other’s shoes and search for a consensus on common means and ends. But in a society of mass communication, this simply cannot be the case: 6 billion people each having equal time with equal skill at presenting a case to 6 billion other people? At the very least representation is pre-supposed, and the issue of representation takes us right back to the original problem, viz., that selecting representatives presupposes a public sphere which provides a communicative level playing field. Attention must therefore turn to the semiotic issues raised by the facts of mass communication, that is to say, to the issues raised in conveying subtleties of meaning to a diverse population. The strength of a good argument is all that ought to matter in an intersubjective dialogue, once the linguistic and general cultural barriers to mutual understanding have been overcome. But no such assumption can be made in the case of mass communication. Communicatively mediated self-determination presupposes the resolution of deep problems of representation and communication on a mass scale, and the semiotic considerations that this entails are not secondary, but belong to the essence of the matter.

An instance of this problem is the widely agreed principle that makers of popular movies should cast actors in roles non-stereotypically, not for the benefit of equal opportunity for the actors, but because stereotypical casting reinforces stereotypes in society at large, undermining the principle of equality of opportunity.

Introducing semiotic considerations could have the odour of strategic action (i.e., manipulation) if all that were involved were face-to-face dialogue; if the meaning can be made clear, then semiotics can only make the argument more or less convincing, possibly by pressing emotional buttons, without any implication with regard to the content. But this objection cannot stand in the case of mass communication.

For example, it is well-known that mass communication in the official language systematically excludes migrants. The choice of an ABC radio channel, a tabloid newspaper, or 1 minute advertisements on commercial television, will likewise be systematically exclusive in this or that way. All political parties put up celebrity candidates or select candidates with standing in respect to a particular issue, practices in which the individual candidates act as signs, and I don’t think that this practice should be regarded as manipulative.

And yet we are not looking at simply sending a message, but arriving at an unforced consensus about the vital questions of the day for the whole country. Even when the issue is clearly put, people will not normally weigh the matter personally but participate mediately, through representation and by weighing the views of others.

The conditions for participation in a rational, inclusive and uncoerced discourse are pre-conditions for the achievement of popular self-determination. Habermas was right in this. But in a society of mass communication, popular self-determination has to be understood in the context of mass communications being the prerogative of a minority in the very essence of mass communication. Any sense in which the use of mass communication can be said to belong to all, presupposes resolution of the problems raised here, not because everyone actually gets equal time, etc.

What is involved here is the subjectivity of masses of people, including the objectification of consciousness in terms of democratic institutions of representation and control. The fact is that, for example, the participation of most people in the great debates of society is mediated not only by professionally produced and broadcast images, but through other people in general, both people known to them and people with whom they are connected in some way through some network or chain of relationships.

Consequently, it is not sufficient to pose political questions today as if text were the lingua franca of public policy discourse. To do so is to promote a fiction which overlooks the fact that the vast majority of the population do not and cannot participate in a textual discourse about the content of matters of public policy, but can and do participate in highly problematic debates orchestrated in the mass media, shaped in the light of expected patterns of voting and buying, with corresponding impact on public policy.

The participation of the mass of the population in such deliberations is mediated semiotically and socially and through social relations which operate semiotically and semiotics that operates through social relations. This must be the case because public consciousness has this form and not only can public consciousness be addressed like this, but popular sovereignty is exercised like this.

There might be a temptation to think that textual argumentation is appropriate for gaining consensus among a cognoscenti, after which the cognoscenti will present a semiotically developed argument to the masses. But this renders the masses as objects within an existing semiotic and social landscape and is exactly the kind of process we have to negate. The questions raised are utterly trivial so long as we are concerned with “getting the message out.” But the real issue is this: how could the mass of the population really participate in shaping their own lives? What are the semiotic conditions for the mass of the population to participate independently in determination of their own lives? Can we envisage a kind of communicatively mediated self-determination which is genuinely accessible to the mass of the population in a public sphere including the mass media?

There are two aspects to this problem. Firstly, there is the social theoretical issue of how social consciousness is constructed in a modern, non-traditional society in which mass communication predominates. Secondly, there is the problem of formulating compelling ethical principles which can continue the process of concretising the Golden Rule.

The first question I have dealt with elsewhere in connection with my reading of Hegel. In this context it should be mentioned that ‘universal suffrage’ implemented in large geographical electorates is a far from satisfactory concept of citizenship. But it is not the problem in itself. It is just as effective in delivering political freedom as the market is effective in satisfying human needs; in one case every individual casts their vote after the results have already been determined in the mass media, and await only realisation in the ballot box; in the other case, every individual disposes of their income in purchases of their own choosing, after the marketeers have already created most of the desires to be met in the market place. Both are imperfect institutions, but objectify principles of liberalism at the present level of moral development.

What I want to address here is the ethics of mass communication, as fundamental to the ethics of modernity.

Modern society is structured as follows: opinion-makers – mass marketeers, mass media journalists, elected political officials – on one side, and an ‘audience’ on the other – the ‘consumers’, the audience, the voters. This structure subordinates even the professional communicators to its logic. The conductor is a prisoner of the performers’ abilities, likes and dislikes, as much as the performers follow the conductor’s directions.

In For Ethical Politics, I criticised Habermas’s formulation of the Golden Rule on the basis that Habermas overlooked the fact that communicative action is thinkable only if there is a common project in which the participants collaborate. The whole school of “intersubjectivity” and “recognition” fails in the same way because the mediating project is excluded. Why should people want to arrive at a consensus or even mutual understanding, except insofar as they are doing something together? In For Ethical Politics, I formulated the Golden Rule: “what we do, should be decided by us.” So the issue is how to formulate this rule in the relationship between opinion-makers and their ‘audience’.

The project, in which opinion-makers and voters are collaborating, is the production of public policy through the mediating processes of mass communication and universal suffrage. This is essentially a social learning process. The proper, ethical definition of the relationship between opinion-makers and voters is one of collaborative learning – social learning objectified in modified social policy and individual learning for which the criterion must be the capacity to exercise a critical voice in the public sphere.

This still begs the question of the aim of public policy. Consistent with the above argument, the function of social policy must be to ensure so far as possible an critical voice for all individual citizens in this dialogue and the conditions for collaborative learning.

This still begs the question of how opinion-makers and their audience can create a ‘we’ perspective, how they can really collaborate. This is the same problem that is faced by teachers, and is widely regarded as an ethical issue among educators, especially at tertiary level. Many good teachers have found ways to do it.

Habermas took as the microcosm of modern society, a group of people trying, through discussion, to reach a consensus on some question. This microcosm has the great benefit of being formally egalitarian in that each person in the group has formally the same social position. From the standpoint of communicative action in the public sphere, modern society is highly unequal. A typical microcosm would be someone delivering a message to a mass market, and getting feedback from how much of their product is purchased. Collaboration is almost unimaginable in relationships between a producer and a mass audience. Isn’t that the heart of the problem?

It seems to me that all of us social theorists and philosophers, along with everyone else, have a responsibility to struggle to locate our problem-solving activity in the public sphere and specifically in the mass media, and to find ways of collaborating in public with others in these problem-solving activities. If we address ourselves to an audience of outsider-cognoscenti, with the idea that we can only hope to make a consensus amongst peers, and only when a consensus has been reached amongst peers, will that be acted upon and transmitted within the broader public sphere, then we are following the same strategy as those who dupe the public. Theoretical problem-solving ought to be done in public. How to do that is a formidable technical semiotic question, but isn’t it exactly the problem which needs to be solved?

It would be an interesting exercise to track the making of public policy on global warming, from the first scientific observations in the 1950s to the Club of Rome in the early 1970s through the environmental social movement to consensus amongst the climate scientists, with trust becoming the central issue as celebrities and business and media moguls swapped sides and electoral majorities were formed in favour of some measures, but still with no actual solution yet.

There is a place for technical talk amongst friends and the cognoscenti, but within a wider a dialogue I suspect.