The Public Sphere

“A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.”—Jurgen Habermas

When I first read about Jurgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, I thought about social media and how it could offer a place for all people to connect publicly and discuss issues critically. However, I see limited evidence of this happening. While I’m sure at least one critical thought for every 2.5 million ridiculous ones does appear on social media, I wouldn’t consider Facebook or Twitter to be useful tools for challenging the status quo. Given the self-absorbed nature of most social media content, and the fact that social media is a major driver in digital profiling and segmented advertising, I would argue that it’s more subjugating than traditional media.

What’s most disturbing is the growing number of people addicted to social media channels and the devices they use to access them, which means that social media is not only manipulative but something that has become embedded into our culture. Even if we try to use social media tools to engage in civic or political discussion, we are bombarded with advertising and suggested content within the framework of each channel. As well, since these social media channels filter the content we receive (based on various criteria), they are controlling to a significant degree the content we see and don’t see. Individuals, corporations and governments can also pay money to prioritize their content, which pushes other unpaid content down below. This can impact how we view authority and the ways in which we accept or question the world around us.

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Names (and the Role of Memory)

My wife, R, can remember the names of the other children who were in her kindergarten class 35 years ago. She can do the same with most of her teachers and former classmates from Grades 1-12 and also from her undergraduate and graduate courses. However, sometimes she forgets the key details from books she read just a few weeks ago or movies that she’s already watched.

I can only remember the name of one teacher from public school (I’ll blog about why another time) and none from high school or university. I also can’t recall the names of my former classmates, even though I played with many of them on sports teams. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I even forget (albeit temporarily) the names of the people I work with regularly in my office. However, when I was in school, I could easily memorize the information from my school text books, sometimes word for word. And while I struggle tremendously with names, I usually remember people’s faces and the conversations we’ve had, even if they happened many years earlier.

In social settings, the ability to remember names is viewed as a positive attribute. I don’t believe the same is true for memorizing conversations. Perhaps I’m easily forgettable, but sometimes I meet a person who doesn’t seem to recognize me but I can easily recall a conversation we had years earlier. It would likely just freak them out if I took a moment to outline the details of our previous discussion. Although, I suppose it’s quite possible that they’re just pretending not to remember me.

At work, I occasionally let people tell me the same news or information a second or third time, even though I know exactly what they’re going to say. I suppose that’s weird, but this lets me shift my attention away from their words and focus instead on their expressions and body language, which I’m not always good at interpreting.

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Labels

Stranger: “Excuse me, I see your son is flapping his arms. Does he have autism?”

Me: “He’s actually quite happy and excited at the moment. I hope you’ve found something to be happy about today as well.”

I may be overreacting, but I’m starting to get annoyed when people ask whether someone has autism. The way I see it, our social identity is generally based on how others view us and the labels they assign to us. So when we refer to a “child with autism,” this can lead others to regard autism as something bad that happens to people or that afflicts them, such as an illness or disease, and also suggests that it’s something that can be cured or fixed.

If you don’t believe this happens, take a look at this feature from CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/autism-9-warning-signs-every-parent-should-know/. Actually, don’t even click on the link. It’s horrible. These are the first two sentences: “Parents fear autism, and rightly so. The mysterious brain disorder devastates a child’s ability to speak and interact with others.”

I find this so, so, so, so offensive.

Given that autism is a neurological difference, it’s not something that can be taken away or healed. As such, there is no such thing as a “child with autism,” but instead an autistic child. It’s not something you have, but something you are. When I read media reports such as the CBS feature referenced above, I get quite frustrated as I think they only contribute further to the exclusion and objectification of autistic people.

Although the use of “autistic” still contributes to identity, the meaning is subject to change. This emphasis recognizes that language not only shapes how we view the world, but also constructs it for us. Just as our cultural understanding of blackness or femininity changes continually, so, too, can our understanding of autism adapt over time. The signifier “autistic” can also contribute to the self-identity of autistic people, as autism is part of who they are as opposed to something they have.

As someone who is neurotypical (I think), I obviously can’t speak for autistic people, but I do want to ensure I love and value my son for who he is without trying to turn him into someone he isn’t. As my friend Rhonda noted the other week, it’s time we move away from autism awareness and embrace autism acceptance instead.

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Status Anxiety

“What do you do?” When meeting someone for the first time, this is one of the first questions we usually ask. There’s a sense that once we discover what people do for a living, we will have a better idea of who they are and what value they offer to the world.

Living in a status-driven society, we also quickly determine—whether consciously or unconsciously—our station in relation to others. Are we more or less important? Who is in a position of authority? Are these people worthy of my respect and admiration?

Some of us may take this a step further and wonder—and perhaps worry—what others think of us. Do they acknowledge my importance? Do they view me as successful? Do they recognize my special skills or abilities?

It’s a sad reality that many people treat others according to how they perceive their level of status. As such, we have a vested interest in achieving excellence and power as this generally results in people treating us better.

When our happiness depends on how people perceive us (and possessing what they have), we become afflicted with what Alain de Botton refers to as “status anxiety.” In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton outlines five major causes that lead to this social disease (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, dependence) and then offers five solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, bohemianism).

De Botton argues that the constant struggle to stand out in the crowd and be different usually only leads to bitterness, shame and depression. While every person is unique, it is still necessary to find commonality with others and build community.

“So it is that belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way,” writes Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. “It is the place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.”

In his opening thesis, de Botton suggests that “the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”

As someone still learning how to be humble, I do not wish to hunger for status or position. However, I do want to use my talents and abilities in ways that are meaningful and life-giving, not only for me but also for others. I suppose the simplest way to express this is that I want to feel useful and make a difference in the world without striving to be powerful or important.

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