Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Reconciling in the Public Sphere

Written by: on September 27, 2012


In the second half of Anthony Elliott’s book, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction,” I found myself intrigued by much of the writings of Jurgen Habermas and how his views with media, the bourgeois, theology and feminism.

In his work entitled, “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason,” Habermas makes a powerful statement. He writes, “Language is always oriented by and towards mutual agreement and consensus.” Later, he also contends that, “In every speech, however shaped by power, interest, validity claims are raised and reciprocally recognized.” While these may be lofty words, they possess the sound of great rhetoric without the weight of much truth.

In my own experience, I have found that in much of what is called debate today; most people are merely interested in forwarding their person opinions as fact, and forcing those views as truth that the other party must also embrace without question. Take for example an interview that I saw on MSNBC, while it was not intended to be a debate that is exactly what it turned into between Pierce Morgan and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One memorable moment was when Morgan asked the question, Mr. President, do you believe that the Holocaust was an actual historical event? This is one reason many Americans hold fierce contempt for you. Are you willing to admit this error both as a scholar, and a World Leader?

The issue here is not whether one supports Mr. Ahmadinejad, rather, does what Habermas postulate about, language always orienting towards mutual agreement hold any truth? In most circles the answer is no. That is because Morgan’s “question” was an imperialistic statement. In fact, his statement demanded Ahmadinejad’s agreement. Furthermore, the question never anticipated receiving Ahmadinejad’s true assessment about the issue. On what grounds does this kind of language move towards consensus?

Another problematic arena for debate in the public sphere is feminism. In light of Habermas’ contention that, “In every speech, however shaped by power, interest, validity claims are raised and reciprocally recognized,” structural transformation in the public sphere would not find much in common to agree on with feminism. Nor would it find the agreement that Habermas promises.

What mutually held truth, could feminists find with habermas based on a statement such as this, “Masculine identity is built on a denial of primary maternal identification resulting in a fragile sense of self, defensively structured be abstract attitude to the world.” Habermas’ assessment of mutual agreement in the public sphere falls short on two fronts.

1. He argues from a perspective that the public sphere is made up of European white males, which excludes everybody else according to Elliott. 

2. It would also follow then, that because of his initial presumption, he would further presume that his view miscalculates how those who operate from a position of power tend to overestimate their sense of fairness in the public sphere.

Lastly, I was nearly persuaded that I would not find much merit in the social theory of Habermas. However, I found some common ground. As a result, I disagree with Elliott, that alternative worldviews and ideologies have limited impact on the coffee house debate. I accept that the coffee house debate and discourse that Habermas privileges is today taking place in much segmented portions of our populations. That is, conversations in the suburbs of Rancho Palos Verdes Estates CA sounds very different than the ones that are heard in View Park CA or Montebello CA for that matter. All represent highly educated individuals of the bourgeois family; and in fact, all may even work together and share similar economic enjoyments. However, they are segmented by ethnicity, culture and chosen media outlets which influence the conversations in those coffee houses. Habermas on this front is correct. Much of their views are spoon fed from the media. In short, very little critical thinking is actually taking place.

A.W. Tozer says, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” If Habermas is right, and Media has dumbed down critical thinking, then we have a very low opinion of ourselves and therefore, God. In that case, I am left to ponder two questions.

1. How would Habermas’ ideals about debate in the Public Sphere stand up to God’s lofty views of Humanity’s ability to reason and thinks own their own without media administering its thoughts upon humankind?

2. How does theology address the glaring weaknesses that are apparent with the social theory of Habermas?

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