Where do we go when the public square fractures?
The “fractured public square” refers to the loss of the place where a community discusses ideas, politics and values. The ideal public square can be both a bonding agent and a place where one draws a line in the sand. It’s not necessarily a physical place, but it might be.
What happens when there is no public square, when it keeps fracturing and breaking into smaller places and smaller forums? I’m afraid we are on the way to finding out.
My first trip to Europe a little more than 25 years ago was a grand adventure. One of my fondest memories from that trip was the time spent in literal public squares in European towns large and small. Lori and I stayed for a week in a small seaside town in Spain where she had been a nanny, and she had told me about the “promenade,” a wide walkway along the beach that filled on Sunday afternoons. And it was true. Kids, grandparents, couples, high schoolers, they all came out and walked, talked, hung out, and just came together for hours. We found similar places in town after town, and anyone who has traveled to Europe has probably had a similar experience.
Another strong memory from that trip is the great pleasure and lifeline that I found in reading the International Herald Tribune. The English language newspaper is part of the N.Y. Times, and in those pre-Internet days finding a place that sold it or even getting my hands on a days-old copy was like a ray of sunshine after days of rain. It brought me stories of home, stories of the countries we were visiting, and kept me up to date with the world.
Newspapers, to me, have always been the community’s public square, where news, ideas and issues of great importance are debated. Quality newspapers work very deliberately to inform and present different views, to invite dissent while also censoring out distasteful, personal attacks. We work very hard to get it right.
The digital revolution has weakened the power that newspapers once held in the communities they served. Now, more and more people go online for news, sometimes visiting newspaper websites. But many prefer blogs that cater to their ideas and their politics. Others spend much of their time listening to or reading the arguments of one person, adopting one person’s view as the truth. Everywhere, it seems, people tend to prefer hearing what they want to rather than spending the intellectual energy to learn enough to change their mind.
My point is this: when we seek to understand fewer dissenting opinions, our understanding of the world shrinks correspondingly. The less one is exposed to, the narrower the world view. The irony is that at a time when we all have all the world’s storehouse of knowledge at our fingertips, people are less willing to make concessions for the common good.
The common good. The fracturing of the public square into a place where a wild anarchy of ideas prevails means we will have a hard time coming back together for the common good. We see that happening on the national level. For now, local and regional papers are part of the glue that holds smaller public squares together. We shall see what the future holds.