The future of democracy in the digital age: my reflections on parrhesia as a moral competence in democratic education

Introduction

The topic of this essay can, in itself, be seen as both painfully self-explanatory and instantly problematic. You would think the education practiced in democratic societies automatically would be considered democratic, since the social and political climate alone provides the democratic environment for said education. I would like to problematize that this is not the case; that we need to update not only the democratic education system, but the practice of democracy in this, our social construction of reality, as well as the lack or parrhesia, or at least the lack of knowledge of parrhesia in the education system.

Herein also lies the problematisation of the essay’s title. The practical use of media rituals reminiscent of contemporary parrhesia can be seen and heard every day, and the political use of parrhesia in media is not to be underestimated.

The reason I have chosen to write about contemporary parrhesia in democratic society and education should be of interest to all who harbour even the slightest desire to keep humanity together and healthy. We need to be aware of the cracks appearing in the foundation of democracy – the rise of extreme political groups (DeSimone, 2019), of the escalated digital surveillance (Malik, 2019), and the increasingly cavalier everyday censorship we know as digital algorithms. Parrhesia, and the absolutely necessary steps democratic education must in order to save democracy, will be argued for in this essay.

Thus, we need to talk about parrhesia.

             Thesis

Parrhesia should be taught as a mandatory, moral competence in democratic education. Democracy as we know it is currently under political and social threat, and to defend it and the rights of the citizens within, we need not only to be able to voice our opinions, but to connect with and to understand one another.

Democracy is the political structure where, even though the symbolic power remains within a government, the people of the state choose whomever they want to sit in said government. Democracies are, by default, keeping up the civil and moral rights and duties of their citizens, as well as to the best of their abilities cooperating with other states and institutions with the best interest of their citizens at heart. For the sake of clarity, when in this essay I discuss the social construction of reality, I not only suggest the physical and imminent social surroundings, but also the digital version of ourselves and our lives. Since the introduction of social media, this virtual part of reality has grown and become an indisputable part in many people’s lives and identities, especially when discussion younger generations, their social lives and behavioural patterns.

Parrhesia, meaning ‘to say everything’ (Foucault, 1983), is the concept in focus in this essay. Parrhesia is usually considered a trademark of whistle-blowers, and has been seen as a defining trait of democracy: that voices of critique and truth can and should be heard. When thinking of contemporary parrhesia in this instance, Greta Thunberg, Jessikka Aro and Edward Snowden come to mind, if we consider whistle-blowers parrhesiastes.

The concept of parrhesia is not quite that simple, though. Since the rise of digitalisation and the increased use of social media, large parts of our lives have become increasingly influenced by digitalisation, and most of all, by algorithms.

             Algorithms always

Isaac Newton’s idea that every action requires an each and opposite reaction can almost be applied to digital data, but instead of an opposite reaction, every action shapes the patterns all future actions will take. In the digital world, the reaction of each action isn’t opposite – it’s a continuum. These continuums are more commonly known as algorithms: behavioural patterns that neatly categorise people with pretty, clean labels and little room for discussion and doubt about identity and truth.

Algorithms gave birth to the world of cookies and filter bubbles. While cookies and bubbles sound nice and cute, the reality isn’t quite that picturesque. Or rather, it can be, if that’s the only thing we want to see. Algorithms work in our favour, like so. When surfing the web, every movement is data to be collected and categorised, further generating similar content to what we apparently want to see. In a way, this data is inherently equal and liberal. It sees no age, race, gender or social class – only behavioural patterns and routines.

And through these patterns, our digitally generated social construction of reality becomes filtered into increasingly similar content, until we only see reassuring messages that strengthen our perception of reality and ourselves. Filter bubbles become echo chambers where people get confirmation of their beliefs, instead of challenging them. It becomes something akin to an aesthetic and social tunnel vision (El-Bermawy, 2018).

Whatever has this to do with parrhesia? Before digitalisation, the occasional parrhesia was indeed game-changing in the social and political landscape. It reminds one of postmodernism, that turned the known world upside down, but back then parrhesia didn’t appear in an uninterrupted flow of reality. There were no personalised filter bubbles; communities didn’t exist in a virtual reality, but in a more closely knit, physical one; and media was not mainly marketing services and allegedly free online content.

Now, amid the digitally constructed comfort that is our pleasant, known world, parrhesia is an unwelcomed cold shower (think ice bucket challenge à la year 2014). It is undesirable, not because it is a disturbing addition to our social construction of reality, but because it disrupts the known borders of this reality that is comfortably generated by algorithms (and capitalist structures).

Contemporary parrhesia is not a part of what most of society considers to be normal. Ergo, compliance to individualised versions of social reality is the socially accepted norm. Compliance of the mind is a sort of censorship. Of course we cannot run wild and do whatever our hearts desire without any consideration of the consequences on ourselves or society, that would be chaos. But in a scenario where compliance, not critique, is the normative behavioural trait, democracy loses some of its initial value. This compliance is a result of our digital tunnel vision, and to some extent, of social media.

             #contemporary parrhesia

The virtual construction of reality has merged with the social construction of reality, as seen by younger generation’s increased anxiety and struggles with identity and the political polarisation (Hari, 2018); Instagram is even in the midst of updating one of the app’s key features in hope to spare individuals of social pressure and anxiety. In a world where capitalist corporations are the reinforcer of values, digital media is pouring gasoline on a roaring fire. Changing one feature in the app is a nice gesture, but it’s like switching out gasoline for diesel. It still burns.

Social media is, however, only part of the problem. The main issue is still the filter bubble, the algorithm within which ideas grow like bacteria and multiply like so. Fixing problems within a structure doesn’t fix the problems of the structure. But when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Contemporary parrhesia can be anyone who goes against that mediated social construction of reality (because media has no small role in this digitated world). Anyone breaking the ice on a previously unvisited topic will suffice for the role. For the sake of argument, let’s compare two versions of supposed contemporary parrhesia, polarised and opposite versions of the same reality: Greta Thunberg, and Neo-Nazism.

We have, for instance, Greta Thunberg, an activist turned climate icon, her every speech and move carefully calculated to provoke certain instances, as well to fuel the fires of environmentalism. Media’s part in her journey is not unimportant: in fact, it is the constructor to the orchestra that is the uproar of climate change. And the intense political discussion follows, like a well-trained puppy dog. Contemporary parrhesia, by courtesy of Thunberg et al., is to voice critical opinion. This is also one of the reasons why Neo-Nazism has gained momentum again.

Neo-Nazis can be seen as another form of modern parrhesia. They appear brave, because everyone else seem like cowards. Thunberg falls into the same category, drawing attention also due to her age, gender and stubbornness, but for the same reason as the Neo-Nazis can be considered contemporary parrhesia. They criticise, and they offer radical solutions, not lukewarm politically correct statements. But again, we must consider media’s role in all of this. Is Thunberg and Neo-Nazis parrhesia, or do they only seem that way because of the media coverage?

Michel Foucault’s definition of parrhesia states that parrhesia should be spoken clearly and concisely to mediate the speaker’s distinct and subjective opinion. But most importantly, the parrhesiastes speaks sincerely not only his or her opinion, but the truth. He or she knows the unequivocal truth (Foucault, 1983).

In light of this, my previous examples of supposed contemporary parrhesia are completely off the mark. Thunberg and Neo-Nazis do not speak the undisputed truth. They speak opinions based on algorithms, social constructions of reality and biased truths. At least we can assume they do, until their arguments are proven to be founded in logic and knowledge.

Consider the demonstrators in Hong Kong, desperately fighting to protect their democratic rights and duties in vain (Victor, 2019). This is both the demonstrator’s opinions, as well as the objective truth. One might not help but wonder where their media coverage is.

             Solution

Parrhesia, as Foucault defined it, is when you at great personal risk and possibly with threats against your person, voice your opinion. Now we look back at the earlier definition of ‘democracy’ found at the beginning of this essay: a democracy’s most important feature is that the true power remains within the voice of the people. In a democracy, every citizen has the right, privilege and duty to voice his or her opinion.

This would imply that in a truly democratic society, parrhesia would not exist – it would be redundant to define it as a concept, since no opinion of yours could put you in danger. In a truly democratic society, you do not have to be afraid of saying your piece – it is a given right to do so.

The problem with parrhesia is that it’s both part of a solution, and part of building a steadier foundation for the problem it was intended to fix. On one hand, it supports freedom of speech, power of the proletariat, and artistic freedom. On the other hand, it undermines democracy, since it by default should not exist in a true democracy, and a ritualised version of parrhesia can therefore be used to strengthen censorship and filter bubbles, as we’ve seen happening with Thunberg and Neo-Nazis.

To find a solution to the political polarisation and the potentially misconstrued parrhesia, we must problematise the meaning of truth and education. Democratic society would be well off implementing sociology and anthropology in its curriculum, to deepen the understanding of both micro- and macroconstructions in society, and to broaden the horizons of our understanding of class and culture.

It would also be gravely advisable to fix social media and the structures that are behind them. Christian Fuchs suggests a version of a true social media, where a classless society would become the grounds of a truly equal society; to prioritise the people’s needs before profit (Fuchs, 2014). Basically, we should use social media to conflict convictions, instead of endlessly confirming them.

Still, parrhesia today is not truly the voice of radicalism and of accusation against one another. Contemporary parrhesia is the critique of said radicalism, the analyst of our social construction of reality, and to threat and censor this criticism is to prove one’s dedication to totalitarianism, and one’s complete disregard for democratic societal cooperation and the sustainable social environment that would follow.

Voicing your opinions is not a weakness of democracy; it is a strength. There is something deeply wrong with a democracy when voicing your opinion is seen as something heroic. You are not supposed to be considered a martyr for standing up for your values, and more importantly, for standing up for other’s rights to disagree with you. It should be an undisputed right.

             Conclusion

Parrhesia, as an extension of freedom of speech and critical thinking, should be taught as a moral competence in democratic education, because democracy is only democratic as long as we fight for the right to voice our opinion, and even more to fight for the right of others to voice their opinions when their opinions do not agree with our own.

Parrhesia should not necessarily be seen as a ‘whistleblower rhetoric’, but as a way to form and voice opinions in a pertinent manner, on behalf of those who cannot for one reason or another voice their opinions themselves. Since it is every democratic citizen’s right and duty to have an opinion, and be allowed to voice that opinion, he or she should also be able to argue for that opinion. Parrhesia should be taught because rhetoric, language and logic should be implemented into every democratic mind, not because it should be a dangerous thing to say an opinion, but to say an opinion without grounds. And according to this year’s new Pisa results, we are in dire need of more rhetoric and understanding.

The democracy we live in today is not truly democratic. In some places in the world – like Finland – democracy is feeling better, while it’s on the verge of breaking apart in Hong Kong, if it hasn’t already. Discussing Thunberg and Neo-Nazism seems juvenile when compared to the social and political tragedy of the demonstrators in Hong Kong. They are true contemporary parrhesia. And they also prove, unfortunately, that we need to fight for democracy if we want to keep it. It’s surprisingly fragile.

True social media (alongside a toppled capitalist system), would together with this increased tradition to ground ideas and opinions in fact, logic and with compassion to others, bring towards a truly democratic society. Naturally, there will always be those who disagree with us, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since conflict can be used to propel development and compromise and ultimately give way for a solution more suitable for all involved, not only a selected few.

We need parrhesia today, but we shouldn’t need to need it. Disagreeing, offending, forgiving, compromising, these are things humans do when they come together no matter time or place. It’s not the end of the world; in fact, it’s the beginning of it, because we’re trying to have a society here, and all are welcome. We need to implement parrhesia as a moral competence in democratic education; because, I quote, in lack of more intellectual propaganda, the original High School Musical;

‘we’re all in this together.’

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

DeSimone, Victoria, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2019. From the Ground Up: Combatting the Rise of Right-Wing Terror
Published 1.10.2019. Referred to 3.12.2019 https://www.csis.org/ground-combatting-rise-right-wing-terror

El-Bermawy, Mostafa M., Wired, 2016. Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy
Published 11.18.2016. Referred 3.12.2019 https://www.wired.com/2016/11/filter-bubble-destroying-democracy/

Foucault, Michel (lecture series), Berkeley, 1983. Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia
Referred the 03.12.2019 https://foucault.info/parrhesia//

Fuchs, Christian, Sage, 2014. Social Media: A Critical Introduction

Hari, Johann, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Lost Connections

Malik, Keenan, The Guardian, 2019. Think only totalitarian regimes spy on their citizens?
Published 22.09.2019. Referred the 03.12.2019

Victor, Daniel, The New York Times, 2019. Why Are People Protesting in Hong Kong?
Published 13.11.2019. Referred the 03.12.2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/world/asia/hong-kong-protests.html

 

This essay was written 3.12.2019 as part of the course Critical Media Analysis, taught by Matteo Stocchetti, at Arcada University of Applied Sciences. The train of thought, though incomplete, and the opinions presented above are mine alone.

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