In Search of the Public Sphere

Where do people go to speak and listen to one another, face-to-face, in real-time, in your community?

I want to live in a community where youth and elders gather to discuss the ideas and issues of the day. I imagine rustic ‘city gates’ or the middle of a bustling ‘town square’: places enshrined in common thought as the epicentres of public discourse. Yes, nostalgic as it may be, I want to live in a community that has an identifiable public sphere: a community where the question, ‘Where can I go to discuss ideas with other people?’ has a clear and definable answer. I want to know where people who only seem to share differences go to break bread together.

And yes, I mean a place: a geographic location. And in this place, class, status, and rank have no bearing on the legitimacy of one’s right to hold a view on public opinion. We all show up as nothing more or less than human. This venue is not a virtual parallel or a digital portal. No, this is a place where we discuss issues as mortal beings, face-to-face, not as typists or as brand/identity managers lurking behind our avatars and usernames. This is live theatre for live deliberation.

It seems to me that such a place for public discourse must be ‘held’ together by a community of learners. These ‘practitioners’ are cognizant of the responsibility they have assumed: establishing a truly public physical arena for sharing knowledge and ideas is a task that must be taken up by us, the people, not by the state or corporate actors. The only way we can access such a space is if we create it, and the only way we can maintain such a space is if we protect it. Therefore, this is not a religious community in a spiritual or mythical sense, but it is a ‘creedal’ community in a certain manner of speaking — it is a community that finds common identity in its collective commitment to sharing knowledge and opening discourse.

Where does this community meet? Where are the ‘city gates’ or ‘town square’ in my city? Where is the ‘public sphere of ideas’ made manifest?

I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, but I’m afraid that I am obsessed with these questions. To the best of my ability, I want to contribute to the creation of such spaces. Therefore — iterating on an earlier initiative launched with my local library in February — I am highly invested in a project that kicks into gear this Monday. It is called Curious Public at Central Library.

We’re describing Curious Public at Central Library as ‘a weekly learning party for inquisitive minds and critical thinkers.’ The group convenes every Monday, in open space at the London Public Library. The format for the front half of each session is flexible — panel discussions, interviews, debates, storytellers, public lectures, etc. — but the agenda always lands back on community conversation.

Looking around the world today, I get the sense that we desperately need localized answers to the question, ‘Where is the public space in this city where anybody can go to learn and talk with one another in real-time, every week?’ Curious Public at Central Library surely doesn’t present a ‘solution’ to any of the pressing problems in the world, but it is just another humble attempt to open space to talk about them constructively. In fact, as a ‘program,’ Curious Public is surely flawed on many levels. It has its own blind spots. It doubtlessly requires further critique, tweaking, and iteration. It is not a panacea, nor even an exclusive or unique idea. But everyone is welcome to participate in this mess of becoming. Join us. Come and contribute to the development of a weekly, diverse, public, and curious learning community in our city.

These kinds of places will only exist to the extent that we create them.

Monday, September 11, 2017: A Critique of Multiculturalism – What are the negative or unintended consequences of multiculturalism?

Monday, September 18, 2017: Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? – A primer and discussion about structural violence and discrimination.

Monday, September 25, 2017: My Rights vs. Your Rights – What happens when one person’s human rights seems to violate or compete with another person’s human rights?

Monday, October 2, 2017: How Did Work Become the Point of Life? – Who convinced us all that having a ‘career’ is such a good idea?

Monday, October 16, 2017: Should We Quit Social Media? – When we weight all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

See all upcoming topics at curiouspublic.com.