In Search of the Public Sphere

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.

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Curiosity

Someday I want to convene a debate about curiosity. The question on the floor will be this: is curiosity normative or descriptive?

To think of curiosity as normative is to believe that curiosity is good and desirable. In this case, to say, “I am a curious person,” does not only mean that I am open to new knowledge, but it implies that my willingness to learn is better than your self-assured certainty.

To think of curiosity as descriptive is to think of curiosity as a neutral, value-free definition. In this case, to say, “I am a curious person,” means that I am open to new knowledge, but I don’t think my eagerness for learning is any better than your insistence on partisan, intolerant precepts.

If my curiosity is normative, then I think that you ought to be curious, too. If my curiosity is descriptive, then I am willing to learn from you, regardless of your insistent, incurious, and obstinate opinions.

Here’s another way to put it: does being open-minded mean that you are humbly interested in listening to the stalwart conclusions of close-minded people? Or does describing yourself as open-minded inherently imply that open-mindedness is the most appropriate way to live?

If curiosity is descriptive, curiosity might be no more than a personality trait or idiosyncratic characteristic that is no better or worse than its opposite.

If curiosity is normative, then perhaps we need to understand curiosity as something more like an ideology or dogma.

I think this would be a good debate because I suspect many of us do not appreciate just how disruptive and unsettling curiosity itself can be to our little, idealist cults of curiosity.

If you are unwilling to question the merit of curiosity, are you in fact curious?

If you are unwilling to listen to close-minded people, are you in fact open-minded?

Is curiosity a bias or a belief?

Perhaps, in the end, we might conclude that descriptive curiosity ought to be normative. But this proposition seems like a rather mind-splintering assault on logic itself, leaving us no further recourse than to be curious about the coherence of our conclusion.

So, what do you say? If you were going to debate the motion, would you say that curiosity is normative or descriptive? Or perhaps a better way to frame the question: do you think everyone should be curious? Either way you answer the question, the implications are fascinating.

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I Don’t Know

“I don’t know” is the strength of honesty: the courageous confidence that one does not need to appear certain.

“I don’t know” is true intellectual opportunity: the essential ignorance that is the gateway to discovery.

“I don’t know” is willingness to disregard ungrounded assumptions: it is the bedrock of curious inquiry.

Of course, I am not speaking here of ignorance as a willful or wanton disregard of knowledge, but rather of ignorance as the starting point for exploration. The less I purport to know, the more potential I have to learn. It is this sense that ignorance is the spine of learning although, unfortunately, ignorance has become vilified and ignoramus is considered an insult.

The world punishes ignorance. We judge professionals on the comprehensiveness of their knowledge. We grade academic performance on the rote acquisition of the right answers. We crucify leadership who cannot think fast and give an instant answer on the spot.

However, for all our obsession with knowledge, we sometimes forget how much we might be able to learn — and correct our thinking — by admitting how little we actually know. Even though the phrase “I don’t know” has fallen into critical disrepute, don’t be afraid to use it today.

(This post originally appeared in Caesura Letters Volume II: All That We Are, released 03/20/2013)

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Cognitive Bias Codex

There is no shortage of infographics in the world today. But I keep returning to this one. I find myself referencing it one conversation after another. Regardless of the topic or the argument, it is perennially relevant.

The graphic is quite simple, based on Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases. The image groups the known cognitive biases in to four categories: too much information, not enough meaning, the need to act quickly, and the limits of memory. The stroke of genius are 20 subsection descriptors, such as “To avoid mistakes we aim to preserve autonomy and group status”, “We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories”, and “We are drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs”. The cognitive biases themselves then form the data core of the illustration. Scientifically speaking, these categories and subsections are arbitrary, but artistically and aesthetically they are quite interesting.

If you are thinking that this image would be a great reminder to adorn the walls of your office or classroom, that’s an option: 188 different cognitive biases, unified into one conceptual model and condensed into a single piece of educational art.

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