Have we become unreasonable?
In democracies around the world anxious commentators exhort their fellow citizens to be more open-minded – more willing to engage in good-faith debate.
In our era of hyperpolarisation – social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues – many have turned to civility as the missing ingredient in our public life.
So how important is civility for democracy?
According to one of the greatest theorists of the democratic public sphere – the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas – not very.
Habermas is deeply concerned with protecting our ability to solve problems through the use of reason.
Yet he believes that democracy is best served when the public sphere is left open – anarchic and conflictual.
For Habermas, the function of public debate is not to find a reasonable common ground.
Rather the public sphere ‘is a warning system’ – a set of ‘sensors’ that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus.
And if we worry too much about civility and the reasonable middle we risk limiting the ability of the public sphere to detect new political claims.
To get those claims on the agenda in the first place often requires uncivil and confrontational political tactics.