Tolerance of Real or Fictitious Publics?

From the above I shall assume that Stefan Arkadievitch participates in a real public, as opposed to Anders Behring Breivik who is a member of a fictitious public, mainly unfolding in virtual environments. The main distinction between the two 'realities' is not, however, whether they are virtual as opposed to real, but rather whether thay are fictitious as opposed to public. The use of reason is still to some extent public in Arkadievitch' case, while fictitious as far as Breivik is concerned. However, although the virtual character of the communication is not the main source of the problem, there still seems to be a non-trivial connection between virtual environments and a fictitious public, as virtual realities appear to be a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for fictitiousness.

It could easily be argued that the distinction between the real and the fictitious equals the difference that could be drawn between the real and the virtual.7 This is, however, misleading, as a virtual reality may very well be communicative in e.g. a Habermasian sense, where communication is based on public use of reason. As an example there have been several occasions of political activist actions starting with mobilizing people in a virtual world online before spreading offline (Thorseth 2006). By contrast, the public in Breivik's case is based in fictitious use of reason, while pretending to make appeals to a real and universal audience.

As mentioned earlier, Cass Sunstein and many others have written extensively on the problem of filtering and group polarisation. A distinction between real and virtual worlds is anticipated to be the relevant distinction, and the virtual tends to be associated with a radical threat to public reason. From the arguments above I shall claim that this is partly misconceived, as the real threat rather has to do with fictitious publics. Against this one could of course object that the fictitious character needs not necessarily be associated with a threat to public reason since there need not necessarily be an internal link between extreme ideologies and their fictitiousness. This is the reason for my claim that the fictitious character should be procedurally defined. The fictitious character of a claimed public should be defined by its communicative methods. As a consequence it is an open issue whether fictitious publics need to prevail.

This procedural criterion is based on an argument developed in Thorseth, arguing in favour of a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate paternalism in polyethnic conflicts (Thorseth 1999). Briefly, the salient point is that a claim on publicizability is basic to recognition. Unwillingness to discuss publicly what has already become contested in the public domain is in some cases based on procedural fundamentalism, as e.g. depriving others of autonomous “yes” of “no”[1]. Here I want to establish that real and virtual publics are not moral opposites, while the contrast between real and fictitious clearly is: a qualified “yes” of “no” may be genuine or real in a virtual world, even though the consenter knows that a simulation is going on. This is different in the fictitious case where alternative options of choice seem to be missing. As an example, people may very well be able to produce their Daily Me while still being aware that they are making this choice consciously. In Breivik's case, like many other fundamentalist cases we have no good reason to believe that their Daily Me results from a non-conscious choice, rather the opposite. This may be so whether they act in a real or a virtual world, i.e. whether they address a real or a virtual audience. The upshot of this argument is then that the real/virtual distinction is not of vital importance in defining the real/fictitious distinction. This may sound trivial, but I believe it is no, as the virtual character of the new media technologies is often believed to be the main source of damage to public reason. Virtuality may be associated with creativity and offer possibilities of broadened reasoning, while the fictitionality described above rather tends to work in an opposite direction.9 As for now the salient point is the ways fictitious publics diverge from real publics in our discussion of public use of reason.

One serious concern discussed in this paper is the risk of a real confusion of arguments as if they were part of public reason. In the aftermath of the Breivik case this risk has been expressed in terms of the influence this case—both the Manifesto and the trial—has on a broader public of people holding extreme ideological viewpoints. I shall argue that this risk of private use of reason as if it were public is part of the problem of the public in the realm of digital transition. Recalling Onora O'Neill's concept of publicizability and Kant's distinction between private and public use of reason she claims that publicizable communication is “in principle accessible to the world at large and can be debated without invoking authority”. The universalizability claim attached to this constraint certainly is absent in Breivik's case.

  • [1] This claim is based on Habermas' argument against apriorily defined group rights because autonomous accept or refusal may thereby be curtailed. As an example, everyone should be allowed not to consent to norms and practices that have hitherto been passed over from previous generations (Habermas1994)
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