public voice online

I am writing this post in a public voice. I don’t expect to know most of my readers; therefore, I try to say something that might interest at least a subset of the whole population–a “public.” I hope not only to interest readers, but to influence their behavior in ways that are relevant to shared or common concerns. I avoid obscure references to my own life and completely personal issues and interests.

It’s not the number of visitors that makes my voice “public.” When I wrote my first blog post almost three four years ago, I expected hardly anyone to read it. Nevertheless, I tried to use a public style. In contrast, a MySpace user may have 100 “friends” and attract a thousand hits a day, but because he adopts a highly personal tone and talks about private matters, his voice isn’t a public one.

A public voice is a potential source of influence and even power. Young people must be deliberately taught to communicate publicly. Otherwise, their communications in public spaces (such as the Internet and community meetings) will be ineffective. But private discourse is also valuable, and we should be able to keep it confidential. Thus, for instance, email and instant-messaging should be protected against most forms of evesdropping so that private discourse can stay that way.

I am arguing, in short, for a distinction between public and private voice. I realize that this distinction is problematic. When it developed in the 17th-19th centuries, the border between the public and the private was gerrymandered to protect privilege. For instance, everything pertaining to the family was considered private, hence not of concern to outsiders–which meant that fathers and husbands could dominate in their own homes and no one else had enforceable rights. But the fact that the line between public and private is problematic doesn’t mean that we should abandon it altogether. People should be able to use new media for purely private, intimate expression; they should also know how to use the Internet for public purposes.

Some contemporary theorists define public communication in highly stringent and demanding ways. According to J?rgen Habermas (or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson), speaking publicly imposes a set of obligations. When in “the public sphere,” one must advance arguments that any rational person can accept. That means that one may not express arbitrary opinions, assert purely selfish interests, or appeal to authorities–such as Scripture–that others reject. One may not shift positions when speaking to different audiences or give reasons that contradict one’s conclusions. On this view, the public speaker is a kind of ethical and rational legislator, addressing an assembly of peers on matters of public concern.

These definitions seem much too stringent for the practical purpose that interests me, which is teaching young people to be reasonably effective in public domains. I would define a “public voice” as any style or tone that has a chance of persuading any other people (outside of one’s intimate circle) about shared matters, issues, or problems. This broad definition encompasses topics beyond conventional politics. For example, bad software is a shared concern; and one can write a blog to persuade others about how to fix technical problems. Bad customer service can be a public issue if one chooses to address or organize one’s fellow customers instead of complaining privately to the company. In these cases, one’s voice is “public” even though the issues belong to the private sector.

We may disagree about which topics are legitimate for public discussion. For instance, disclosing one’s own sexual history may be inappropriate–or it may be a means of challenging prejudices and limits. Despite these disagreements, however, it is pretty clear that standard MySpace chatter is (or ought to be) private. But most good blogs are public. And young people need to understand the difference.