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Responsibility and Tolerance at Stake

From the argument developed above we shall move on to discussing why public reason should be tolerated, as opposed to fictitious public. Tolerance is here based on a positive account of it (Addis 1997). Much in line with the positive account of freedom Addis' concept of positive tolerance requires action or engagement. Another concept for positive tolerance applied by Addis is 'pluralistic solidarity' (Addis 1997).5 Briefly, to tolerate means to engage with those we disagree with, not only to leave them alone, or allow them to remain aliens. According to this understanding tolerance requires genuine communication, i.e. connecting with others' opinions. Lack of such a relation does not necessarily call for disrespect, though. The point here is to identify what expressions should count as worthy of dialogical engagement, and thus become part of public reason.

Breivik's Manifesto clearly appears not to be meant for public reason in our sense. The message is a claim on an unchallenged truth or ideology about the state of the arts for Europe in particular. The primary aim in his mind is to save Europe from the threat of dangerous ideologies, in particular the Muslim. But isn't such a fear legitimate, and why would it not be worthy of respect or tolerance? I will try to clarify this point by comparing Breivik with another character whose opinions were also not challenged by opposing viewpoints.

Stefan Arkadievitch vs. Anders Behring Breivik

The character to be compared to Breivik is Stephan Arkadievitch, a fictional character in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. He never changed his mind, or the newspapers he used to read. He never questioned the sources that he made use of for being informed. He picked the newspapers that suited his class and his position. Thus, he never run the risk of being forced (by some better argument) to change, and even less to improve, his opinions. If he changed opinions it was solely due to the papers he read—and any such change he compared to changing his hat! (Tolstoy 1886). In this character we see the kind of citizen that gives rise to the problem of the public. Even though Breivik, unlike Arkadievitch is deeply involved with political issues, they are both operating in a way that demonstrates the problem of the public.

The relevant similarity in the two cases is that 'technologies' in some sense seem to prevent them from being better informed. While Tolstoy's character believes that he is being sufficiently well informed through the media channels available to him, Breivik in a similar way acts as a media institution himself (cf. Cass Sunstein's Dailey Me). Relevant information that could have informed them better is clearly missing in both of these two cases.

We are normally used to thinking that public institutions like medias not only provide us with relevant information, but as well that they provide us with improved qualified information. Neither Arkadievitch nor Breivik, however, seem to bear witness to becoming better informed or more knowledgeable in a relevant sense. Like in Breivik's case, Tolstoy's character also access only the information he wants to, i.e. he always reads the papers that will confirm his preconceived viewpoints, according to what he has defined in advance to be suitable for someone of his position. Like Arkadievitch, Breivik also sticks to opinions he already accepts to be true. In a similar manner they both avoid having their viewpoints challenged by opposing opinions. In a likewise manner both Breivik and Tolstoy's character seem to be immune to counterarguments, and they both appear to stick to the opinions that are predicated, either by the class one belongs to (Arkadievitch) or by the person himself (Breivik). Still, I shall argue that there is a relevant difference between the two cases: referring to what is suitable to one's own class or position presupposes some communicative relation to the surrounding community, as opposed to Breivik's case, as the latter seems to be more or less secluded from any communicative community.

There are two related, but still different phenomena involved in this comparison. On the one hand there is the possibility and risk of filtering, which certainly differ in the two cases, but this difference is one of degree. Stefan Arkadievitch' opinions are based on a high degree of filtering, and so are Anders Behring Breivik's opinions, although to an even higher degree. However, when it comes to seclusion there is a difference between the two cases, which is not only one of degree, but also of quality. This difference is the one described above, which I have spoken of as a difference between a real and a fictitious public. The Breivik case is not only a media problem as such, rather it has to do with a blind belief in the possibility of creating a public by way of new technologies. Thus the digital transition and the new medias seem to add something to Dewey's old problem of the public[1].

  • [1] At this point I would like to point to Luciano Floridi's concept of hyperhistory which I find helpful in grasping the radical difference between medias before and after the digital transition. Floridi makes the point the hyperhistory is characterised by social wellbeing being dependent on ICT. Following this line of thought we may view Breivik as a grotesque illustration of this point. Had he lived in history—e.g. at Stefan Arkadievitch' time—it's doubtful whether medias by then would have contributed to his wellbeing the way the Internet has made possible.
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