Taking popularity seriously

Published 1 May 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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news on laptopThe horrifying incident of Jose Matada, who recently fell to his death from the undercarriage of an aeroplane, spurred me to click through the online newspaper landscape in the UK. Reading about the background to and timeline of this incident I tried, for a moment, to factor out all speculative explanations and potential reasons as to why something like this had happened. I tried to ignore an individual’s (Jose Matada in this case) conviction of surviving a hazardous journey, the security measures in the country of departure, the root causes that led to an ultimately horrifying incident.  Instead, I scrolled further down to the section of the articles where one can find responses by readers and I was (not for the first time though) astonished by the cynical outrage that a large number of comments conveyed.

I have observed on other occasions that comment sections demonstrate very high levels of xenophobia mixed with cynicism. However, in connection to this particular incident that symbolises despair and distress, I had not expected this kind of venom. A venom born mainly of economic concerns. To show a (rather moderate) example from the online version of The Independent: “Well it saved the British taxpayer a small fortune…” For this comment the person received criticism to which he responded with: “I didn't ask the parasite to get on the plane but nice deflection. We all know you'd be thinking the same if YOU were told you had to pay for his housing, health care and benefits […]”

The power of the popular
One could certainly argue that these comment sections are mostly made up by a group of people that seeks attention or seeks to affront others and should therefore not be taken seriously. However, the above quoted comment received one of the highest numbers of ‘fans’. In other words this commenter enjoys popularity and undersApplaudingtandably feels confirmed or supported in her/his views. In a way history has taught us that popularity and populism of any kind should be taken seriously. Taking this further, doesn't the same logic apply for some newspaper outlets in the UK? Aren’t articles written on highly significant political issues, framed in such a way that they fuel xenophobia? It could be argued that articles that affront some people in the country or affront other participants of the political discourse, gain validity by by being sold in high volumes. I would claim that tabloid newspapers should be taken very seriously indeed – since they are popular (The Daily Mail and The Sun outstrip the circulation figures of all other papers by a long way), they are ‘liked’ – they are in fact major actors in the UK political discourse.

Rates vs responsbility
Another question came to my mind: what for? What is the purpose and reasoning behind these newspapers and journalists participating in the political discourse in this way? Simple answer: market logics apply. These newspapers are providing what the market wants. That is understandable and acceptable. However, as a significant contributors to the political discourse, shouldn't they be more responsible? Thinking about this kind of discourse participation in the framework of political theory and discourse theory, as for instance the Theory of Communicative Action by Jürgen Habermas, one gets the following result: this form of participation is in breach with almost all normative demands explained by this body of theory which aims at an ‘ethical discourse’.

In fact only one normative demand is in line with this kind of participation and that is the demand of no existing barriers to enter the discourse, i.e. entirely free participation for all actors. All other demands including rationality, respect, empathy and authenticity are in breach. To cut a potentially long story short: the normative ‘ethical discourse’ embedded in this highly complex theory is relatively simple. The bottom line is that togetherness; building together a political discourse that takes all views and actors into account, should be constructive and not destructive. Quo vadis?