The new French Revolution

What happens when there is no room for a public sphere to exist and citizens are left feeling disenfranchised, alienated and unempowered? A revolution. And, the signs are beginning to show.

The recent incident involving actor-comedian Michael Richard, also known as Kramer in the hit television series Seinfeld, was devastated after he used a series of racial slurs against hecklers at the laugh Factory on Nov. 17. A video of the incident appeared on the celebrity news website and on YouTube, a public video archive used by millions of people. This forced the actor to make an impromptu appearance on the David Letterman show almost immediately following the incident to apologize. This was also posted to public video archives on the Internet. Rather than resolve the problem, it fuelled further anger and debate.

There is little new about catching celebrities off guard and publicly humiliating them. It is the fuel driving countless tabloid publications worldwide.

But, there are a growing number of incidents where people are capturing video or pictures of other types of authority figures, that is people who are viewed as being “above the rest of us”, and placing them on public video archives like YouTube.

Take for example, Professor Carole Chauncey at Ryerson University, who reaches a senior information technology management class. A two-minutes video made available on YouTube. An exchange between the class and the instructor was captured via a cell phone and then posted. This sparked a reaction from the university’s academic council and by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Then, there is the Quebec school ban on cellphone after a YouTube video appears. A Gatineau teachers went on stress leave and the school banned personal electronic devices in the class room after a video of him shouting at a student was posted on the YouTube website. Two 13-year old girls were suspended.

But that is not all. An impromptu back rub that President George W. Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel also made its way to and countless blogs. It shows Bush surprising Merkel at the G-8 summit by quickly rubbing the back of her neck and shoulders. Merkel immediately hunches her shoulders, throws her arms up and grimaces, though she appears to smile as Bush walks away.

These are just a few examples. What is striking is the way ordinary people are using this technology to embarrass authority figures or those who are held up as important in our society. Like the aristocrats of France, the plebeians are using YouTube as a guillotine, publicly beheading them to gain a false sense of justice. In a very crude way, it is a form of accountability, but also an empowering tool that leaves those in authority scrambling to prevent further embarrassment.

And, it is effective. In all cases, it has garnered attention and created massive debate about the subject and issues at stake. But, at what cost? And, is it truly justice?

The public sphere is meant to be a place where, ideally, rational-critical discourse takes place. In Jurgen Habermas’ vision, we come together to discuss issues of concern and participate in democratic life as equals. It is egalitarian and inclusive.

While YouTube, MySpace, Second Life and other technology, like blogging software, can be viewed as liberating for millions as they express themselves, we are witnessing a significant event. The people who post these items see their actions as forms of social justice, no doubt. It is a way to bring down figures cloaked in the rhetoric of challenging authority or speaking “truth”. It is easy to argue how this type of actions fails on so many levels: unbalanced, lacking context, validity of video, integrity of process, etc. But, for many, it also provides some kind of satisfaction and demonstrable results. Richard’s career is in jeopardy, if not dead. The educators are damaged, as are the institutions where they work. Bush’s video is another tool to be used by critics to tear away at his credibility and the presidency.

If this method gains wide social acceptance, we could all be looking at a form of revolution no different than any massive upheaval between the elite and the citizenry. Through these uses of technology, an uprising could take place as a means of alleviating much of the frustration felt by people who feel they cannot get justice or be heard any other way. And, if the reaction to this is to squash it or ban it or legislate against it, then other forums will be found. This is the nature of the Internet culture.

It also creates a sense of urgency for institutions, governments and those seeking to hold positions of power in our society to re-evaluate the dynamics of their legitimacy. It may not be possible any longer to continue to ignore minority voice, step over social movements or turn their backs on anyone. To ignore phenomena like this is done at their peril because the consequence, whether it is just or not, is devastating. Maybe it is a time for more pragmatic politics. Issues need to be debated and resolved through inclusive measures, educating citizens and then garnering their input to build solutions.

First posted: November 25, 2006

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