One of the repeating themes in my reading right now is that of the assumed division between subject and object, the private and the public. This is a division that arose in Western thought in the seventeenth century and is characterised by the compatibility of holding private beliefs (about religion for example) and public practice which some would argue arises from the Peace of Westphalia. People could belong to a sovereign State and give allegiance to its leader as well as hold their own beliefs about what was fair and right, lived through in their own practices. It allows for the development of a public service, detached from political interference (well now!) and the idea that the State is a neutral actor in the lives of the people who live within its boundaries. As contentious as all of this is, as an analytical tool it is everywhere.
These divisions can be seen most forcefully at the end of this article but have made themselves most visible in discussions about the place of religious faith in the public sphere. Some argue that this privatisation of faith is a function of continuing secularisation processes occurring in Europe and elsewhere. Morality is confined to the private sphere where individual religious conviction does not interfere with what decisions one makes about what is just and right and desirable for everyone else in society as a whole. The French like to call this laicite, the British multiculturalism and has become more relevant with the presence of larger numbers of Muslims in Europe’s states: “head scarves at school? but this is a public building!” It is only made more relevant because we have told ourselves that Europe is Christian and there is no mistaking that most of recent European history is about inter-denominational struggles between competing states.
In Ireland there is such a porous sense of the public sphere that we cannot agree on what it is that constitutes the private and public, and you know: this might not be an entirely bad thing. Sure, we have to put up with extreme political clientelism and the gross mismanagement of state education but we tend to like confusing the private for the public:
- the state should provide education directly but how will children learn about what is right and wrong?
- the churches should stay out of individual choices made but look at how many young mothers there are?
- that Garda recruit cannot wear a turban but a Minister can attend a Christian religious ceremony.
Contradictions are a-plenty and we all have our own examples. I’m only asking the questions here but what does it mean for a ‘public’ sphere when a transcendent faith is fundamental to many people’s decision making processes? It’s as if you can leave the faith at home when you put a 1 against your favourite candidate’s name and not be conflicted within.
Power transects all this of course but that’s another day’s posting.