The word that strikes my nerve recently is legitimacy. The first time this kind of thing happened to me was when I read Althaus writing that representation is to present again. Legitimacy and representation are two great examples of concepts that we think we know what they mean but when pressing for accurate definitions, they evade into the light of eternity.
From a normative perspective, the legitimacy of a political system is defined as the consistency with the ideal model. If you are a supporter of deliberative democracy, legitimacy means the political system conforms to the principles of deliberative democracy, i.e., it should be open, fair and reason-centered. However, when we ask the question why we should want deliberative democracy, one of the reasons the theorists offered is that it grants legitimacy to the decisions generated by such a system. Here, legitimacy becomes an empirical concept, which can be measured and may vary in degree.
From an empirical perspective, legitimacy is defined as an observable object that varies in degree. How to measure it often determines the way it is defined. If it is measured through self-reports of individuals, such as agreeing to be ruled, legitimacy is a perception of the rightness (worthiness in Habermasian term) of the political system. Then it does not distinguish between the different ideals individuals hold about the political system, whether the system should be a deliberative one or not. If it is measured by the performance of the political system, such as economic growth and national security, legitimacy is defined as consequences or effects. Many governments such as the ones in China and Singapore take advantage of this utilitarian approach to justify their ruling. The two ways of measurement are definitely intervened with each other. If the government can successfully persuade the ruled that legitimacy should build upon the effectiveness of governance, then we expect to see the perception of the rightness becomes a covariate of the performance of the political system.
What become really interesting, then, are the sources of the perceived legitimacy.
This afternoon, sitting on the small deck of Gecko, surrounded by the warm and humid air, hidden in the mild noise, I got myself ready for the long-delayed conversation. Three law professors, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, and Yochai Benkler, are together to talk about blogs...through their writings. :)
Here is my record of this conversation. Lessig is L, Sunstein is S, Benkler is B and me is me.
S: Blogs are an unlikely venue for Habermasian public sphere because of fragmentation and polarization.
L: Whether blogs democratize should be examined within the constraint of their codes / architecture.
S: Alright. The codes for blogs are like-minded groups that are isolated from each other.
B: No. It is not true. The architecture of blogs is the power law distribution in general and the long tail distribution within like-minded groups.
Me: What is the power law distribution?
B: You guys should read Science and Nature. It means that most people still visit a few superstar websites. So fragmentation is not a problem.
Me: Even though people go to the same websites such as google.com, they could selectively choose information that echo their opinions. At the level of individual exposure, it is still fragmented.
S: I agree.
Me: But selective exposure itself has to be examined rather than being assumed. The first step of assuming preference for the like-mind might be wrong.
B: I agree. You have to provide empirical data.
Me: How does the long tail distribution help to prevent polarization?
B: It means no superstars can totally dominate a small world. Many low end sites are still connected to each other if you look at a smaller scale cluster.
Me: OK. So it prevents domination or centralization in small clusters. But how does it prevent fragmentation and polarization?
B: Well, it is actually that there is no fragmentation so there is no polarization.
L: The distributions you talked about could be changed, do you know? The codes that determine the dynamics are open to changes.
B: Oh yes. That is why we should pay close attention to how policy regulates the codes.
L: Yes, the constraints of law take advantage of codes to make cyberspace more regulatable. The government can interfere with the formation of the two distributions you mentioned.
B: But so far the government has a harder time to control cyberspace than mass media.
L: Are you sure? The government enjoys controls that they cannot have before. For example, it can even censor private communication.
Me: Probably we should not only use mass media as the benchmark. Other communication modes such as interpersonal comm. should be used as reference point, too.
Communication for Social Change -- American
Communication for Social Stability
Non-communication for Social Change
Non-communication for Social Stability -- Chinese
This does sound like a trick with language. But I think they actually reflect some differences between two sets of values about communication (You can say that they are, in a highly simplified way, the American and the Chinese values).
While social change is considered as a goal that is worth fighting for in the US, Chinese prefer social stability, aka, no big changes in the social hierarchy. In order to achieve that stability, sometimes blocking communication becomes necessary. Keeping it to yourself becomes a virtue because speaking out may make the conflicts look heated and even trigger violent reactions. Take it, bear it, and live along with it. Then we'll have our stability.
However, not speaking out does not equal no difference/disagreement. Instead, the differences or disagreements take a private format, exist silently in the corners of people's mind, and are actually very vulnerable to manipulation. Due to the lack of communication, every individual's perception of the general public and its will is skewed or biased. This situation, believe it or not, may be friendly to social change. Imagine that a rumor successfully makes everybody think that the majority is for one action. People go out and support the action because they think everyone else is doing it. This situation may be named as "spiral of action".
My late-afternoon practice of reasoning...
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.