The condition of our agora

Towards a culture of political healing

By Katrien Reist

Anyone who has swum in strong sea waves knows the feeling: seconds ago you had solid ground under your feet and suddenly, the water lifts you up, you are at the mercy of its powers. While one person surrenders fearlessly to this situation, another one panics. Recognising each other’s needs in moments of transition is a form of deep humanity.

To keep ourselves afloat as cultural beings, we need to be able to fall back on a safe and healthy (political) agora.1 A welcoming place where we can express both our fears and wishes, and give space to our perceptions and expectations. Where we strengthen our confidence in a common existence and shape it together. This agora is an essential part of culture. A culture that moves with change in society, but at the same time has the potential to change society. Culture is this wave in motion.

An agora facilitating the complex multi-layered political discourse around the enormous social challenges we face must meet certain conditions: access to knowledge and information, mutual respect, empathy, trust, transparency, time and attention.

However, discourses as they develop today disjoint more than they bind. Social media and increasing polarisation have turned this space of debate into a jungle with a cacophony of voices, quickly alienating and harassing from strongholds of blindness and deafness.

The cultural field and its actors are in a somewhat screwed up position. On the one hand, they offer a platform for nuanced and respectful conversation, freedom of expression and room for different opinions.

On the other hand, the platform is subject to so many regulations, codes, language barriers, economic restrictions, privileges and fixed power positions, that openness and ‘democratic conversations’ are threatened by suffocation before they can even begin. Because not everyone can enter the arena just like that, and not everyone who enters is able to find his or her voice, the language that has developed in the cultural realm over the years often no longer connects to life outside, and as a result, undermines its own social relevance.

Increasingly, citizens are organising their activism and protests outside establishment-sanctioned confines. Sandbanks shift. Other landscapes emerge. New forms of navigation become necessary.

Reflection on where the agora is located today, who populates it, but also how it is organised, and according to which values, norms and rules of behaviour, is urgently needed. The development of a fair agora, in which a broad population finds its voice, expresses itself, feels heard, understood and represented is the task that we as a community have to fulfil in the coming years, if we are not to lose sight of each other. This needs care for a culture of conversation and a conversation about a culture of care.

The cultural field can play a major role in creating new relationships. More then ever, we depend on each other to keep our heads above water in the rapids where we have landed. In this a healthy, cultured agora is the ground beneath our feet.

  1. In Greek. agorá originally meant ‘assembly’, especially of the common people, not of the ruling class. Agorá gradually developed the meanings ‘marketplace, and public speaking’. Translated today, it should refer to an open and shared space where people meet, debate and exchange thoughts and culture in the broadest sense. 

  2. following the principle of equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment.