The rhetorical "tyranny" of the impartial public sphere: Women, difference, and access to public space during public environmental discussions

Angela Virginia Petit


What place, if any, do women occupy during public discussions, especially those that address the environment? Addressing this question, I contribute to an ongoing theoretical conversation that examines women, difference, and access to public discursive space. On the one hand, writers like Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt argue that defining an impartial, rational public sphere against a private arena of particular discourses remains a necessary, even beneficial way to imagine public language. On the other hand, though, Iris Marion Young and Nancy Fraser, among others, counter that making no room for difference, this public also makes no room for women who, for some, embody all that is particular, private--in a word, "different." My study grows from this debate about difference and impartial public space and demonstrates that impartial discourse does not ensure that all speakers and writers can enter public space. Instead, to borrow Richard Sennett's term, when individuals limit public discussions to impartial reason and common topics, they "tyrannize" political conversations by limiting the ability of women to participate fully in these discussions. To make these points, moreover, I analyze a public environmental debate that took place along Louisiana's Cancer Corridor, that stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known for its heavy concentration of industry and environmental pollution. Specifically, drawing from critiques of community by Young, Mary Louise Pratt, and Kenneth Burke, I show that this debate's female participants occupy dangerously special positions in "common" public space. Nevertheless, whether their public voices are subsumed under a common rhetorical identity that more powerful, male speakers have already defined or they find themselves cast out of the public as unacceptably different, these women become part of the "silent majority" or "power-base" that, according to Raymond Williams, legitimates others' control of public, political space. Ultimately, this event's failure to make room for difference adds much to the critical conversation about impartiality and the public sphere. First, it asks that those who study public language recognize the rich possibilities for examining the public and difference that environmental events offer. Second, my study also asks theorists to reconsider privileging impartial discourse as a god term for public action. In particular, theorists should look beyond the impartial public's rhetoric of community towards metaphors or terms that highlight the places where the public's many voices cross, overlap, and compete to dominate one another.