More on subbies

This sub-editor, not that one.

Nick has been my IRL friend for over 25 years now (I was quite shocked when I did the maths on my fingers, Nick), and one of the many words I could use to describe him is “erudite.” So I am inclined to trust him when he says:

I’m not sure there’s much wrong with ‘public square.’ It works ok as a figure of speech. I suppose it’s more or less the same as saying that religious views should be heard in the ‘public arena’ or ‘public forum.’

If you google the phrase, it seems to have earned a toehold in the lexicon by what Scots law calls ‘consuetude’ (i.e. everyone’s been doing it).

(Who do you know who drops words like “consuetude” into conversation?)

Hmm…. I thought. So maybe it’s starting to get a particular religious connotation.

And then a reader, whom I shall call L, contacted me, off-blog, and said:

“Public Square” is religious jargon/code, a phrase currently gaining momentum from pulpits across the nation. … I suspect it’s being driven from America.

In the same way that you would say “across the country”, an evangelical Christian would say “across the nation”, and an evangelical listener would recognise the difference. It’s not dissimilar to the secret handshakes.

L suggested that I should try googling “Rick Warren” and “public square.”

The results are… interesting. It seems that “public square” is becoming common koine, in evangelical circles at least, and it denotes the discussion of religion and religious matters in the public sphere. I thought that it might be the subbie or the editorial writer sneaking some evangelical language in, but L was much more charitable, and I suspect much more plausible than men, suggesting that it wasn’t “proselytising by stealth” but just someone who had heard the language, perhaps at her or his church, and recognising the context of religion in the public sphere, substituting “public square” for “public sphere,” because from her or his point of view, those are the correct words to use in this context. It’s a special code, and not one that I was expected to hear.

And then L made a very interesting point, one that links rather nicely to the Vanity Fair piece on Sarah Palin.

To the rest of us she speaks incoherent babble, but she embodies “code”. McCain didn’t speak code. The listeners weren’t sure he was “one of us” but they know Sarah is. The fact that she may be a “sanguinary perverter of the truth” doesn’t diminish her “code”-status one bit. Then, in code, it’s just “liberal media” out to “persecute” her. If you are captive to that framing, it all makes logical sense. To be knowledgeable is to be “elitist”.

It’s certainly a language that I don’t speak, or even hear, and if I do hear it, why yes, I do look on in wonder and surprise, and with perhaps just a little bit of, well, contempt. Hmmm…. maybe not “contempt.” “Condescension” might be the better word: let those who want to play with such language do so; if they want to play their silly games, that’s fine by me, as long as I’m not disturbed.

But I was disturbed when I recognised that reaction in myself. I think it may be akin to the reaction elites had to Pauline Hanson in Australia – “she’s just an ill-educated hick from Queensland, and she’ll never amount to anything.” But she did, and she captured an astonishing amount of the vote, for a short time at least. I am disturbed that I haven’t heard an important nuance in society, and that I have simply assumed that no one could seriously buy into such nonsense (there’s that condescension again), and I am disturbed that I have simply dismissed the views and self-understandings of a presumably significant group of people in Australia, evangelical Christians.

On the other hand, I do, very seriously, think that belief in any god is a nonsense. If you want to go off and do whatever it is you do with your god, then that’s fine by me (you may recall that my version of feminism (scroll down) means that I am free to stuff up and make my very own mistakes, and I have a thorough going commitment to that freedom being available to everyone). But that freedom to go off and pray to your god, or play with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, or conduct devil-worship ceremonies complete with the ritual slaughter of cockroaches, or whatever, is entirely your own affair, and does not belong in the public sphere at all.

Which is why L’s final comment was possibly the most disturbing of all.

There are other codes as well – I don’t know it but the financial sector has its own vocabulary, for example. It’s just that “evangelical” is so ordinary (and nearly there – after all, what is the difference between Rudd being the PM of “the country” or “the nation”?).


Feck! Even the Pope uses “public square.” Here’s the relevant paragraph from his latest encyclical, issued on 29 June 2009.


The French version refers to “la vie publique,” and the Italian version to “dall’ambito pubblico come” (could some Italianate reader let me know if I have picked out the right phrase) but the Latin version is not on-line yet. My understanding is that the Latin version is the “true” one. Neither the French version nor the Italian version look like “public square” to me. I wonder if the Pope knows what he is saying?


11 responses to “More on subbies

  1. Since you bring up Italian, “ambito pubblico” means the public sphere. La pubblica piazza, the public square, for us is slightly pejorative – if you air something in the public square it means your making public a grievance or affair that should have been kept private.

    (I like it that it’s subbies week at In a Strange Land!)

    It could well be that the Latin has square in it, although the positive sense that we seek is of course more associated to the Greek polis. And it was the forum, a public square of sorts but not quite, that was synonimous for the Romans of the res publica. The Greek agora is more of a square in the modern sense.

  2. What a fascinating post – added to by Giovanni’s comment. There’s a lot of sub-versions of life around, and hidden agendas, and of course they all have their own discourse, and of course some of the edges of that discourse slips into the public discourse. But ‘public square’ is a really interesting example. It didn’t twang with me like it did with you, Deborah, but it did feel faintly ‘American rhetoric’. I can’t say where I’ve heard it, but it had the feel of something a bit ‘downhome’ and deliberate. It probably isn’t; it’s probably just something that Rudd has heard and incorporated into his slightly formal rhetorical style.

  3. It’s not a code I’m familiar with either, but it seems unusual or new (or something, I’m not quite sure what) to have the catholic church using the code of evangelical/American christians. They’ve traditionally been determindely separate (although to outsiders they seem to agree on a lot).

  4. I meant to write a comment to the original post, but I guess I didn’t get around to it. Deborah, I don’t think “public square” is wrong there or even code, but it may have something approaching a technical definition – when I was a religious studies student it was pretty standard parlance*. I think it’d be recognised as distinct from “public sphere” as well.

    The way I always read “in the public square” in papers was as an allusion to an old-style town-square meeting. “Public sphere” would be used to refer to individuals’ everyday behaviour in public. I’ve seen both terms used by the same authors with that implicit distinction, but I’m not sure if it exists outside the discipline as well. I didn’t think anything strange of it when I first encountered it though.

    * To clarify, “religious studies” is not theology, and the practitioners tend to be atheists or agnostics – if they’re slipping a code in, it’s not going to be that one.

  5. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it had become a code word or (less conspiratorially) a bit of unconscious jargon used by a particular kind of Evangelical. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it had to do with the advancement of a particular kind of Christian politics.

    The really spooky thing was that just after visiting your blog this morning, I switched across to Andrew Sullivan, where ‘public square’ popped up in a quote he had up from the ‘Christian Defence Coalition’

    The ‘Slacktivist’ blog (really sharp, because it’s an American Evangelical critique of the American Evangelical scene) has had some good postings on other code-words. One he did recently was on Sarah Palin’s use of ‘world view’ — a horrible conflation of sub-pomo relativism and Christian ghetto-think: e.g. how dare you impose your scientific ‘world view’ on my Creationist ‘world view’?

    In my experience, ‘Evangelical’ is becoming a pretty useless term. It tells you about as much as ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ or ‘feminist’ do. On the other hand, if you grow up and live outside American ‘Evangelical’ circles, this incredibly nuanced and complex set of subcultures pretty much passes you by, and you’re likely to be tone-deaf (as I am) to dog-whistle terms like ‘public square.’

    Thanks to ‘Reader L’!

    P.S. another word for ‘erudite’ is ‘obscurantist.’

  6. another word for ‘erudite’ is ‘obscurantist.’

    Am I allowed to say “my arse” on this blog?

  7. Nick, you say nice things. They show a big brain. And make me go wow! But why not write in short units of speech sounds, not long ones? 🙂 Do you like my style? If I can not beat you, (and I can not beat you) at least I can make sure I do not use words that have two units of speech sounds, but keep it to no more than one.

    Gah! SYLLABLE, that is. That is the only fly in the jam. What’s a one syllable word for syllable?

  8. Bug! er. Well, can you do more? It is a bet! Who can write the best post in words of only one speech sound?

  9. A final comment from L.

    I oscillate between being alarmed by the code and being humoured by it. Conspiracy or coincidence? “Dog-whistle” or dumbing down? Most of the people who use it are unaware of the framing, I think.

    Or am I too cynical for my own good? I don’t know.