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Social media tone harks back to democracy in 1600s

3 Feb 2016

If there is one similarity between English newspapers and pamphlets of the 1600s and the modern day, it is in the tone of social media comments. Academy Professor Markku Peltonen says that both are marked by a complete absence of journalistic and ethical rules. Moreover, just as social networking sites today, the content of newspapers in the 1600s consisted largely of abuse and verbal bullying. Some of it was anonymous, some not. Peltonen finds some of the comments on social media sites so appalling that he refuses to read them. 

Professor Peltonen’s research subject is democracy in 17th-century England. He says there is one particularly important lesson to be learned from that period: “Things that we today take for granted and that seem completely natural to us haven’t always been that way.”

One of Peltonen’s specific interests is the political movement known as the Levellers during the English Civil War in 1642–1651. Advocating such radical ideas as extended suffrage and equality before the law, the Levellers engaged in negotiations with royalists over the future system of governance in England. Apart from newspapers, pamphlet writings and other publications, Peltonen’s source materials include written documents from these negotiations.

Focus on people’s ideas

Peltonen says he is particularly interested to explore and learn about people’s ideas in these days. It is for this reason that he has chosen to focus on studying newspapers. The print press developed in the 17th century, and the number of print publications increased several times over during the period under study.

This is an area that Peltonen insists has been largely neglected and underestimated in earlier research. The same goes for early democracy: it has received only limited attention, and it certainly hasn’t been described in positive terms. Likewise, the power exercised by the House of Commons in England has not necessarily been viewed as democratic.

“Only the Levellers’ views on suffrage have been regarded as democracy because they bear a resemblance to our own views of democracy. But of course in the 1600s, no one knew what democracy today was going to look like. It was in these days that the idea originated that the ruler should be responsible to members of parliament, or ultimately to the people, because it’s from the people that power emanates. This eventually happened in the 1690s.”

Challenging Habermas

A further area of interest for Academy Professor Peltonen is political participation in state formation: “For me, the process of state formation doesn’t happen only from above. In order to succeed, it also requires the involvement of the local level as well as broad popular participation. Political participation is not just about parliament, but it also involves the print press, pamphlets and generally effective means of controlling those in power. Political doubt is a modern term, so I’m sort of using it in inverted commas.”

Peltonen has also challenged the concept of public life as put forward by Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the most important and famous social theorist of our time. Peltonen does not subscribe to Habermas’s view of rationality, which implies that there would have been rational debate about socio-political issues in the 1600s.

“For me these debates weren’t rational in the sense that Habermas intends, but rhetoric added its own element. Habermas has it that the best and strongest argument will always prevail. However, in rhetoric you can prevail even if you have a poor argument, provided you’re a skilled orator. In democratic culture, it’s a rather curious notion that everything should be rational.”

World-leading research into the history of ideas

Other themes being pursued by Academy Professor Peltonen’s team include English political culture in a slightly later age, rhetoric culture in continental Europe, and female Habsburg regents – a subject that grew out of the rhetoric theme. Using letters as its main source of data, the study of women regents looks into how princesses were brought up with a view to their future roles.

In his earlier work, Peltonen himself has also studied civility and politeness. During his tenure as a Junior Research Fellow (today the post is called Postdoctoral Researcher), Markku Peltonen wrote a book on the duel and its culture of politeness. His focus was not so much on overt rules as on the meaning of civility and politeness: Do people speak and behave politely out of benevolence, or is their pleasant demeanour just a smokescreen to conceal their selfishness?

Peltonen is contributing to a long line of world-leading research into the history of ideas at the University of Helsinki, which spans a number of different disciplines. Although the research themes differ, he says, they do have important points of intersection. “We’re among the world’s top two or three research universities in the field of intellectual history, and we’re determined to take steps to maintain this position. At least our research themes hold great appeal internationally.”

Finnish text: Leena Vähäkylä
Photo: Linda Tammisto

Last modified 3 Feb 2016
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