By: Rich Frontjes
Speakers and Listeners in Public Discourse
American public discourse is theoretically founded on the freedom of speech. This freedom to speak, however, in no way guarantees entry into conversations where the common good is considered, assessed, or decided. Free speech is the freedom to speak publicly—but participation in public discourse requires inclusion. And inclusion is variously brokered: depending on the conversation, its participants, and the power dynamics at work, any given stream of public discourse involves a boundary. On one side are the participants, and on the other side are the listeners—or, frequently, those whose attention is focused elsewhere.
In contemporary society, the boundary between participants and listeners exists partly as a function of access to media. Individuals or groups with the (financial or other) power to gain access to media increase their chances of entering the public discourse. The powerless, of course, are typically also voiceless. But financial power has not always been the key that opened the door to participation in public discourse: various epochs and cultural moments have likewise had various modes of adjudicating participation in public discourse.
The present power of media outlets to perform this boundary-keeping function once resided largely within other institutions. The Roman Catholic Church and its functionaries exercised considerable control over public discourse for centuries of European history and cultural development. Exploring how participation in public discourse has been adjudicated in a specific past instance elucidates a dynamic which clarifies the nature of contemporary public speech. In the example of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), we discover a turn of events in which ecclesial power brokers attempted to enforce silence upon an otherwise astoundingly prolific poet.