Hannah Arendt argues that the public sphere is a common world that “gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other" (Arendt, 1958, p. 52). The common problem right now is, of course, the worldwide pandemic and the need to stop it from spreading any further. COVID-19 has shown us just how important the public sphere is, yet it seems not everyone is allowed to participate in equal measure. One such person is Famke Louise. What is Arendt’s table and who is welcome to sit at it?
Arendt's table and #Ikdoenietmeermee
Since the pandemic first arrived in the Netherlands in March 2020, the Dutch government has gone back and forth on how best to not get infected, whether that means staying 1.5 metres apart, not hugging our loved ones, or working from home. Not surprisingly, not everyone believes this is what is best for our country. Namely, in September of this year, a group of influencers, led by activist Willem Engel, decided enough was enough. They started the hashtag #ikdoenietmeermee. This roughly translates to “I no longer participate”.
This hashtag was often accompanied by a video of the influencer further emphasising that they “refuse to participate”. They all said: “Only together will we gain back control from the Government. I no longer participate. Free the people!”, a play on words, based on the Dutch slogan "Alleen samen krijgen we het virus onder controle" (only together will we get the virus under control).
Here the virus is no longer enemy number one, but rather the Government. Initially, the main objective seemed to be showing displeasure with the corona measures and questioning the Dutch government's handling of the pandemic. The influencers demanded more transparency (Duin, 2020).
Once the hashtag blew up, it became clear that all these influencers wanted to do was ask some questions that that they felt were still unanswered. It didn’t help their cause that these questions had actually already been answered, which became apparent when several Dutch media outlets and social media users began responding to them.
To Arendt, if we only live in a private sphere, we are depriving ourselves of being seen and heard by others and thus also to be exposed to other people’s points of view.
According to Hannah Arendt, how we interact with each other in the public sphere is much like sitting together at a table. The public sphere brings us together at this table but we are also kept apart. The table symbolises the differences that stand between us. This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to participate in the public sphere. To Arendt, if we only live in a private sphere, we are depriving ourselves of being seen and heard by others and thus also of being exposed to other people’s points of view. She argues that if we do not expand our private sphere into the public sphere we can get stuck in our own subjectivity (Arendt, 1958, p.58).
Nowadays this notion of limiting ourselves to the private sphere translates into online filter bubbles. In these filter bubbles, we only see and hear those perspectives we are already most familiar with. This results in people being cut off from (sometimes) valuable information about the bigger picture. On the one hand, we now rely on algorithms to filter out information yet on the other we see "an erosion of authority of once-trusted sources of information" (Van Gemert & Van de Ven, 2019). This erosion of authority makes it harder for public intellectuals or any other type of reputable source to reach their desired publics.
“Indeed, in the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken as true. Falsehoods and facts spread the same way—as evidenced by the current rise of alt-right media and the popularity of clickbait articles. Too often, virality gets valued over truth, and form over content” (Van Gemert & Van de Ven, 2019).
The filter bubble in this case is the various people who joined the #ikdoenietmeermee movement echoing each other’s words. Dutch performers such as Tim Douwsma, Thomas Berge, Gers Pardoel, and Brace posted similar videos, but did they all know what they were saying? One could argue they are all performers who have lost income due to the pandemic and feel desperate enough to find people who share their concern.
Famke Louise joins the party
The videos have since been deleted and the hashtag is next to non-existent, but it has shown us something interesting about women appearing in the public sphere to discuss important issues. Famke Louise Meijer, better known as Famke Louise, also joined the #ikdoenietmeermee movement. She is best known for her music and vlogs.
From the get-go, people have been specifically critical of her participation in the hashtag. One reason could be that she was previously paid to promote the corona measures, so it seemed odd that she would now be against them. Others questioned whether she was getting special treatment because she is a woman, and is no stranger to ridicule. Meijer has been the subject of many memes even before she joined the #ikdoenietmeermee movement.
Journalist Eva Jinek invited Meijer onto her talk show to further explain the hashtag. The rapper brought a list of points she wanted to address while she was there, but once she started explaining her point of view it created even more confusion. Later on she explained that she felt unprepared and flustered. She said: “This hashtag was necessary, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I know it would be a disaster if people don’t follow the rules, but I’m happy I did it.” One could say that is contradictory to what the hashtag was meant to represent. To a lot of people, this was reason enough for further ridicule. Famke Louise quickly turned into a meme.
One could wonder why it was her specifically that received so much backlash. Arendt would have argued that, regardless of her background, it is her right to still join the table. After all, who decides who can and cannot join the table? It raises the questions of who exactly are public intellectuals and if only public intellectuals can add to this debate. A public intellectual is someone who uses their knowledge, gained through University or through self-study to contribute to the public sphere (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 116). Here we see Famke Louise being welcomed to sit at one table, i.e. her world of entertainment and social media, yet is seemingly discouraged from joining another, that is, in this case, the public, political debate.
Public intellectuals are often seen as inspiring others to join the debate, or at the very least, trying to educate those who do not have the means to do so otherwise. In theory, it could be said that Meijer checks at least some of the boxes. Let’s say her participation in #ikdoenietmeermee required some level of self-study. Meijer then, with her reach, tried to educate other Dutch people on the pandemic, if not in a somewhat misguided way. This could be a reason to not disqualify her from this particular public sphere just yet.
Women and the Public Sphere
Women being purposefully excluded from politics, and thus from the public sphere, is certainly nothing new. The public sphere has been seen as a place for men for decades. It is a domain where people come together to discuss and form public opinion (Habermas, 1962). The public sphere was originally reserved for those who had power - not women or slaves. The head of the households (i.e. men) would join together in coffee houses and have rational-critical debates.
Fortunately, we have since learnt that women are also perfectly capable of critical debate. However some people are still determined to keep women out. The determination of some men to exclude women can be traced to what men, and sometimes women, assume about the roles of women in the public and private sphere (Mejiuni, 2013, p. 49). These opinions are derived from their understanding of women’s nature, from their upbringing and their religious background. So, for instance, some people might believe women shouldn’t participate in the public sphere as perhaps they’re better suited for taking care of the children or cooking dinner.
In some cases, the exclusion is temporarily lifted when desperate times call for desperate measures: “Exceptional times allow for exceptional activism by women because it is both “righteous” and temporary: righteous because the overarching cause of the nationalist struggle justifies the activism, and temporary because the activism is viewed as rightfully limited to the period of nationalist struggle” (Nielsen, 2020, p. 55).
Soon after Meijer appeared on Jinek, she apologised for her participation in #ikdoenietmeermee in a post on Instagram. She deleted her video and promised to better educate herself (Van Wijk, 2020). In her post, she acknowledges her lack of expertise but also further undermined her ability to play a part in the public discussion. Notably, she says: “I’m going to take a step back, reflect, and find a special, inspiring someone specialised in pandemics to educate me on this situation and who could share the stage with me.”
This is where Diederik Gommers stepped in. Gommers, who was also a guest on Jinek that night, is the head of the Dutch organisation for Intensive Care. It would appear he has taken the young influencer under his wing to further inform her about the virus and how we can best combat it. “Some scholars propose pragmatist explanations for women’s empowerment: Men grant women power because it is politically useful (Bush and Gao 2017; El-Ghobashy 2005; Weeks 2018)” (Nielsen, 2020, p. 53). Taking her under his wing could have a similar reason. Although his plea for power isn’t necessarily political, a way in which Meijer could be useful to Gommers is that Gommers does not have the reach that Meijer has.
Meijer has a lot of younger fans who are more likely to listen to her than to a man they can’t relate to, in this case, Gommers. Meijer’s public presence as a musician and social influencer bodes well for Gommers. “After all, we live in an attention economy, where the popularity of voices is measured and quantified in clicks and likes, and we face the commercialization and personalization of political discussion in the public sphere” (Van Gemert & Van de Ven, 2019). If anything, her one million followers on Instagram would certainly help Gommers. Which it did. Meijer taught him how to use social media to reach an audience in exchange for helping her better understand the virus.
Stuck in subjectivity?
In the case of #ikdoenietmeermee, Famke Louise tried to participate in a public sphere that would perhaps be more open to Gommers' public. Yet she seemingly failed, as she had to go back to the drawing board and reassess how to continue. This is in part based on the fact that she is seen, perhaps ironically, going back and forth between what she thinks about the corona measures in the Netherlands. She is paid to promote following the rules, then she is promoting a movement against the rules, and now she is back to promoting to follow the rules, potentially being paid again.
It could be argued that she too is stuck in a certain subjectivity. First, she follows the example of her fellow influencers. As mentioned before, it makes sense that someone from the same background would join a movement led by more of the same people. She echoes their words but doesn’t seem to quite believe in them. After all, she doesn’t quite know how to articulate them when given the opportunity.
Then she is mentored by Gommers, who teaches her about the virus. The latter is particularly interesting as it is hard to say whether she is trapped in yet another filter bubble, or whether she is simply led by an expert. She is coaxed into thinking one way by one group, and in another way by another, all the while not trusting that she could join the debate without them. Even in her apology, she mentions that the reason she was so flustered is that she was alone.
Is Famke Louise the prime example of a public intellectual? Not quite. But that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t be given the chance to show herself in a public debate dominated by experts and other public intellectuals. Whether she joins the debate unprepared is not the point. This could well be a way for her to learn, which should certainly not be discouraged by any means. She should be able to, without ridicule and this need for handholding. Hannah Arendt would let her sit at the table so that she could exchange her differences with others, just like anyone else is entitled to do. So perhaps we should too.
Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. In The Human Condition (pp. 50–72).
Baert, P., & Booth, J. (2012). Tensions Within the Public Intellectual: Political Interventions from Dreyfus to the New Social Media. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 25(4), 111–126.
Mejiuni, O. (2013). The Subordinate Role of Women in the Private and Public Spheres. In Women and Power (pp. 49–78).
Van Gemert, T., & Van de Ven, I. (2019). Jordan Peterson as a human filter bubble. Diggit Magazine.