Pablo Piccato


On his book The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere

Cover Interview of February 09, 2010

The wide angle

We tend to assume that freedom of speech naturally accompanies other democratic rights. But the construction of the virtual and physical spaces where modern individuals could publicly and freely use their reason involves a historical process full of contingencies and diverging paths. In Spanish America, the development of what we now call the public sphere started even before independence, and encompassed moments of great tolerance for free speech and moments of repression and violence. Public men in modern Mexico used honor to build an egalitarian, if restrictive, space where they could publicly apply their reason to matters of common interest while limiting, or at least ritualizing, the need to defend their opinions with violence.

The Tyranny of Opinion focuses on the generation of public men that emerged in the 1870s because of the first opportunity to build a public sphere with some institutional stability under the regime of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). These men had not participated in the wars against conservatives, Spaniards, the United States and France. Seeking to speak in the name of the nation, they had to invoke the heroic legacy of the older generations. This they did sometimes against their will, revealing deep anxieties about their own masculinity. They successfully used the formalities of the dueling codes to limit interpersonal violence and justify their claim to have a pure consciousness, above the threats or co-optation of the Porfirian regime. In doing so they laid out the foundations of the public sphere that continued to evolve in Mexico even after the 1911 revolution: a public sphere in which, for women and the less educated, the right to speak was severely limited, but one that otherwise allowed for a free press even under the authoritarianism of Díaz and of the post-revolutionary single-party regime.

The story is also that of the transition from a romantic notion of the self in which honor meant the individual’s transparent unity of self-esteem and reputation (thus a constant struggle against misunderstanding), to positivist ideas about the state’s obligation to protect honor as a juridical object (a valuable and objective personal good that could be defended by penal legislation).  The book shows how Mexican public men’s honor shifted from being the object of polemics and duels between romantic journalists and orators to serving as the justification for judges’ interventions against opposition writers.  This, however, was not only the product of the strong hand of the dictator: people from all backgrounds, even working-class women and journalists, supported the penal protection of honor and used courts to defend their reputation when they had been the objects of insults or defamation.

I came to realize the importance of the link between honor and the public sphere following two paths. First, my previous book City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 had revealed the importance of implicit notions of honor in regulating interpersonal violence among people in Mexico City. Cases of battery, homicide and sexual violence documented life as a constant struggle to control reputation.  Violence played an expressive role by showing that men could sustain their words with deeds, while demonstrating that women could not fully exercise their right to be free and secure in the city.  In the process of the research, I learned how to read judicial sources not only as the record of the modern state’s attempts to establish social control and “civilize” Mexicans, but also as records of dialogues in which parties in conflict could express their ideas about what constituted a legitimate use of violence, particularly in the context of disputes triggered by hurtful words or gestures in public settings.

The second path to this book had started earlier with my interest in parliamentary politics during the revolutionary era.  Trying to place the neglected history of congress in a broader historical perspective, I found that Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere offered a theoretically productive way to understand the modern history of the public use of reason.  The model, however, had to be used critically, because Habermas saw that transformation as a product of the intellectual changes associated with the Enlightenment. Throughout independent Latin America, the public sphere emerged as a more politicized field than in Western Europe; a field where disputes, sometimes violent, centered from the very beginning on sovereignty and representation, but also on personal reputations—central issues in societies emerging from three hundred years of colonial domination.

Habermas and other authors provided a way to think historically about reason as a dialogue, and about the bourgeois spheres of intimacy and publicity.  My work, and that of other historians of Spanish America, suggests the importance of revising that model with an eye for gender, ethnic and class exclusions.  In The Tyranny of Opinion, my contribution to this revision is the incorporation of violence and masculinity as components of the public sphere that not only served to exclude certain groups from politics, but also determined the rules of free speech.