Pablo Piccato


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

Cover Interview of February 09, 2010


It is difficult, even risky, to predict how a history book will be used by its readers.  I have always been wary of history books that present information about great men intended to serve as example for contemporary decision-makers. It is much more fun—although it probably sells fewer copies—to try to understand how the very category of “great man” came to be.

The emergence and hegemony of public men in Mexico has its own history, and I hope The Tyranny of Opinion provides a useful path for a critical reading of it.  More importantly, perhaps, the book shows the connections between public life and other, less prestigious but more intimate terrains of culture and social relations.  One, alluded by the title, is the anxiety that the protection of honor imposed on men and women of all classes: it was not possible to avoid responding to any direct or indirect statement that undermined one’s reputation, whether it happened in the newspaper, the bar, the theater, the sidewalks or the market.  It was a constant vigilance that in some cases resulted in the need to use violence or seek the protection of the police, and was always economically and emotionally costly.

I tried to rethink politics as an object of study. The political history of Mexico and other Latin countries has too often been told as one of the naked exercise of power by the elites over the subaltern. In these views, class exploitation, racial discrimination, foreign pressures are some of the forces that ultimately explain the permanence of inequality and authoritarianism. I hope to contribute to a growing body of Latin American historiography that, against these views, contends that Latin America was, from the beginning of independent life, a territory of struggle for democracy, full citizenship and freedom of speech.  It is the permanence and modalities of that struggle that needs to be explained, rather than our superficial contemporary views about the region as an instance of failed modernity.

I argue, in sum, that honor, even violence, played a positive role in building an autonomous space for political debate for Mexican citizens in the late nineteenth century.  But it came at a very high cost: the exclusion of women from public life and, indirectly, the justification of violence against them when their autonomous words or actions were thought to undermine the authority of men.  Mexican women were able to vote only in 1953, and sexual violence has plagued everyday life up to our days. Both facts are related in that they are based on the premise that the voice of women should not be too loud in public settings, be it the press, political campaigns, or courtrooms.

© 2010 Pablo Piccato