U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How to talk about politics without talking about politics.

“Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” – Timeless Democratic Wisdom.[1]

Last week, Timothy K. Minella wrote a guest post where he looked at the dynamics of social media through the lens of Tocqueville. More specifically, Minella looked at some of the apparent drawbacks of instant discussion of politically sensitive topics on forums like facebook and twitter. While I am a huge advocate of applying the insights of our studies to the present, I felt Minella’s analysis fell prey to several assumptions which, upon closer historical and sociological examination, rest on very shaky foundations.

Minella began by discussing Tocqueville’s concern that the democratization of knowledge, while liberating opinions from the dictated dogma of elites, can produce its own form of intellectual control through “the narrowing of thought” that occurs when citizens feel no obligation to listen to perspectives other than their own. To illustrate his point, Minella invoked the figure of a facebook user feverishly deleting friends who take the politically incorrect position on a given issue. As a consequence, he writes, “she only encounters those who think like her; she seeks the truth in those who are like her.”

Yes – and ever as it always was. The first and most obvious problem with this line of critique is that by positing the problem as one of social media, Minella implicitly argues that before the advent of facebook and twitter and the internet in general, public discourse or individual political thinking looked significantly different. But looking back through American history, I have difficulty imagining to what superior time he is alluding.

After all, if the problem is as old as Tocqueville, it is difficult to see how social media has made it much worse – and as any historian of the early republic knows, political discussion looked nothing like a group of thoughtful citizens tolerantly exchanging viewpoints. On the contrary, most early republic newspapers were explicitly political – you read the Republican or Federalist papers, or the Whig and Democratic papers, and none of them made any pretense to being apolitical or bipartisan. If at some point the American news media did in fact enter a golden age marked by ideological diversity, I’ve yet to hear about it; especially if you consider that in order to truly lay claim to tolerance, socialist and anarchist viewpoints would have to be given as much consideration as more mainstream political commentary.

Next, Manilla notes that Tocqueville incorrectly predicted a reduction in the number of viewpoints available – if anything, social media increases ideological diversity. Yet he argues that because “social media does allow the user to choose the public that they address, often unconsciously,” it contributes to a tribal dynamic where everyone is tolerated except, of course, those outside of the tribe.

This is true enough, but once again, I am skeptical that social media has really aggravated this problem in any historically significant manner. There is perhaps a case to be made for the postwar era of television news reporting, when the choice was limited to three channels and almost everyone in the neighborhood watched the same broadcaster night in and night out. Yet does a limitation of choice really result in exposure to a greater range of ideas? As an historian of postwar liberal discourse, I have to argue that the answer is no – and that if anything, scholars have produced a very strong body of work documenting how even in the age of “the end of ideology,” postwar liberalism – and the news outlets it generated – was itself ideological; an ideology of the center.

However, the lack of historical perspective is not the biggest problem with Minella’s critique. After all, we all criticize the present in hope of something better, and even if I do not agree that social media has significantly increased these problems, I recognize that they exist and are legitimately troubling. The larger problem, however, is the way they are presented in an abstract context drained of specific political content.

Take Minella’s theoretical facebook user, for example. Her exposure to interpretations of events other than her own have led her to an unfriending spree, for, as Minella speculates, “to even have the offending thoughts plastered on her News Feed is too much, it seems.” Yet other than being gendered female, we know little about this facebook user, and we know absolutely nothing about what has upset her. Draining these very important details from his example, Minella simply conjures her as the specter of the oversensitive and unsophisticated combatant of our politically correct times, one of the most popular hobgoblins of recent cultural and political commentary.

The problem with this – and I mean this quite seriously – is that you simply cannot talk about political dynamics in this way.[2] Ever.[3] The significance of any political conflict or issue, after all, comes precisely from the fact that it is political, which is to say that there are concrete, historically specific, and diverse struggles occurring which can determine the structures of values, resources, and power in a given society. Whatever the virtues of tolerance and intellectual diversity – and I agree that they can be considerable – they never have any operative value in a vacuum, and the benefits derived from them are relative to specific circumstances.

To flesh this out a bit, let’s fill in some of the blanks in the profile of Minella’s offended facebook user. We know she identifies as a woman, but nothing else; so let’s imagine she is an African American woman from a working class background, and the offending posts are (usually white) facebook friends complaining about the uprisings in Ferguson and elsewhere. Except, of course, they would use the word riots, and perhaps “thugs,” as well, and maybe some other stuff about betraying the legacy of Martin Luther King, and so on, and so forth.

She could try to calmly engage these friends. Perhaps she does. But much of it does not go well, and some of it is downright emotionally draining. She therefore decides to unfriend those contacts engaging in that rhetoric. She does so not because she is “afraid” of opposing viewpoints, but because she is all too aware of what that rhetoric has done to people like her – not in the abstract, but because of personal experiences – and decides not to subject her emotional equilibrium, every morning she signs onto facebook, to intimate reminders of how such harm continues on. There is, in fact, often an element of legitimate self-care going on in the “defriending purges” always belittled in the laments over political sensitivity.

But not all cases are this clear cut, of course. And there are people who have little to no tolerance for alternative viewpoints that are not clearly offensive or complicit in violence, and they do surround themselves with people who will not challenge them to change this habit. But once again, we must ask who they are and what they are upset about. It doesn’t suffice to simply declare their lack of tolerance “unreasonable” because intolerance (especially in the incredibly trivial form of defriending, might I add) is neither inherently unreasonable nor inherently reasonable. If one wants to discuss any instance of what they regard as intellectual rigidity or tribalism, they have to discuss it specifically, and make an argument about why this person ought to be more open to that idea. Otherwise, you are talking about politics without, actually, talking about politics.

I understand that the debates that can ensue from such specificity can be exhausting. But alas, confronting politics directly and as honestly as possible requires identifying what we are talking about. A general rule never exists without a particular problem, and thus we must grapple with all the specific questions of power, oppression, and ethics that each one presents us with. Recently, a friend of mine related to me a horror story of political correctness in the classroom, but could not even remember what the student was offended by. I refused, therefore, to respond with any assessment of the situation; because I had no idea what, substantially, had happened! Once the discussion focuses on the specific political conflict, however, that’s when actual conversation can ensue.

But of course, this is no guarantee that it will feel any more tranquil; what I regard as rankly offensive or emotionally upsetting may very well be regarded by someone else as neither, and we’re likely to both be shocked by our different standards. And this gets us to the heart of the matter: we all find a certain amount of intolerance not only acceptable, but a positive good in our personal lives. I am fairly confident, for example, that Minella would not argue that once a month everyone ought to read a little Mein Kampf, just to make sure they are not becoming too blinkered by the anti-fascism tribe.[4] This seems like an extreme example, but only because that tribe is currently rather large – it was not always so.

(And ironically perhaps, some of the most consistent opponents of fascism, when it was more popular, were also members of what more moderate commentators considered a dogmatic tribe; socialists, communists, and anarchists. Place that next to the spurious comparisons between Trump supporters and Sanders supporters, and you’ll further see my point.)

To sum up, something is always “beyond the pale” – and thus discussions about tribalism and ideological diversity are really arguments about where its borders ought to lie. I agree fully with Minella that listening carefully to our students and the public we interact with is an excellent way to engage this question – but I also believe that identifying when to reject and fight ideas is as important a step to intellectual and ethical maturity as learning to tolerate them.

[1] Not really.

[2] I’m hoping it’s obvious that by “cannot” I do not mean it breaks some rule that will be enforced, but that if you do, you won’t be making any sense or talking about anything at all, really.

[3] Yes, ever!

[4] Reading it for the sake of studying and understanding fascism, of course, being entirely different and probably a very good idea.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post. I think one of the problems with this line of critique of social media is precisely the lack of historicizing, the lack of understanding these technologies within a historical continuum of public discourse. We can do so while taking into consideration the particularities of Facebook and Twitter, which have to do with the affects (and effects!) of immediacy, hipervisibility, anonymousness, and the various forms of social distance inscribed in such spaces.

  2. make an argument about why this person ought to be more open to that idea. Otherwise, you are talking about politics without, actually, talking about politics
    I’m curious about your thoughts on Jill Lepore’s recent “New Populism” piece in the New Yorker. For shifts in the U.S. party system, she focuses on “influence” from “novel forms of political communication” rather than solely platforms shaped by “ideological movements, the emergence of new economic issues and circumstances, and, especially, by changes in the composition of the electorate.”

    Your reference to the The End of Ideology (1960) prompted me to read the USIH Blog intellectual obits on Daniel Bell (posted five years ago!) and the multifarious posts on *postwar liberalism.* At least for the late 1940s/50s, I request students to temporarily postpone discussion topics such as “ideology of the center” due to gradual and rapid reconfigurations of *liberalism,* *liberal consensus,* and *liberty,* in addition to shifts in the party system(s) described by Jill Lepore. I may or may not retract that request in (hopefully) future courses.

    were also members of what more moderate commentators considered a dogmatic tribe; socialists, communists, and anarchists
    Both *commentators* and *members* (sometimes one and the same) are important in assessing the formulation and progression, as well as causes for, narrations of *tribe* and *tribalism.*

      • Clarification–*[any] causes for, narrations of *tribe*and *tribalism:* I accord with theories of articulation (including, but not limited to, semiotics of textual narration, performative narration, etc.) in studying changes and continuities for varieties of *tribal* governance. But any inferred adherence does not foreclose consideration for causal relationships, esp. in *politics* of the governed…which, as far as I can discern, parallels most theories of articulation.

  3. From the post:
    …the postwar era of television news reporting, when the choice was limited to three channels and almost everyone in the neighborhood watched the same broadcaster night in and night out.

    I can’t write this little anecdote without revealing, at least roughly, my age, but so be it. As a very young child I lived mostly overseas, but I returned to the U.S. at age eight. One of the quite vivid memories of my childhood and also (to at least some extent) teenage years is the sound of the announcer who introduced Walter Cronkite every night (actually they probably just had the announcement on a tape, but anyway). The announcer had a deep voice, the kind that implicitly says “This is important!,” and the exact words were:
    “Direct from our newsroom in New York, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.”

    I especially remember the way the accent fell on the second syllable of “direct“. On one level, it was superfluous: of course the broadcast was originating from CBS in New York — no one thought it was coming from anywhere else. But the subliminal message was “you are about to hear the truth,” reinforced by Cronkite’s signoff (though I just remembered it now) “and that’s the way it is.”

    These days I don’t even have a working TV and I usually switch on the radio at 7 p.m. to get the radio version of the PBS NewsHour. Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill are good journalists, but they can’t pretend to be the Voice of Authority the way Cronkite could. The change is really entirely for the good, but some of us who grew up in the heyday of network news may nonetheless feel, semi-consciously, that something is missing.

    • p.s. I’m pretty sure the three-channel monopoly had already ceased to exist (with the intrusion of PBS) when I was in high school. Wd have to check the exact date.

  4. Robin,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to my post. Allow me to offer some brief thoughts regarding your critique.

    First, you are entirely right that this narrowing of thought did not begin with the advent of social media. When pundits lament how divided and rancorous American politics has become, I wonder whether they know that Preston Brooks nearly beat Charles Sumner to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856. Studying history shows us again and again that there is no golden age to go back to. I can assure you that I do not long for the days of Walter Cronkite solemnly declaring, “That’s the way it is.” I do think, however, that social media presents one of the latest manifestations of this democratic narrowing of thought. Tocqueville, of course, provides only one way to analyze social media, and I am sure that other theorists could provide more optimistic (or neutral) interpretations of thought in the Internet age.

    As to your criticism about my hypothetical Facebook user, to this charge I plead guilty. I deliberately used a figure devoid of specific political views to indicate that anyone on the Left, Right, or Center can conduct a defriending purge. I should also note that I was debating between “he,” “she,” and “he or she” for the pronoun(s) I would use. “She,” therefore, refers to a generic Facebook user of any gender. You argue that nothing can be gained by this kind of abstract example that does not address the specific circumstances of political conflict, with its particular relations of power.

    Your point here brings up the issue of whether general or abstract principles are valid or useful in the first place. I have to admit that if you raise the price high enough, I would give in and violate the principle of tolerance. If one of my Facebook friends constantly posted anti-Semitic and anti-black statements, I would probably defriend him. Does this mean that my default position of tolerance and open-mindedness is hypocritical? Does this mean that a general bias in favor of tolerating different (and even offensive) views is an empty, useless principle? I would suggest not. Perhaps I am naïve, but I agree with Tocqueville that freedom of thought is a “holy thing,” and I want to see it protected. A general principle that one ought to tolerate other people’s views ensures that we allow the greatest possible latitude for thought and discussion. Even if other people’s views are wrong, or dangerous, at least by considering them we can understand better why our views are preferable to theirs. Then, within this general principle, we can carve out exceptions for those views that add nothing to the discourse. Of course, this presents a whole new set of problems, and solving them requires something more than a blog comment

    -Tim Minella

  5. Hi Tim —

    Thanks for this generous reply. In danger of somewhat repeating myself, I’ll try to address some of the key points here.

    First, everyone is hypocritical, so that’s a non-issue for me. Indeed, the very fact that everyone is hypocritical points to what I think is my larger point; that political principle has no meaning without any relation to its lived consequences.

    For example, you admit you would defriend someone who was anti-black and anti-Semitic. Yet at the same time, you say freedom of thought is a “holy thing.” So there’s two things to point out here; first, perhaps holy is not the right word you are looking for, because holy is a pretty absolute word; things are holy or they are not, they are not usually “holy under most circumstances.” So no, I do not think tolerance is an empty, useless principle but I do think, like most principles, that it is limited and specific. Perhaps the cases which I find it no longer useful are more numerous that yours — I suspect my bar for finding something to be racist, sexist, etc, is quite a bit lower than yours — but that doesn’t mean it has no value at all.

    Second, I would call into question the very premise we are both working on (partially because I was responding to your original post within that structure) that tolerance and freedom of thought are always partners. After all, the very tension you are exploring here is how the democratic tolerance of a “free for all” public sphere leads to, whoops!, intolerance of a range of perspectives. So I think that is too easy an association to make; and when I defriend someone who, for example, refers to black protesters as thugs but excuses police violence, in my mind that *is* an act of intolerance but certainly not one against freedom of thought; if one thinks seriously about how powerfully racism circumscribes American political thinking, after all, it seems like a much more powerful oppressive agent than Facebook or twitter could ever be.

    Moreover, and finally, we have to have some sense of scale, and when we do so we again have to consider specifics. I suggested in my post that defriending is a pretty trivial example of intolerance, and I stand by that; slippery slope arguments aside, there is a substantial difference between an individual choosing not to be bombarded by offensive statements every day and, say, losing your job. Or being put in jail. Or being killed. Our vigilance against such consequences should not make us incapable of distinguishing between acute social oppression and the very human act of not wanting to be filled with rage and/or despair on a daily basis.

    I hope that clarifies my position a bit, and thanks again for the reply.

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