“Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” – Timeless Democratic Wisdom.
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. Ever. 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. 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.
 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.
 Yes, ever!
 Reading it for the sake of studying and understanding fascism, of course, being entirely different and probably a very good idea.