The Great “Unpersoning”

In his classic novel 1984 George Orwell introduced a term both banal and terrifying: the unperson. An unperson was an individual who had defied the orthodoxies of the government and society, so any mention of them or their ideas was removed from the public record and news media in order to ensure community harmony. Sometimes these unpersons were killed, but they could also be left to live out the span of their lives with their words gone, their voices silenced, and their individuality erased.

There was once a time in America and Europe when such censorship was unthinkable, but we are now creeping uncomfortably close to the dystopian reality that Mr. Orwell described, one where the ideas of those deemed outside the mainstream are removed from public view in the service of “the greater good” (a term that that typically is used to introduce the most demonstrably “un-good” policies), in this case the suppression of thoughts and ideas deemed hateful or harmful by some.

The mild term now used to describe the closing of someone’s “offensive” account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media sounds decidedly inoffensive: That person is being “deplatformed”. Setting aside the obvious question of what criteria an anonymous group of corporate screeners is using to decide what is offensive and what is not, it must be remembered that free thought is intrinsically offensive to somebody. We would still be scratching at the ground with sharp sticks if “troublesome” individuals throughout history had not loudly challenge the accepted wisdom—often at great personal risk—and forced changes upon an unwilling world and its leadership. Progress is often dependent on the rebel and the malcontent, and human advancement has been slowed—or rendered nonexistent—during those periods of our history when one orthodoxy reigned supreme and dissenting voices were silenced.

There are, of course, ideas that are—and have been—harmful to individuals, society, and the world as a whole. Allowing those whose ideas are stupid the opportunity to publicly demonstrate their stupidity is a workable and effective response to nonsense that has ably exposed idiocy for many a millennia. Continuing to allow individuals to use their own brains to evaluate the merits of evidence and arguments presented by others—to, in other words, use their common sense—will work much better than employing armies of screeners and evaluators to shield us from the need to exercise our own judgments during the course of our daily lives.

Those who favor taking away the social media accounts and access of those who promulgate and promote foolishness often cite the most extreme examples to support censorship, and their legal and extra-legal efforts to ban that which they characterize as hate speech are informed by honest passion regarding this matter. However, one has to ask whether the examples cited by the censorship advocates to support their viewpoints actually make any sense when held up to the light.

Everyone who claims to love free speech—but actually does not—tends to eventually gravitate toward the example of Hitler and the Nazis to support their censorious attitudes. Wouldn’t it be better, they ask, if “people like that” were simply prohibited from spewing their hateful ideas? Conveniently forgotten is that the German government “deplatformed” Adolf Hitler for 264 days in 1924 by tossing him in prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch—and turned him into a national hero, which helped to fuel his rise to power.

Prohibition of awful ideas does not necessarily cause them to disappear; it often instead drives them underground, where they can mutate into more virulent and dangerous forms that now have the cachet of the forbidden to make them yet more attractive to potential followers. As painful and difficult as it is to have to listen to insulting gibberish—and as problematic as this sometimes might be because the mentally unstable or morally malformed might be attracted to the words of hate mongers—we are far better off overall if crackpot speech and beliefs are exposed to our scrutiny and scorn.

Censorship is the tool of authoritarian governments; the power and legitimacy of democracy is predicated on a free and open discussion of all ideas and viewpoints. The recently adopted motto of The Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, refers to the oversight of government by an informed citizenry, but it could just as well describe the well-lit marketplace of ideas that is necessary for democracy to function to its fullest. Just as campus speech codes have damaged the liberal idea—and ideals—of higher education, so does the censorship of offensive or extreme ideas on social media damage that which enables and enlivens the traditions and practices of Western liberal thought: the opportunity to hear all sides of a debate and forcefully engage with the opinions expressed.

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The Perils Of Perfectionism

The history of humanity has been the history of the elusive quest for perfection.

This has been a great benefit to us in many ways.  Our tinkering with technology has vastly improved our lives by driving the development of machinery and devices that have taken us from standing agog at the sight of a fire to a blasé use of computing technology that is very close to magical.  Our desire to perfect business systems and industrial processes has led to greater productivity and cost savings.  Our wish to make a perfect meal, plan a perfect birthday party, or find the perfect gift provides a great deal of happiness to many and is a natural outgrowth of our love and friendship with one another.

However, the search for perfection has its dark side as well.  It can lead to obsession or cause unbearable and avoidable tensions in the home or workplace.  A dangerous rigidity of thought or purpose can result if the desire for perfection is not balanced by alternative viewpoints or common sense perspectives, and the search for perfection can cause some to fanatically embrace imperfect methods that cause great harm others in the process.  Perfection is a laudable goal, but we should recognize that humans are inherently imperfect and must sometimes be forgiven for words or deeds resulting from a lack of foresight, expertise, or experience rather than neglect, stupidity, or malice.

There is an old adage that perhaps also illustrates a problem that occurs with those who believe wholeheartedly in their own interpretation of what would constitute perfection: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  The belief in our own infallibility causes us to sometimes hammer away at those who disagree when we should instead be listening carefully to why their ideas differ from our own.  

This maladaptive tendency to insist that we are right when we should instead be learning why we might be wrong causes an unsurprising amount of conflict, and this explains at least part of the reason why so many necessary discussions descend into a nonproductive exchange of insults.  If we and our beliefs are perfect, those who believe differently are imperfectwithout a doubt.  The end result is arguments between parties that can never end in a resolution because for each only their own perfectoutcome is acceptable.  This my way or the highwaymindset, which by definition excludes any possibility of compromise, creates a great deal of the nightmarish gridlock that infects our governmental processes today.

This mindset is also, unfortunately, leading to a revisiting of history that focuses on flaws in human character and behaviorwhich are always easy to find with the least little effort. Every one of the heroes of history had their heaping share of human foibles, and rapidly changing social, cultural, and legal norms leave individuals and accomplishments from our past exposed to revisionist interpretations that strip them of their former glory.  

Is it appropriate to judge a 18th century historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson by 21st century standards?  Are the pyramids not as wondrous because they were built by a conquering empire?  Was the fire that recently consumed Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris any less tragic because Christians have in the past forcibly converted or murdered those who did not share their faith?  Should we tear down all monuments to Martin Luther King Jr. because his less-than-welcoming views on homosexuality would now be considered hateful?

Human history is flawed because the humans who made it are flawed.  The desire of some to censure our celebrations of any historical figure or event that exhibits imperfectionsall of which we can easily spot with the benefit of 20/20 hindsightwill eventually leave us adrift in a world where we have no heroes or heroic acts.  Only miserable gradations of villains and villainy will remain as the heritage upon we must build our future.  

As bad as the past was on occasion, the actions, beliefs, and values of our ancestors bequeathed us the world in which we live today, and we should continue to recognize their mistakes and build upon their successes.  The many imperfections of the past can inform our judgments today, but we still need to recognizeand honorthe aspirations and achievements of those imperfect people.  The men and women who built our world were sometimes brutal, duplicitous, and unfairbut the best among them tried to rise above their own imperfections.  

It is both petty and shortsighted to castigate those who tried their best by focusing exclusively upon the worst that they did, and we need to remember that the most perfect of all human abilities is our capacity to forgive the flaws of others.  Tearing down the past is not the path we need to take as we too strive to rise above our human imperfections and create a better future for ourselves and the many generations to come.

What Ever Happened To Our National Pride?

Back in the winter of 1980-81, I remember hearing the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team, Herb Brooks, speak in New Haven.  Mr. Brooks gave a very nice andinspirational talk—no surprise there.  Afterwards I had the opportunity to shake his hand, and I remember thanking him for how wonderfully he had coached his players to victory.

For those who don’t know, the U.S. victory against the Soviet hockey team, considered the best in the world at that time and a heavy favorite to win the gold medal in those Winter Olympic Games, provided an immense lift to America.  We were thrilled by the game itself, a 4-3 nail biter that introduced the phrase “Do you believe in miracles?” to a worldwide television audience.  It also led to a surge of patriotic fervor throughout the nation, and those Olympic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reverberated throughout the land.  During the weeks and months that immediately followed that amazing hockey game, flags seem to sprout like wildflowers after a spring rain across every corner of the country.  We were proud to be Americans and proud of an America that could produce such amazing and hardworking young men—ones who could work together to defeat an enemy once considered invincible.

How far away that all seems today.

We now are subjected to a daily barrage of news and commentary that denigrates American history, accomplishments, and values. We are not a nation that should be filled with pride; we are instead now a gang of bigots and oppressors.  Our young men are no longer worthy of our admiration and respect because they are nothing but the products of a culture of “toxic masculinity” that routinely turns them into rapists and brutes.

The wide-eyed exuberance that greeted the victory of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team at that time seems impossible in the cynical and castigating environment we live in today.  We no longer build up heroes and hold them up as examples; we now typically tear down anyone who dares to achieve and relentlessly hold them up to shame and ridicule.

Perhaps it is the case that we were a bit more innocent 39 years ago, but I don’t think this is true.  Coming after Vietnam and Watergate only a few years prior, I cannot but think that we had ample cause to be even more bitter about the faults and mistakes of our nation and its leaders at that time than we might today.  Back in those days there were plenty of complaints about American policies, fears about crime, worries about a future that seemed less secure, and concerns about a loss of national purpose and resolve.

However, at that point in time we were still all “Americans”.  As hard as it might be for many to believe this now, we felt somehow connected to one another because of this.  As a result, we could share our pride in the accomplishments of those American Olympians in a way that it does not seem would be possible today.  

Some essential connective tissue that used to bind us to one another seems to have disintegrated over the past couple of decades.  Whether this is because we now are encouraged to seek our individual identities through self-interest and self-involvement that precludes a label as expansive as “American” or have simply grown suspicious of the very idea of nationhood, now associating it with xenophobia and armed aggression, I cannot definitively say.  Nonetheless, this has been a stark and noticeable change during my lifetime—even to the point where conspicuous displays of the American flag are now often viewed with suspicion.  This self-abnegating behavior is equated with more tolerant and welcoming attitudes by many of our sophisticated and cosmopolitan elites, but it seems odd that we now need to worry about offending someone simply because we are proud of our country.

The downside of loss of common identity is that common purpose becomes nearly impossible.  Governing a nation devoid of national pride is much like herding cats—and is bound to present problems.  Any effort to appeal to shared values or suggest personal sacrifice is bound to fail.  Our insularity and suspicion of one another, which seems to be our most salient national characteristic at the present time, has many explanations, but I would suggest that the efforts by many to denigrate the very idea of nationhood play a big part in creating the difficulties that afflict us today.  

National pride might seem stupid and pointless to some of the smart set, but I still am happy to say that I am an American.  I fully realize we live in an imperfect country that has problems that need to be resolved through ongoing debate and discussion, but I still have a tremendous pride in America and will defend it against those who seem to find perverse and unseemly delight in highlighting its flaws rather than celebrating our many, many strengths.  

Those who wearily and loudly announce their intention to move elsewhere because they find both America and Americans fail to meet their persnickety standards can, as far as I am concerned, just hurry up and pack their bags. You won’t be missed by many—including me.  Enjoy your new life in whatever land you believe will better respond your constant whining, complaining, and negativity.  I am certain they will be happy to have you around to guide them toward the nirvana you obviously could not find in the U.S.A.

Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.