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E-Pluribus | April 26, 2023
Whatever happened to local culture?; Harvard’s Academic Freedom Council; and journalism is creating its own credibility issues.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Naomi Schaefer Riley: Book bans and the decline of local culture
Early settlers came to the New World to establish communities where they could live out their religion and culture and raise families as they saw fit. Now, one size fits all rules the day. Writing in the Deseret News, Naomi Schaefer Riley laments the decline of local control and decisions over issues that impact communities in a media-saturated world that exerts tremendous pressures to conform.
Much of the controversy over so-called “banned books” has been focused on the books themselves. Heaven knows there is a spate of wholly inappropriate books being published these days and parents are right to say that some don’t belong in a children’s section or a school classroom. One aimed at 4-to-8-year-olds is called “Mamas Love Their Babies” and includes portrayals of women who fly airplanes, mop floors and dance at strip clubs. It is useful to note that just because a book is not in the children’s department of a library, or a school classroom, does not mean it has been “banned.”
Nevertheless, towns all over this country are mired in battles like the one in Texas. It was not supposed to be this way. One of the advantages of our decentralized system of government, of local control over schools and libraries, was that people who live in a community together would be more likely to share a common sensibility than people who did not.
Of course, small-town politics can be bitter. And fights over schools and libraries have been around since the beginning of schools and libraries. “Madame Librarian” Marian was battling Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn, the wife of the mayor, when “The Music Man” musical was first staged in 1957. Her concern was about “smut” in the library like Balzac. If only.
But things have gotten worse. One reason is that our sensibilities are now much more influenced by media we get from other places. Whether you live in a rural town in Texas or a suburb of San Francisco, you will likely be consuming the same things on your social media feed as those living in different parts of the country. There are large political and cultural divides but they are not just geographic. One of the most popular videos from the “Libs of TikTok” Twitter feed showed a teacher in Kentucky offering children explicit lessons about sex toys and gender ideology. This is not the first thing people think of when asked about local community sensibilities in Kentucky.
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Decentralization is still probably the best approach to these hot-button cultural issues. The further away your opponents are, the easier it is to caricature them. Compromise is easier on a local level, too. Maybe different parts of a library can be set up to suit the needs of different people. Not everything is easily codified into law.
Read it all here.
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Steven Pinker and Bertha Madras: Why We Created Harvard’s Academic Freedom Council
After decades of decline, some elite universities are taking steps to restore true diversity of thought and freedom of expression. At Harvard, professors Steven Pinker and Bertha Madras are helping to organize an Academic Freedom Council for faculty who share their concerns (via Persuasion).
The reason that a truth-seeking institution must sanctify free expression is straightforward. No one is infallible or omniscient. Mortal humans begin in ignorance of everything and are saddled with cognitive biases that make the search for knowledge arduous. These include overconfidence in their own rectitude, a preference for confirmatory over disconfirmatory evidence, and a drive to prove that their own alliance is smarter and nobler than their rivals. The only way that our species has managed to learn and progress is by a process of conjecture and refutation: Some people venture ideas, others probe whether they are sound, and in the long run the better ideas prevail.
Any community that disables this cycle by repressing disagreement is doomed to chain itself to error, as we are reminded by the many historical episodes in which authorities enforced dogmas that turned out to be flat wrong. An academic establishment that stifles debate betrays the privileges that the nation grants it and is bound to provide erroneous guidance on vital issues like pandemics, violence, gender, and inequality. Even when the academic consensus is almost certainly correct, as with vaccines and climate change, skeptics can understandably ask, “Why should we trust the consensus, if it comes out of a clique that brooks no dissent?”
There are many reasons to think that repression of academic freedom is systemic and must be actively resisted. To start with, the very concept of freedom of expression is anything but intuitively obvious. What is intuitively obvious is that the people who disagree with us are spreading dangerous falsehoods and must be silenced for the greater good. (Of course the other guys believe the same thing, with the sides switched.)
Read it all.
Steve Salerno: Media Contagion
Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, warns the old Latin phrase. When it comes to our consumption of news, each one of us bears individual responsibility for what (and who) we choose to believe, but that does not leave the producers and disseminators of news off the hook. At Quillette, Steve Salerno writes that journalists themselves are responsible for much of the credibility crisis faced by today’s media.
The news is making us all miserable. This truism emerges in study after study. A survey of 4,675 Americans in the weeks following the Boston Marathon bombings revealed that people who engaged with more than six hours of media coverage per day were nine times more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress. Another study found that people who watched negative material showed an increase in both anxious and sad moods after only 14 minutes of watching TV news. Even when the information is important, the deleterious effect remains. The more frequently people sought information about COVID-19 across various media, the more likely they were to report emotional distress.
“It can be damaging to constantly be reading the news because constant exposure to negative information can impact our brain,” offers licensed social worker Annie Miller. She explains that difficult media material activates our fight-or-flight response, flooding the body with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Such bio-responses can be as addictive as they are unhealthy. The perverse and self-perpetuating psychological tic known as “doomscrolling” refers to the act of obsessively reading bad news despite the onset of anxiety and depression.
Perhaps most tragically, journalism appears to be poisoning the minds of America’s youth, who already struggle enough with the effects of social media and influencer culture. “They may have just read about an animal on the verge of extinction or the latest update on the melting polar ice caps,” says family-practice psychologist Don Grant. Or the effect may be second-hand, as a result of hearing their parents bemoan the latest horror stories.
Read the whole thing.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression on a victory in a case involving free speech in the literal public square: