E-Pluribus | December 14, 2023
The downside of ignorance; the hazards of encouraging thin skin; and the Old Gray Lady is lost.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Andrey Mir: Blissful Ignorance
Yesterday’s round-up included an essay titled The Value of Ignorance. Today, Andrey Mir at Discourse Magazine warns that there’s a limit to that value. While withdrawing from the news cycle might have personal benefits (mental health not the least of these), democracy depends on an informed public to thrive.
Bad news cycles don’t just put us in a bad mood, they create a psychological issue that threatens to grow into a psychiatric one. Psychologists advise us to remind ourselves that unlike 20 years ago, we are now our own gatekeepers and we can control our news consumption. Among the practical tips of media hygiene is turning off news notifications or even all pop-up notifications, using site-blockers to control hours for visiting news websites or social media, limiting our responses on social media, and so on. Since the survival mechanism of attention to negative news itself became a threat, many tips on media hygiene basically lead to news avoidance, adding a clear rationale to what people already feel instinctively.
But what is good for mental health is not so healthy for democracy. News avoidance reduces civic engagement. In the classical liberal view, democracy is based on a well-informed citizenry. Obviously, if 40% of citizens avoid news, many will not be well-informed. By eschewing frustrating news topics, people also avoid discussing them publicly. Thus, news avoidance also leads to a form of self-censorship.
As a result, the public sphere is left to those who have been (and are) agitated the most, driving the public discussion toward polarized views. It all spirals down in a vicious cycle: The more people with moderate opinions avoid public discussion, the more represented the agitated opinions become and the more the discussion heats up to the degree of hysteria, thus deterring more people with moderate opinions from participating.
[. . .]
A constructive or solution journalism project might be able to secure funding, but it would never garner a large enough audience to sustain it, not to mention making a social impact. Solution journalism might solve the problem of too few journalists, as it could potentially prompt philanthropic donors to fund media projects, but it would not resolve the problem of negativity, experienced by readers, the industry and society.
Indeed, attempts to eradicate negativity from journalism are not just unfeasible, they are inherently wrong. Negativity in the news is as important as pain is to the body. Moreover, not just negativity but the volume of negativity is meaningful. The more people are agitated, the more significant the issue is.
Of course, negativity and mass agitation can be artificially created or stirred up by malicious politicians to advance their careers, by media to drum up business, or by the very design of social media, which is aimed at boosting engagement. Perhaps, it is exactly this “added value” of negativity that drives the audience’s frustration and, ultimately, its news avoidance.
Nevertheless, even this excessive negativity is indicative of what stressors and the means of their delivery agitate society the most. Eliminating this pain would make society less aware of the important issues, whether those issues relate to politics or the state of communications. How else can society learn about the issues, say, with education, healthcare or border security if not just some, but many, forms of media are talking about it? The amount of pain—of social frustration caused by the news—matters. It should be sensed by the public and politicians for curative actions to be taken.
Read it all here.
John McWhorter: Black Students Are Being Trained to Think They Can’t Handle Discomfort
All the talk in recent years of “safe spaces” on college campuses sharply contradicts the rhetoric aimed at Jewish students in the face of “pro-Palestinian” protests, which have more than once bled over into antisemitism. In his New York Times newsletter, John McWhorter highlights that contrast to remind readers that teaching oversensitivity to college students helps no one prepare for life in the real world.
It seems to me that, in debates over free speech, Jews are seen in some quarters as white and therefore need no protection from outright hostility. But racism is America’s original sin, and thus we are to treat all and any intimation of it on university campuses as a kind of kryptonite, even if that means treating Black students as pathological cases rather than human beings with basic resilience who understand proportion and degree.
This is certainly a double standard imposed on Jewish students, as my colleagues Bret Stephens and David French, among others, have argued. However, we must also consider the imposition of this double standard upon young Black people. To assume they can’t handle anything unpleasant infantilizes bright, serious students preparing for life in the real world.
Both expectations are offenses to human dignity, and universities must seek a middle ground. The answer is neither the crudeness of allowing all speech to pass as “free” nor the clamping down on any utterance that rubs a student the wrong way.
The contrast between how university leaders treat affronts to Blackness versus how they are currently treating affronts to Jewishness is almost chilling.
[. . .]
Sometimes Black students must be protected not only from words, but words that sound like other words. In 2020, Greg Patton was suspended from teaching a class in communications at the University of Southern California. The reason was that one of his lectures included noting that in Mandarin, a hesitation term is “nèi ge,” which means “that …” and has nothing to do, of course, with the N-word. Several Black students said they felt injured by experiencing this word in the class.
[. . .]
It surely feels like being on the right side of social justice these days means shielding Black students even from all but nonexistent harms while essentially telling Jewish students, who are being actually assailed verbally, to just grow up. But to train young people, or any people, to think of themselves as weak is a form of abuse.
Read it all.
James Bennet: When the New York Times lost its way
Senator Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed calling for military intervention in the summer 2020 riots ultimately led to opinion page editor James Bennet losing his job. Now at The Economist, Bennet explains that this incident is just one of many illustrating the Times’ slide into illiberalism.
In interviews and his own writings, including an essay earlier this year for the Columbia Journalism Review, [A.G. Sulzberger] has defended “independent journalism”, or, as I understand him, fair-minded, truth-seeking journalism that aspires to be open and objective. It’s good to hear the publisher speak up in defence of such values, some of which have fallen out of fashion not just with journalists at the Times and other mainstream publications but at some of the most prestigious schools of journalism. Until that miserable Saturday morning I thought I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him in a struggle to revive them. I thought, and still think, that no American institution could have a better chance than the Times, by virtue of its principles, its history, its people and its hold on the attention of influential Americans, to lead the resistance to the corruption of political and intellectual life, to overcome the encroaching dogmatism and intolerance.
The Times’s problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether. All the empathy and humility in the world will not mean much against the pressures of intolerance and tribalism without an invaluable quality that Sulzberger did not emphasise: courage.
Don’t get me wrong. Most journalism obviously doesn’t require anything like the bravery expected of a soldier, police officer or protester. But far more than when I set out to become a journalist, doing the work right today demands a particular kind of courage: not just the devil-may-care courage to choose a profession on the brink of the abyss; not just the bulldog courage to endlessly pick yourself up and embrace the ever-evolving technology; but also, in an era when polarisation and social media viciously enforce rigid orthodoxies, the moral and intellectual courage to take the other side seriously and to report truths and ideas that your own side demonises for fear they will harm its cause.
One of the glories of embracing illiberalism is that, like Trump, you are always right about everything, and so you are justified in shouting disagreement down. In the face of this, leaders of many workplaces and boardrooms across America find that it is so much easier to compromise than to confront – to give a little ground today in the belief you can ultimately bring people around. This is how reasonable Republican leaders lost control of their party to Trump and how liberal-minded college presidents lost control of their campuses. And it is why the leadership of the New York Times is losing control of its principles.
Read the whole piece.
Around Twitter (X)
Inez Stepman proposes a fight-fire-with-fire approach to wake up the left on free speech:
And finally, via Jonathan Kay, a new euphemism for plagiarism drops in the New York Times: