The Social Media Upheaval | Book Review


Everyone, it seems, uses Facebook and Twitter…and hates them. The Left hates them because the Russians used them to steal the 2016 presidential election from Hilary Clinton and give it to Donald Trump. (That’s the allegation anyway, highly improbable in my opinion.) The Right hates them because they censor and deplatform conservative speech. (A more probable allegation, in my opinion.) And because everyone hates them, everyone wants to reform them.

The Social Media Upheaval by Glenn Harlan Reynolds explains why social media have become so powerful and so hated in the last decade, as well as how to ameliorate their worst features. Reynolds is the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at InstaPundit.com—he’s known as the “Blogfather” whose links to other sites cause “Instalanches” of sudden, high-volume web traffic. He writes for such publications as The AtlanticForbesPopular MechanicsThe Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The basic problem with social media, in Reynolds’ telling, is their design. “It’s almost as if the social media world was designed to spread viruses of the mind,” he writes, then cites Jaron Lanier’s work on “engagement.” As Lanier writes, “Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the ‘easy’ emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.” Combine the negative emotions with social media’s bandwagon effect and the tendency of users not to read past headlines, and you find that, in Reynolds’ words, “Social media makes people less informed but more partisan.”

That’s bad enough, but then you have to factor in the monopolistic nature of current social media. In the early days of the internet, blogs and chat boards existed at individual domains that you had to separately visit. Now, you never have to leave Facebook. There’s a clear upside to this, of course—ease of use. The downside is when Facebook begins to regulate who or what can make use of its platform. The same goes for Twitter and like-minded social media.

Because of this corporate censorship, deplatforming, and demonetization, some—such as Sen. Josh Hawley—have urged legislation to regulate content in a variety of ways. Reynolds has doubts about that from a First Amendment perspective, which I share. Instead, he urges legislation based on antitrust principles. He writes: “Policing platforms, and collusion among them…is likely to do more good than censorship. Antitrust scrutiny of monopolies and collusion will do more for the integrity of social media, and the protection of society from hysteria and misinformation, than regulation of content. And such antitrust regulation doesn’t raise the same First Amendment and free speech problems.”

At 64 pages, The Social Media Upheaval is a quick read and valuable for precisely that reason. If you’re worried about the negative effectives social media is having on American public discourse (and mental health), read it.


Book Reviewed
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, The Social Media Upheaval(New York: Encounter Books, 2019).

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Review of ‘Freedom from Speech’ by Greg Lukianoff


Freedom-from-speechGreg Lukianoff, Freedom from Speech, Encounter Broadside No. 39 (New York: Encounter Books, 2014). Paperback | Kindle

Freedom of speech is a bedrock American principle. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it cannot be reduced to that amendment. Instead, as Greg Lukianoff points out in this Encounter Broadside, it reflects “cultural values” and “intellectual habits,” such as

giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right. At the heart of these values is epistemic humility—a fancy way of saying that we must always keep in mind that we could be wrong or, at least, that we can always learn something from listening to the other side.

Lukianoff contends that these values and habits are under assault in America today, and he points to numerous examples to establish the point.

The assault on freedom of speech cannot be dismissed simply as “academia’s fault,” the result of “liberal groupthink” and “political correctness.” (Academia does play a leading role, however, as Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty details at length. So does the political Left.) Instead, the assault reflects a social trend that can be seen worldwide:

people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.

The problem with expecting comfort as a right is that…well, the real world doesn’t work that way. Even assuming that everyone is acting on their best behavior, diversity ensures that there will be disagreement in society about what is true, good, and beautiful. Far from helping resolve those disagreements, social rules and cultural norms that promote “freedom from speech” hinder reasonable resolutions of those conflicts—and even the agreement to disagree. Instead, freedom from speech requires power—university administrators, government regulators, etc.—to impose a version of truth, goodness, and beauty on a diverse society that literally does not have a say about it.

Far from promoting a tolerant, comfortable society, then, the right to comfort ironically creates victims and transmogrifies conflicts about fundamental principles into zero-sum conflicts about who wields power. In such a situation, reason loses and force wins. That’s not a good situation for democratic societies to find themselves in. Far better to allow Socratic gadflies to ask uncomfortable, even embarrassing, questions and to dialogue the way to reasonable answers! Unfortunately, that’s not the path contemporary American society is taking.

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Review of ‘The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom’ by Steven D. Smith


RiseAndDeclineofAmericanReligiousFreedom Steven D. Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In America, religious freedom is often named “the first freedom.” One reason reason for this name is religious freedom’s pride of place in the First Amendment. Only after stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” does that amendment go on to prohibit congressional laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The order of the First Amendment points to a second, more important reason for the name, however: the primacy of conscience that religious freedom protects.

One would think that religious freedom would unite Americans of all persuasions, religious and political. Unfortunately, however, religious freedom itself has become a controversial topic within our increasingly secular and egalitarian political culture. Flashpoints are numerous, but certain clashes are especially prominent at the present moment: the rights of religious groups at public schools, the constitutionality of the so-called ministerial exception, the burden ObamaCare’s sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate places on religious business owners; and the increasingly tense battle between gay rights groups and religious believers on the topic of same-sex marriage.

Underlying these conflicts are two very different narratives regarding the meaning of American religious freedom, whose differences Steven D. Smith outlines in The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.

The “standard story” traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom to the Enlightenment; interprets the First Amendment as a radical innovation in public affairs; contends that its meaning was imperfectly realized in the 19th century, when evangelical Protestant Christianity was America’s established religion de facto, though not de jure; and lauds Supreme Court decisions from the mid-20th century onward for their deconstruction of this de facto establishment and construction, in its place, of secularism and neutrality toward religion. A fifth element of this narrative, increasingly evident among legal elites, though not necessarily in the courts, is the belief that religious freedom is outmoded and therefore should be discarded because it is antithetical to the egalitarian outcomes government exists to secure. If, for example, religious freedom is simply the last refuge of homophobic bigots—as same-sex marriage proponents loudly complain—why should it be preserved?

In sharp contrast to the standard story, Smith proposes a “revised version,” a point-by-point refutation of the former, or at least a counter-narrative to it. This version traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom farther back than the Enlightenment—indeed, to predominantly Christian emphases on the freedom of the church and the liberty of conscience. Far from being a radical innovation, the First Amendment was a non-controversial, ho-hum affirmation of the American status quo, affirming jurisdictional limitations on the federal government’s involvement with religion, which left state governments free to establish or disestablish religions as they pleased. The resulting “American settlement” allowed for “open contestation” between advocates of “providentialism” and “secularism,” even as it enforced jurisdictional boundaries between the federal government and the nation’s churches. Among other things, this settlement allowed presidents to declare national days of prayer and thanksgiving, politicians to offer theological motives for laws with secular effects, and public schoolchildren to pray and hear the Bible read by the teacher in the classroom. Rather than maintain this settlement, the mid-20th-century Supreme Court ended the policy of open contestation and declared that government must be both secular and neutral with regard to religion. This secular neutrality is out of step with American legal and political traditions and is not neutral with regard to religion. Rather, it deprivileges religion in favor of secular accounts of reality. As noted above, some legal theorists want to dispense with religious freedom altogether, arguing that religious believers’ rights of speech, press, freedom of association, and redress of grievances would be more than adequately protected in its absence.

But Smith wonders whether this would actually be so, closing his book with these words:

In childlike fashion, perhaps, let us indulge the assumption that unlike so many rulers throughout history, our contemporary governors are true men (and women) and good, genuinely motivated by a desire to govern justly. Even so, we might recall Justice Louis Brandeis’s observation that “[e]xperience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent… The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

So it is just possible that the forgetting or forgoing of the logic of jurisdiction that animated the commitment to freedom of church and conscience, and thereby set and underscored bounds to the jurisdiction of the state, might turn out to be a loss sorely lamented…

In other words, should the first freedom fall, can the second, third, and fourth freedoms continue to withstand the encroachment of state power? That’s a good question, and Steven D. Smith should be thanked for raising it in his timely and illuminating study of American religious freedom’s rise and decline.

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Our First Right: Religious Liberty | Public Discourse


From Our First Right: Religious Liberty | Public Discourse:

At the heart of the American model of public life is an essentially religious vision of man, government, and God. This model has given us a free, open, and non-sectarian society marked by an astonishing variety of cultural and religious expressions. But our system’s success does not result from the procedural mechanisms our Founders put in place. Our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it. And those moral assumptions have a religious grounding.

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