07 August 2017

The unfriending of America

Republicans and right-wingers often rail at leftists who want to turn university campuses into "safe zones" where their opinions and self-esteem are never challenged by "hateful" ideas, but there seems to be a tendency on the right to treat social media as a safe zone. An op-ed in a local newspaper criticizes a number of Republican officeholders, including the President and the Governor of Maryland, who are blocking critics from their social media accounts. While I wouldn't be surprised to find Democrats doing the same thing, Republicans are supposed to be the people advocating robust debate everywhere. In the Maryland case the governor's office supposedly removed only "hateful and violent" content, but at least some of the people blocked insist that comments were "respectful, thoughtful and not profane." The ACLU is encouraging litigation against public officials who block users, on the premise that an official's social-media account is a public forum and blocking people violates the First Amendment.

Blocking unwelcome people from your social-media account is an uncontroversial practice for private citizens, though it usually reflects poorly on you in the eyes of those you block. When politicians block people from "official" accounts, it echoes the practice of relegating protesters and hecklers to some "free-speech zone." In both cases, the idea violates an assumed right of dissidents to get "in your face," to confront power directly and make your dissatisfaction with it known in the most obvious way. In the case of street demonstrations, "free-speech zones" are justified on the premise that demonstrators threaten the right to assemble of those they protest against. In social media, blocking people, however justified in some cases, is part of a much-deplored overall tendency of users to isolate themselves in "safe zones" of like-minded opinion, in an environment where any disagreement can be taken as an insult, if not an assault.

Reports this weekend of Trump TV's "real news" videos on the President's Facebook page triggered fears that social media could be made an instrument of state propaganda where alternate points of view are even less welcome than conservative opinion supposedly was in the old days of the three major networks and their allegedly biased news reports. Meanwhile, I suppose it could be argued that the social-media accounts of elected officials are not "public" in the sense assumed by the ACLU, that would confer constitutional rights on anyone who wants to comment on them. "Social" and "public" are not synonymous, and "social media" could be seen as yet another manifestation of "civil society," the flourishing of which, according to liberal thinking, is a safeguard against encroaching totalitarianism. Yet we could also be seeing a modern, secular version of the old American Christian tendency called "come-outerism," invoking the injunction from II Corinthians 6:17 to "come out from among them and be separate ... and touch not the unclean thing." Now you can do this without even leaving home, and that makes it easier for all sides to abandon the ideal of mutual accountability upon which principled democracy depends. When no one wants to hear that they're wrong, or even that they might be wrong, you have a consensus, in effect, that everyone is wrong.

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