Social networks are shrinking the public square

By Phil Lawler (bio – articles – email) | 28 October 2021

Some people are concerned that the polar cap will shrink. Personally, I spend more time worrying about the more dramatic withering of the public square.

By “public place” I mean the ordinary discussion of ideas and institutions, policies and personalities, which takes place in any society between neighbors and casual acquaintances. Conversations that take place in the public square are different from more intimate exchanges between close friends and family. But they are also distinguished from political debates, in that they do not necessarily involve controversy.

Or rather, should I say that political debates are a type conversation that takes place in the public square. However, a vigorous political debate presupposes the existence of the public square; we can speak freely about controversial matters because we have learned to engage in open and civil conversation.

The dimension of the public square, taken in this sense, is limited only by the limits of civility. In any society, there are matters which, by mutual agreement, are simply “not discussed” in good company. People who consistently violate these boundaries are rejected; they are not welcome in discussions; they are indeed escorted out of the public square.

If political debates are a subset of the realm of public debate, it is also true that the limits of the public square also frame most political debates. Politicians who do not respect the standards of civility, as established in this public square, are generally rejected. (Donald Trump encountered widespread hostility as a political candidate because he ignored the conventions of polite public discourse, and his rise to power revealed that many American voters were also willing to abandon those conventions.)

In a healthy democracy, the public square is a living place, with a wide range of exchanges. Everyone has the opportunity to express themselves on the issues that are close to their hearts; new ideas are welcome. In theory, the Internet, by allowing everyone to find a global audience for their reflections, should have widened the dimensions of the public square. But in practice, because the most powerful online communication tools have fallen under monopoly control, our public conversation has seriously slowed down.

The limits of civility

Again, every society places limits on polite speech. Defamation and “fighting words” are unacceptable, as are cries of “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We know, almost instinctively – or learn more painfully, through rebuffs, reproaches, and punishments – that there are things we shouldn’t say. It’s not easy to define the kinds of offenses that make someone unpopular, but as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, “I know it when I see it”.

But these common standards have evolved rapidly, as the prevalence of pornography actually demonstrates. Not so long ago, Justice Stewart could confidently assume that most Americans shared at least a general idea of ​​what constituted a violation of civil standards; now the grossest types of porn are just a few mouse clicks away, and celebrities are shamelessly discussing their porn preferences. As Irving Kristol noted, “A Liberal is someone who says it’s okay for an 18-year-old to star in a pornographic movie as long as she’s paid minimum wage.

Notice now that in Kristol’s ironic illustration of the problem there is still are recognized offenses against civility. The porn is acceptable by liberal standards; the lower salary is not. Changing public standards do not mean that we have a wider and freer range of public expression; it only means that the borders have been redrawn and different types expression are now out of reach.

In fact, while a previous generation avoided those who talked about sex, it is now considered an offense against liberal standards to suggest detention on sexual expression. Drag queens are more likely to be accepted in public spaces than proponents of traditional Judeo-Christian morality. The latter, in fact, can be accused of “hate speech” for having criticized the former. And it’s a one-way street; drag queens will not be charged for condemning Christianity.

When the truth is not welcome

In this context, consider the plight of Congressman Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, whose Twitter account was suspended when he identified Rachel Levine, the transgender Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, as a man. A Washington post The headline gasped that Banks had “intentionally misgendered” Levine. Twitter informed him that his account would not be unlocked until he deleted the offending comment because, “You cannot promote violence against, threaten or harass other people. »On the Twitter platform.

What had Banks really said? When Levine was awarded the rank of Four Star Admiral, as the new Corps Chief of the United States Public Health Services Commission, the congressman observed, “The title of Four Star First Woman is taken by a man.

Here Banks is stating a fact. Rachel Levine is a biological man, and it is a measure of the confusion in our society that a prominent public health official is unable to accept undeniable evidence of his own chromosomes. Congressman Banks did not “encourage violence against, threaten or harass” Levine; he simply refused to accept as fact the fiction that Levine can, by an act of will, alter biological reality.

But the facts don’t matter. Banks have been banned from the public arena – or at least from that considerable part of the public conversation that takes place on Twitter. Other social media platforms will quickly follow suit, as will the mainstream print and broadcast media that draw on the same arbiters of liberal standards.

And where are the people who should come to Congressman Banks’ defense? It is a quirk of the American political system that a public health official can have the status of a four-star military officer, and that soldiers who have earned their stripes in combat can resent Levine’s new status. More specifically, feminists who claim to promote justice for women should be outraged that someone who is not an organic female claimed a prize they could covet. Yet I have not heard any indignant protest from feminists. Are they too worried that they will be excluded from polite conversation if they speak? Are they silenced by the politically correct forces they helped create?

Incense for the emperor online?

The most embarrassing aspect of this bizarre episode is Twitter’s request to Banks to delete his post on Levine. A member of Congress can say whatever he wants on the floor of the House of Representatives, without fear of negative legal consequences. But he doesn’t have such freedom on the Internet. There, if he wants to stay in the conversation, he must agree – or at least refrain from opposing – to an untruth.

There have been other times in history when those who refused to accept the lies were kicked out of the public eye. These precedents are alarming. I am thinking of the Soviet empire, in which all criticism of Marxist theory has been suppressed. Or the end of the Roman Empire (perhaps not by chance, another society marked by unfettered sexual expression), in which citizens might be required to burn incense to honor gods they did not believe in. . Some citizens, especially Christians, refused.

Am I exaggerating the dangers we face? This week, linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky suggested that people who refuse the Covid vaccination should literally be taken out of the public square: kicked out of their communities. When reminded that such outcasts might struggle to find enough food to eat, Chomsky replied, “Well, that’s actually their problem. This comment, notice, was not condemned as hate speech; Chomsky does not facing the prospect of being banned from polite society. We do.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for over 30 years. He edited several Catholic magazines and wrote eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is News Director and Senior Analyst at See the full biography.

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