This is a guest post from Timothy K. Minella. Minella recently finished his PhD in history at the University of South Carolina, where he is presently a part-time instructor. His dissertation is titled “Knowing in America: The Enlightenment, Science, and the Early Republic” and directed by Ann Johnson. – TL
In my previous post, I discussed Tocqueville’s thoughts on the “democratic” style of history. In this post, I will apply Tocqueville’s analysis of the sources of intellectual authority in democratic society to that most modern (or postmodern) of subjects: social media.
In a similar manner as his discussion of the democratic style of history, Tocqueville perceived that democratic society had the potential to limit freedom of thought. In an age of social equality, Tocqueville argued, there existed no superior class that could serve as an intellectual authority for the rest of society. Instead, the people “commonly seek for the sources of truth in themselves, or in those who are like themselves.” Democratic society did not destroy intellectual authority; democracy only changed the form of this authority. “At periods of equality, men have no faith in one another, by reason of their common resemblance,” Tocqueville explained, “but this very resemblance gives them almost unbounded confidence in the judgment of the public; for it would not seem probable, as they are all endowed with equal means of judging, but that the greater truth should go with the greater number.” Public opinion thus held great sway in societies with social equality, and “it may be foreseen that faith in public opinion will become a species of religion there, and the majority its ministering prophet.” Despite the opportunities for experimentation and free inquiry in a democratic society, “I perceive how, under the dominion of certain laws, democracy would extinguish that liberty of the mind to which a democratic social condition is favorable; so that, after having broken all the bondage once imposed on it by ranks or by men, the human mind would be closely fettered to the general will of the greatest number.” Tocqueville concluded with another ominous warning: “There is here matter for profound reflection to those who look upon freedom of thought as a holy thing, and who hate not only the despot, but despotism.” (1)
Tocqueville’s analysis of intellectual authority in democracy offers a way to understand the power of public opinion in a world where social media continues to expand its reach and accessibility. Facebook and Twitter can, at their best, provide opportunities for individuals to disseminate their ideas to a broad audience without gaining the approval of gatekeepers (editors, publishers, etc.). Social media services can allow the less powerful and less connected a means to enter the arena of ideas and share their thoughts with anyone who has an Internet connection. But these democratic features of social media can also lead to the narrowing of thought that Tocqueville warned against. In the aftermath of a controversial news story, witness the many Facebook status updates in which the user promises to “unfriend” those Facebook users who do not adopt the author’s preferred interpretation of recent events. To even have the offending thoughts plastered on her News Feed is too much, it seems. Even if a Facebook user has some tolerance for dissent, her friend list usually contains mostly people who are quite similar to her. Thus, she only encounters those who think like her; she seeks the truth in those who are like her. Twitter facilitates the almost instantaneous formation of public opinion by allowing for rapid reaction to the day’s events, and a rigid consensus can quickly form about the particular meaning of some incident. (2)
Here, we might pause to refine Tocqueville’s analysis of public opinion in a democracy. He saw the majority in society as having a powerful sway over public opinion. This majority could continually circumscribe the bounds of thought, “for it does not persuade to certain opinions, but it enforces them, and infuses them into the intellect by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds of all upon the reason of each.” One look at a Twitter Timeline of multiple users will convince the reader that Tocqueville overstated his case. If anything, ideological diversity has increased in an environment where anyone can communicate with fellow travelers through an Internet connection. Clearly, the awesome power of public opinion has not succeeded in banishing differences of ideology and worldview. But social media does allow the user to choose the public that they address, often unconsciously. Safely ensconced in a social media bubble that only includes those who are socially similar to the user, she rarely has her ideas challenged. These various publics can each provide their own supply of “ready-made opinions” that Tocqueville discussed. A psychiatrist going by the pseudonym Scott Alexander has written a piece with the intriguing title “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” that explores this phenomenon. In this long but interesting essay, Alexander argues that the several “tribes” of American society (defined by a set of characteristics that includes such things as political affiliation, taste in cuisine, and occupation) exist in “parallel universes” and rarely interact with each other. He defines a “blue tribe” and a “red tribe,” which roughly correspond to liberal and conservative, respectively. Much of the rhetoric from either of these tribes is dedicated to casting scorn upon the other tribe, and social media only increases this kind of rhetoric by providing people with a self-selecting audience of fellow members of their tribe. Thus does each particular public, or tribe, define its tenets and establish the bounds of acceptable thought. (3)
How can we fight against this tendency for social media to circumscribe freedom of thought? As scholars, we can start by using social media to listen, not just to instruct. Ideally, the various publics we interact with on social media can serve as a check to our own orthodoxies, and hearing from people in other walks of life can prompt us to view our sources from a slightly different perspective. Students in our classrooms can often inspire us to question our premises, and there is no reason that the various publics in the outside world cannot do the same.
(1) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bowen, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1863), 10-13, available here.
(2) A number of other commentators have applied Tocquevillian concepts in their critiques of social media. Andrew Rugg has argued that social networks “encourage isolation” and fail to develop meaningful, lasting friendships. Vartan Gregorian makes a similar point in contending that civility has declined in American political discourse. This Prezi presentation by Chandler Hays also covers many of the arguments I make here.
(3) Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:11.