In Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, he addresses a dawning recognition that the utopia of free speech and tolerance we were promised the internet would bring about hasn’t quite materialized. “The conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries,” he argues, “already have unnerving parallels today, in the time of Facebook, Islamic State and Trumpworld.” In other words, the web has put a rocket under our culture wars and existing social divisions, making the public sphere a much more ornery, mistrustful place – one of rancor and bloody-mindedness.
If all one ever did was to read clever books – and ones not yet published, at that – about how the world is going to hell in a handcart, one’s sense of impending doom might simply impend too much. So I haven’t read it. But he’s probably right, isn’t he? The network technology of our age has plugged many of us into spurious, echo-chamber bubble-worlds containing only “people like us.” And some of these spurious worlds reflect pat, off-the-peg ways of understanding the real world that are enormously baneful: radical Islam; a reductive neo-Marxism that rejects everything pertaining to the status quo ante; equally reductive, counter-revolutionary movements that embrace or flirt with blood-and-soil nationalism. For many of those beholden to such explanations of the world, opposing views are an affront. Their battles and revolutions are in the here and now.
What of the rest of us, though? Blithely, resolutely, I neglect to “check my privileges” when I make the following assertion: that most people really don’t give a stuff about ideology. We may feel herded into thinking we ought to, because that is the dynamic on which our politics and news industry – the one hand-on-teat with the other – hinges. But we don’t really. We may feel motivated – in part, if we’re honest, by the narcissism of small differences – to vote one way or another. But deep down we’re not entirely sure what we think on a whole range of issues, even as we have no wish to stop others from saying what they do, earnestly, think. Or think they think. We’re interested in what works in practice, rather than in theory. Many of us even have friends who vote differently to ourselves. What we don’t have is memes on the internet about all of this.
Online, networks have emboldened all manner of outliers to find and raise up their voices. Collectively, their strength is boosted by a news media brought low by the democratizing – and profit-sapping – effects of the same technology. In short, the zealous, the shrill and the contentious are all given disproportionate amounts of oxygen by an industry that is in itself in a state of asphyxiation. The result is a surfeit of noxious politics and ideology in the public sphere.
So much for journalism’s ability to filter out the unimportant or offer a sense of proportion on any of this. Unfortunately, much of what passes for scholarship fails, similarly, to reckon with the silent ambivalence of zoon non-politikon in the age of Twitter fights in which everyone ends up calling everyone else a fascist.
It often seems that barely a month goes by these days without some new study emerging of how liberals and conservatives are possessed of different types of brain. The liberal bias of these studies is often pronounced: conservatives are found to be rigid, uncompromising bastards who hate ambiguity and live in constant fear of dying, whereas liberals are emotionally and intellectually dextrous, co-operative, creative and equable, and emit small beams of sunshine from their hindquarters as they go about their selfless lives. But the tendency to separate human thought into dueling theories, or worldviews, is persistent in intellectual spheres generally. Right or left; individualist or communitarian; authoritarian or libertarian; “anywhere” (culturally fluid and cosmopolitan) or “somewhere” (rooted and socially conservative); Edmund Burke or Thomas Payne; Keynes or Hayek: show me an exam question, and I will show you a binary formulation.
Can’t we have a journalism that strives towards some idea of universalism? That does not concern itself with who has taken offense but is not afraid to give it to those who poison the well?
So, then, a protest. Can’t we be both and / or neither? Can’t we trust in markets and in the idea that there is such a thing as the common interest? Can’t we desire government that does useful things on our behalf and steers away from intervening on our freedoms? Can’t we have respect for tradition and believe in progress? Can’t we have a journalism that cuts through the noise and strives towards some idea of universalism instead of pandering to the squalid, zero-sum dynamics of identity politics and competing victimhoods, that does not concern itself with who has taken offense but is not afraid to give it to those who poison the well?
Thomas Hobbes was not a great believer in the idea of a natural moral order in the world. Humankind, as he saw it, would be liable to regress to a state of viciousness and avarice without the steadying hand of a coercive state. It’s a bleak view, but one which it seems to me today’s left and right attribute each to the other, in their different ways: the left caricatures the right’s view of human nature as a deification of selfishness; the right mocks the left’s statist impulses, in which it discerns a fundamental lack of trust in ordinary people to make their own decisions. Such levels of mutual mistrust, then, that each caucus believes the other lacks faith in humanity entirely.
It does feel, now, like the tendency to believe the worst of others on account of views they hold, or express, is widespread. If Hobbes saw the world as a nasty, cut-throat place, then – as Niall Ferguson may be understood to intimate – growing numbers seem bent on proving him right.