Post-neoliberal civics and the symmetry problem

One of the curious features of social media is how it encourages reflection on the use of social media. It has brought novel experiences and the capacity to discuss novelty, leading to a growing focus on online interaction as an object of online interaction. The result is often far from pretty: I take ‘post-truth’ to be in part a diffuse and confused response to this increasing awareness that something has changed in political culture and it’s probably not a positive thing. The journalist Peter Oborne described this as “a new and disturbing coarseness in modern political and media discourse, marked in particular by a failure to understand or even acknowledge other points of view”.

If this diagnosis is correct then how should we respond to it? In this collection of essays by Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson, there is a recurrent focus on the tendency to alt-liberal* and Conservative figures to accuse the left of rampant intolerance, inability to engage rationally with opponents, smearing and bullying those they disagree with while doing precisely that to the left. Through his detailed case studies, he draws attention to (a) how rare it is for these figures to engage with named proponents of the views they criticise (b) how rare it is for them to engage with the more sophisticated and detailed proponents of these views (c) how rare it is for them to engage with the content of these views. For example as he observes, Stephen Pinker “treats the left as hysterically overstating its case, of calling everybody racists and despoilers, even as he brands them Nazis and Stalinists”

There’s a problem of symmetry here could easily be framed as a matter of intellectual honesty. It’s much easier to make your case, continuing to build your immensely lucrative supporter base in the process, if you attack stereotypes and phantoms liable to rile your supporters. But if we see the problem of symmetry as applicable to everyday civics, how we learn to engage and disagree with others as citizens, beyond the wealthy intellectuals profiting from the culture wars then it becomes a more ambiguous issue.

Are there features of social media which make symmetry difficult to sustain? I would say there clearly are e.g. the quantity of views one can be exposed to, the ease with which one can evade those views, the tendency of platforms to amplify misunderstandings, the tendency of platforms to incentivise provocation. This is why I think we need to take ‘post-truth’ seriously, even as we remain relentlessly critical of it, because there is an element here which is seeking to diagnose something which is happening to civic culture, even if so much of the diagnosis is wildly naive and/or implausible.

*I don’t meant this pejoratively, as much as to indicate how changes within liberalism (driven by the changing political coordinates all face as neoliberalism “limps to its death”) and changes amongst liberal intellectuals (driven by the attention economy of social media) necessitate a new categorisation to recognise the specificity of figures like David Brooks, Jordan Peterson, Stephen Pinker and Sam Harris