^ Susan Collins speaks for ordinary voters, those of us who act as neighbors in the real world of community
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During the past four weeks those who get their information from the media, including social media, have witnessed the impact upon our nation’s civic consensus of activists far too sure of themselves. It is a mistake politically and epistemologically to be sure of oneself — more on this topic later — but that doesn’t stop those who are sure from being sure: nor has it ever. Certainty is more often a curse than a boon, and on social media certainty among politicals is the thing: people who don’t do actual physical campaigning get onto their cell phones and insist, insist, and insist some more, finding plenty of people to insist alongside them in pursuit of an absolute or three. The actual media loves it. The certainty interest is where they get their users, their subscribers, their followers, without whom they can’t make money.
My Mom was a newspaperwoman, a section editor at one of Boston’s great dailies. As a kid, 60-odd years ago, I used to ask her how the paper could print the scandals, many of them doctored, that were its bread and butter ? Her answer : “son, we are here to sell newspapers.” She was right; I was wrong.
The problem with publishing one sided stories, doctored or not, as that people believe what they read, The pen really is mightier than the sword. Yet in the traditional newspaper era, those who believed a thing had no way of knowing if anyone else believed it, or how many; and so people were shy to discuss stuff with their friends or neighbors. That’s still true in actual life; but in social media, there are no neighbors, only cliques of folks who know of each other’s existence and so know who they can safely vent their beliefs with. Belief is thus weaponized by sharing.
If you wonder how fairness — the rule of law, due process, and all that other fuddy-duddy stuff upon which our Constitution and society are based — can be so roundly discarded, even attacked, by warriors on the net, the weaponizing of belief is how it’s done. On the net, you are safe to be a bigot of whatever sort because you can block anyone who doesn’t share your particular rant and do so without actual comital consequences. On the net, in social media, there are no neighbors.
Thus Brett Kavanaugh could be savaged by accusation, piled on by yet more nonsensical gossip — all of it published by media in search of the net’s beehives of belief — and his most credible accuser savaged as well, by opponents of anti-Kavanaugh belief, with no consequences at law or for justice. My sense is that neither he nor she told the whole truth; that each side-stepped inconvenient facts; and that each was manoeuvered into impossible shape by people with an agenda that cared not a whit if their champion ended up damaged, maybe forever. I am sure that Dr. Ford had no clue that her confidential letter would be used to ambush Judge Kavanaugh or destroy his good name, certainly not in the lurid, lawless, ruthless ways it was used once published. She grew up before social media existed, and the shy and quite self-absorbed person I saw give testimony seemed completely perplexed by what was happening to her. The same is true for Judge Kavanaugh, though at less extent: he has long been an important actor in the politics of Washington and knew that he was hated by the party opposite. He would face hostility galore — that he knew; yet even he, I think, had no idea what was to come. He seemed quite unprepared for it, genuinely puzzled as to how his high school, or college, life — not at all unlike the life lived by my college and prep school contemporaries, believe me — had any bearing on the successful attorney and Judge he now was. He ducked many questions about that stage of his life, and I can’t really blame him: who of us at age 53 expects to be confronted publicly by the jerk we were at age 15, 17, 20, and to have the public now see us — at least partially — as kid jerk ? We have a right, we do, to grow up and put childish things aside, as Apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters, and be judged as adults. The same, of course, was true of Dr. Ford : it was very difficult, at least for me, to see the 15 year old party girl — and she was that — in the delicate, bookish 53 year old academic testifying at such a solemn bench.
Social media erased almost all this nuance. The two principals ceased to be fallible human beings like you and like me and became avatars of opposing causes insisted upon regardless of the skepticisms embedded in our nation’s legal system, Constitution, and venerable notions of fairness. Partisans of Dr. Ford set due process aside — because what is “believe women” but an assertion that accusation is its own proof ? — and partisans of Judge Kavanaugh, though forced to adhere to fairness, sometimes resorted to disparaging Dr. Ford’s character or candor. That the case in question could be neither proved nor disproved rendered it all the more open to ruthless war, on social media especially: because certainty thrives untamed when no certainty can ever be shown.
Susan Collins’s epic speech put an end to all that, for the present. She spoke the common sense wisdom of those who do not get sucked into the undertow of social media’s certainty waves. She spoke for ordinary neighbors, who do not shout each other down or bang protest upon each other’s doors, who do not corner each other in elevators or text death threats to one another. Collins decried every detail of the Senate hearing, scolding the opposition as it deserved to be, from the point of view of ordinary neighbors — of voters who don’t think they know it all and who work humbly in their community — and how they act in the world. She was correct: fairness must govern how we deal with each other, if we are to be true to our nation’s ideals and our community custom. It was a superb speech, one that we all should read in the context: neighbors and community.
Unfortunately, the arena of social media is expanding, perhaps to overtake that of neighbors and community. As we spend more and more time ranting into our cell phones or yelling in the streets, and less time interacting with actual neighbors, the ideals that gave rise to American political agreements weaken. An age of illiberality, and of inquisition; of belief for belief’s sake; of mob rule and almost civil war between competing mobs, is upon us. Good-bye to the Constitution and its careful barriers to passions of the moment, its safeguards for differing viewpoints, and its guarantees of fundamental rights TO ALL. I fear for the future of our unsocial nation.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere