In his article, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt has laid out the case for the downfall of practical thinking and directly correlates it to the rise of social media. He likens it to the Tower of Babel, how we all communicated with a common language, to the fall of the tower, which has unleashed a lot of confusion and serious harm.
“The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias.”
We have always had that tendency, to have around us the information that confirms how we think, but with social media, we have taken that to a whole new level. Search engine algorithms only assist us in confirmation bias. Social media is designed to load only the things you agree with OR, ironically, the things that enrage you.
There is a cure: interact with people NOT LIKE YOU.
Laughable, I know.
What used to be common in our culture was the old English system of law that developed the “adversarial system” designed to have biased advocates on either side of a case argue their case in front of an unbiased jury.
There used to be journalistic standards that were derived out of the horrible days of “yellow journalism” that demanded higher standards of reporting. Just watch the old move, “All the President’s Men” (with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford), to understand the standard they had to meet before going to print with the story of Watergate. It’s an incredibly boring movie for good reason. The story had to be verified over and over and the editors wouldn’t run with it until that happened. That takes time and it’s tedious.
Who has time for THAT any more?
Universities at one time had developed into research institutions to pursued knowledge and researched ideas and allowed the findings to take them in directions they hadn’t even thought of before.
These things don’t maintain themselves, as Haidt points out. They have to be cared for by a society that works together among disagreement as they search for an understanding. Internal disagreements could happen in that time!
Now? Not so much.
Disagree? You are booted off the island, so to speak.
Haidt writes: “This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted.” (This refers back to earlier in the article when Haidt said that social media gave everyone a dart gun.)
Universities clammed up. Alternative opinions dried up.
Political institutions were poisoned. Each political party would forbid their members to “fraternize” with members of the “opposing’ party. Dissent on the right and the left has been stifled.
From “Pizza Gate” on the right to progressive takedowns on the left, everyone was firing their dart guns. We don’t have colleagues who disagree anymore. We have “racists” and “transphobia” and “Karens” who are idiots and not worth our time or air space. We’ve created a whole new set of scarlet letters to slap on people.
Just one word to prove this: COVID.
We don’t have a range of ideas and options. Either you’re weak for wearing a mask or you are mindless for NOT wearing a mask. It’s that stark. Who has time for nuance?
Haidt, while producing some possible solutions, also begins with dire warnings. If we don’t do something soon, we collapse as a society. That’s a stark conclusion for Haidt.
He DOES offer solutions, while almost admitting out loud that hardly anyone will pay attention to them.
- “Harden Democratic Institutions.” And by that he means solidify institutions BACK to a level of function. Close primaries, for one thing. They are only designed to bring out the hard left and the hard right. They run hard to the extreme to get the passionate voters out. Open the “primary” to a system where everyone runs together and no labels are added, like “R” or “D.” Top candidates run in a general election used ranked choice voting. Along with that, quit the gerrymandering of districts!
- “Reform Social Media.” (Stop laughing. Really.) Limit platform amplifications. Demand social media companies to radically change the algorithms that target rage posts that they know will be shared over and over.
- “Prepare the Next Generation.” This is the fun one. Haidt wants to implement more unsupervised free play. Set kids loose outdoors and let them figure out how to make up games again. We have hovered over our kids for two generations. How IS that going? My parents worked a small business. When I was old enough to be home, I had three channels on TV to watch. I would go outside and create baseball games in my head, or imagine a battle scene and run it… by myself. I could bike to different friends’ houses and we’d figure out things to do.
We have sinned grievously against two generations! We have allowed social media to create more anxiety and depression, leading to statistical proof of more ideations of suicide, more attempted suicides, and more suicides. The rates shot up 10 years ago and have not subsided since. This is SIN on our part.
One more thing I would advocate: Act LOCALLY. David Brooks has advocated for that as well.
Quit worrying about the White House and Supreme Court. Find local issues and local groups and local advocates and build community in your block and in your town once again. Have more neighborhood cookouts. Talk to each other. Act LOCALLY.
There is hope. It’s not going to last long. We must act.