A friend of mine, Nathaniel Gotcher, recently shared thoughts on public discourse, laying out some of the consequences of modern democracy for social media. While not condemning universal suffrage, he does share how modern democracy and its political frameworks can create problems when it comes to public discourse. I’ve shared his thoughts below (lightly edited for clarity), because I found them very helpful and think you might as well…
Those of us born and raised in the liberal west, but especially America, where universal suffrage is the ideal and where the belief that all men are created equal is a fundamental principle, are extremely susceptible to the pressures of partisan discourse; either by submitting to that opinion we experience as a majority, or by seeing an opposing view as an existential danger. This is because we think that everyone’s opinion is both politically relevant (because these people can vote!) and of equal interest to us (since all are created equal).
In a sense, this is a correct insight. We do (ostensibly) have universal suffrage (for adults), and there is an equality before God in our creation. The majority does, legally, rule, so if we experience something as a majority opinion, that may in fact say something about where our country is heading politically (or is already). Furthermore, we don’t often have the tools to distinguish between true and false claims, and therefore give equal weight to the opinions of all who are created equal.
The problem—and one exacerbated by social media where sample size is small and self-selectingly vocal–is that these pressures take on the form of a cultic following of the majority opinion (in your experience), because of its ostensible relevance to real-life political movement and therefore its real social effect on you. Alternately, the pressure comes in the form of demonizing the other (in the need to tear the other down for an opinion because it could have significant political impact if it were to become the majority). So, we must insist, and loudly, that the other is a dangerous racist, fascist, communist, totalitarian, extremist, pro-violence, anti-life, etc. We need to make sure *their* mob doesn’t win the Discourse.
What is the answer? Perhaps there isn’t an easy one. But being aware of the pitfalls of our philosophical and political commitments in the age of social media is surely important. If we are to promote universal suffrage because of a belief that the equality of all humans means that everyone’s opinion should be accounted for, we should understand that this will require us to be open to many many harmful, dumb, ill-conceived, or simply manipulative opinions. And this will mean a constant struggle to free ourselves from a dangerous majority where it exists, or to constantly fight against a dangerous minority which could any day take the place of majority opinion.
[There is another option.] It is, in my opinion, far better to realize that most people’s opinions are not formed because they have an equal strength of conviction, or the intellect to develop insightful proposals. Most peoples’ opinions are, rather, the result of being taught and formed by others whom they themselves trust (rightly or wrongly) to have superior convictions or intellect. In this way, we can understand that the “majority” voice we see is not a compelling confluence of equal minds coming together in agreement which thus requires either submission of intellect or fierce intellectual combat. Instead, we should turn to someone we trust to be well formed intellectually and morally, and submit to the “inequality” that implies. Only that frees us from living in the pressure of the competing mob factions that dominate our social lives.
For me, the above remarks are helpful in reflecting how to engage with others online in a productive way. We’re inclined to believe that the opinion of each person is equal, because everyone gets a chance to comment, to occupy an online space, and to put forward ideas. But an opinion isn’t worth responding to every time it’s raised. The frequency or ferocity of an opinion isn’t necessarily an indicator of its value. Unlike votes in a democracy, there is not equal value to each position, even if our political world inclines us to believe this.
If we want to seek higher things and not be reduced to the maintenance staff of social media, we might be better off letting some (or many) opinions go unanswered and focusing, instead, on creative and productive discourse with friends and neighbors who can help create something of lasting value. The above remarks were a helpful reminder for me to step out of the bounds set by social media and modern democracy, to believe that there is something more to discourse and ideas, and to believe that we can be a part of that something more.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.