Friday, June 19, 2015

"You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and independence." - Abraham Lincoln

I have a good friend who told me that she no longer posts what she really believes on social media sites. She's afraid, I think, that it could hurt her career.

So, I understand why, after the phone tapping of the Associated Press offices, some reporters indicated that they were now not pursuing certain stories out of fear. But regular people like you and me, not posting our opinions? Wasn't the Web going to give us a greater opportunity to share and openly discuss, or respectfully debate, important issues?

If my friend is not alone (and I don't think she is), why has the Web potentially created the opposite of independent thinking? Are we afraid that someone might read something we posted and disagree with it, that it would hurt our job prospects in the future to have an opinion that someone may not agree with? Weirdly, yes, I think this is part of what is going on. But it may be bigger than this.

Benjamin Franklin's famous quote captures ones of the reasons that the United States was formed as a republic and not a democracy: he said democracy was “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." We talk of democracy and democratic voice often as the be-all and end-all, but what if the Web's full flowering of it actually leads us to be less independent, not more?

Is there some way in which the democracy of Web leads us shallower, safer voices? Where we want lots of likes and followers, and so we become highly attuned to what we think is OK or not to say, like some kind of social pressure gone mad? Does tyranny over what we will say, as it turns out, actually arise from the democracy of the platform (to paraphrase Plato)?

This thought scares me. It's something I didn't expect. (Of course, I'm still channeling Dave Eggar's The Circle.) If it's true, how do we help students participate in such a way as to give them actual initiative and independence?

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his chapter of Democracy in America entitled, "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear," may have predicted this danger, albeit without having any idea of the technologies of the Web:
It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.... 
It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals...
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