Want to save democ­racy? Hold friends to ac­count

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - John Rob­son

The grow­ing feel­ing that Rus­sian ma­nip­u­la­tion of so­cial me­dia helped elect Don­ald Trump is in­creas­ing peo­ple’s dis­taste for both. There is even talk of cen­sor­ing Face­book, a.k.a. re­quir­ing so­cial me­dia ads to be “trans­par­ent.” But given the draw­backs of cen­sor­ship and its dif­fi­culty on­line, I sug­gest a sim­pler so­lu­tion.

Pace Ron­ald Rea­gan, I don’t mean easier. Es­pe­cially as the key tool here is a mir­ror, be­cause the fault lies not in our servers but in our­selves. We must refuse to con­sume or share junk.

As my col­league Jen Ger­son ar­gued in Mon­day’s Post, the Rus­sians weren’t re­ally tar­get­ing so­cial me­dia flaws. Rather, “The great­est weak­nesses in Western democ­ra­cies is us.” She’s right … but we have to mean us, not “them.”

In some sense, vot­ers have al­ways been the great­est weak­ness in Western democ­racy. But also its great­est strength. All hu­man in­sti­tu­tions are fal­li­ble be­cause all hu­mans are fal­li­ble. And the great ar­gu­ment for self­gov­ern­ment, as one as­pect of a de­ter­minedly open so­ci­ety even when it hurts or smells, is that it cor­rects mis­takes far bet­ter than any other sys­tem.

It can be hard to put up with democ­racy’s fail­ings. Our own prime min­is­ter no­to­ri­ously praised the Chi­nese dic­ta­tor­ship’s abil­ity to turn on a dime on en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters. He was as wrong fac­tu­ally as morally. But it’s al­ways tempt­ing to say, “Well, this cri­sis is too se­ri­ous for the time- hon­oured method of stag­ger­ing from er­ror to er­ror with­out ever fall­ing down,” or to claim the elec­torate has some­how be­come so weak, cor­rupted or stupid as to lose what once passed for our ca­pac­ity for ra­tio­nal thought.

Per­haps we fi­nally have. I am cer­tainly part of the O Tem­pora O Mores crowd, though para­dox­i­cally the very an­tiq­uity of this lament is grounds for hope ( it’s from Cicero’s First Ora­tion Against Cataline in 63 BC). I also re­call Ch­ester­ton’s warn­ing, long be­fore even the wire­ful tele­phone blighted our lives, that big ci­ties of­fered prob­lem­atic op­por­tu­ni­ties to as­so­ciate only with like- minded peo­ple. But I do not be­lieve the In­ter­net’s fa­mous “echo cham­ber” ef­fect, or its in­fa­mous in­ci­vil­ity to­ward strangers, were held in check in days of yore en­tirely by the cost of postage.

Some­thing bad has hap­pened as a com­bined re­sult of tech­no­log­i­cal and so­cial change. But as we can­not go back­ward chrono­log­i­cally, we must go for­ward morally.

The thing is, and again it’s nei­ther news nor wel­come, we can’t fix the prob- lem by urg­ing our bas­ket of op­po­nents to smarten up. Even Ger­son’s col­umn seemed to me to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on peo­ple who didn’t agree with her, as though con­ser­va­tive id­iots’ sins were ob­vi­ously the core prob­lem. But as Tom Hanks said in The Burbs, “It’s not them. It’s us.”

Let me il­lus­trate with two re­cent in­ci­dents from my own life- like ob­ject. I do so not to claim su­pe­rior virtue but to un­der­line what I think is nec­es­sary.

First, some­one sent me a stir­ring Sir Wil­frid Lau­rier speech about the need for im­mi­grants to con­form to the Cana­dian way of life. But the scent of rat does not em­anate only from the other camp. And this mis­sive brought to mind J. M. Barrie’s quip, “I know not, Sir, whether Ba­con wrote the works of Shake­speare, but if he did not it seems to me that he missed the op­por­tu­nity of his life.” Ex­cept I do know. The In­ter­net has some uses, and a quick on­line search told me the quo­ta­tion was con­cocted seven years ago from some­thing Theodore Roo­sevelt re­ally did say about im­mi­grants to Amer­ica. So in­stead of cir­cu­lat­ing what I wish Lau­rier had said, I in­formed the sender that he didn’t.

The other in­ci­dent in­volved a cri­tique of global warm­ing alarmism that em­ployed the “Cli­mate Bar­bie” nick­name for our en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter. Risk­ing the wrath of the like- minded, I replied to the list, say­ing I mostly agreed, but ob­jected to what I considered a gra­tu­itous and ap­par­ently sex­ist in­sult.

The wrath duly de­scended. I was promptly and ab­surdly ac­cused of be­ing po­lit­i­cally cor­rect and not know­ing what sex­ism is. (For the record, I can see call­ing our prime min­is­ter “Cli­mate Ken” be­cause his shal­low­ness i ncludes un­seemly de­light in his own charms. But I see no sign that our en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter ’s clue­less­ness has any such source.)

I do not know whether I gained re­spect or lost friends over the episode. But if we don’t want so­cial me­dia to be a vast net­work of mean­spir­ited, un­re­li­able echo cham­bers we must all call out our own side more of­ten. In­clud­ing Trump- de­plor­ers wor­ry­ing less about the rub­bish his sup­port­ers ea­gerly poke their snouts into, and more about what t heir fel­low virtue- sig­nallers are con­sum­ing. If you can’t find any­thing un­savoury in your trough, your sense of smell is off.

Re­mem­ber, when we say the prob­lem is us, we must not mean it’s them. Be­cause then it’s re­ally us.



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