We would call it social media, and the headline for Haidt’s essay appears optimized to get the engagement he finds dangerous: “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.”
We all know that some people shared the link only to send a message to everyone they disagreed with over anything. It’s a long read that isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, Haidt’s work invited serious readers to take a close look at the state of “We the People,” now with likes, shares, reactions, retweets, reels, stories, and so much more.
Haidt answers his initial question, “What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction?” with a reflection on modern political life that is fragmented and disorienting.
That’s a life shaped by structural stupidity. When we use social media to stoke outrage, we change institutions and organizations that start looking for ways to silence internal dissent. With no room for debate, Haidt explains, bad ideas become official policy.
There’s plenty to criticize in the essay. Haidt makes the mistake of harkening back to a golden era of trust, strong communities, and shared stories that erases the experience of racial minorities excluded from political, social, and economic power. There’s still plenty to talk about in the essay, and that’s the whole point.
When we’re all decided on one correct answer and allow for no error, we make deliberation unnecessary and democracy impossible. The discussion of a couple of recent events illustrates the problem:
First, Elon Musk wants to purchase Twitter and make the site a “free speech” zone. He has a limited idea of what free speech requires. He ignores years of jurisprudence and the recent history of racist, violent, and threatening behavior on these platforms. (To read more on this: Elon Musk is a Problem Masquerading as a Solution by Anand Giridharadas / NYT)
Second, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court narrowed the authority of the Center for Disease Control to a single mention of “sanitation” in one line of the Public Service Act of 1944. Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle then looked this single word up in a dictionary from 1944 to decide the CDC never had the authority to issue any mask mandate. Instead of exercising expertise, we have a dictionary definition of a single word, “sanitation,” from 1944. (Read the Judge’s Order in Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc. v. Biden and/or 42 USC 264: Regulations to control communicable diseases
No deliberation over what public safety requires is necessary.
We put a lot at risk when we wring dissent and ambiguity out of public life. George Saunders, a bestselling author, and Carl Sagan, a much-loved astrophysicist, can help us see why we sometimes need to be undecided.
Reflecting on “Gooseberries,” a short story by Anton Chekhov, Saunders writes:
This story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it… As long as we don’t decide, we allow further information to keep coming in.
The story makes thinking possible, but it won’t do the thinking for us. In Saunders’s book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, he shows how a single fixed answer can stop a story in its tracks. There’s nowhere left to go.
Science also rarely yields the perfect answer on what to think. Carl Sagan explains that this active participation in thinking is where science and democracy intersect:
Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.
He adds, “valid criticism does you a favor.” That’s our chance to see a bad answer for the havoc it could cause.
Daring to remain undecided means we will keep an inquiry open. That’s the remedy for structural stupidity, and that’s how we each do our part to keep the story of American democracy moving.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
—Nelson Mandela, Anti-Apartheid Leader
Let’s make it easier to start thinking together.
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For Your Reading List
The story of inflation got an update. Economists expecting limited growth in GDP for the first quarter of the year received final reports showing it shrank instead. CNN reported the story like this:
The nation’s gross domestic product – the broadest measure of economic activity – declined at an annualized rate of 1.4% between January and March in an abrupt reversal of the prior year’s strong growth.
Two quarters of declining growth marks a recession, so this looks like trouble. Blame and hot takes have flooded the conversation. As I’ve sifted through the economic talk, there’s another question that I’m much more interested in understanding:
Is economic growth incompatible with living wages and relief packages during a global pandemic? Do I have to choose between supporting what’s best for the economy and what’s best for American families?
Where to start?
The first thing to look for is an analysis that aims to be complete without over-interpreting a single measure. Alyssa Fowers and Rachel Siegel do their best to interpret all the results: Why the U.S. economy shrank (The Washington Post)
They explain how retailers' behavior and a trade deficit contributed to these results and reflect another not-so-new story, supply chain problems. The article includes a series of graphs that make it possible to see the data.
Then there’s consideration of what’s normal, what’s not, and what explains the difference. Stories of record-breaking profits have led to calls for regulatory reforms too. Tom Perkins takes up this concern and the question of what lawmakers can do: ‘What am I going to do?’: soaring prices fuel calls for U.S. government to step in(The Guardian)
Perkins provides an analysis of recent profit reports:
A Guardian analysis of 100 top corporations' Securities Exchange Commission filings found a median increase of 49% in profits between the most recent quarter and the same quarter two years ago, pre-pandemic. It shows companies have largely shielded themselves from inflationary pain by passing most or all of their increased costs on to customers via price hikes.
He also explains that prices and profits are not the whole story. This is the piece to read if you want to be better equipped to sort good policy proposals from bad.
Lastly, see what you can learn from the economist who seems to have gotten the prediction right. My inquiry started with listening to a conversation between Larry Summers and Ezra Klein. The title of the episode is: I Keep Hoping Larry Summers is Wrong. What if He’s Not?
John Cassidy wrote his reflection on this conversation for The New Yorker: Is Larry Summers Really Right About Inflation and Biden?. That’s the question, and I’m still undecided.
Cassidy offers the perspectives of other economists, including Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago:
Whereas Summers emphasizes the role that Biden’s American Rescue Plan played in stimulating demand throughout the economy, and the failure of the Fed to react quickly enough to rising prices, Goolsbee and others emphasize pandemic-related factors, particularly the impact of the coronavirus on global supply chains and the American labor market. ‘This distinction has been lost in the popular political debate, where the fact of high inflation overshadows everything… But it does matter for thinking through how to respond going forward.’
For Believing in Democracy
Go viral standing up for what you believe. Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow went to the podium at the statehouse refusing to let her colleague have the last word. That colleague had sent a fundraising letter accusing McMorrow of “grooming” and sexualizing children. Most of us can identify with what McMorrow describes as her first response:
I sat on it for a while, wondering, “why me?” And then I realized because I am the biggest threat to your hollow hateful scheme. Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no. So then what? Then you dehumanize and marginalize me.
As Jonathan Capehart wrote for The Washington Post, “Don’t let Mallory McMorrow fight bigotry alone.” He refers to this speech as an act of fearlessness.
When the social media mob comes for you, be fearless like Mallory McMorrow. We have to show up to celebrate and support our local officials doing this work too.