Social media constrict the public square

By Phil Lawler ( ) | Oct 28, 2021

Some people fret that the polar ice cap is shrinking. Personally, I spend more time worrying about the more dramatic shriveling of the public square.

By the “public square” I mean the ordinary discussion of ideas and institutions, policies and personalities, that takes place in any society among neighbors and casual acquaintances. The conversations that take place in the public square are different from the more intimate exchanges between close friends and family members. But they are also different from political debates, in that they do not necessarily involve controversy.

Or rather, perhaps I should say that political debates are one type of conversation that takes place in the public square. Yet a vigorous political debate presumes the existence of the public square; we can speak freely about controversial issues because we have learned to engage in an open, civil conversation.

The size of the public square, taken in this sense, is limited only by the bounds of civility. In any society there are topics which, by common agreement, are simply “not discussed” in polite company. People who persistently violate those boundaries are shunned; they are not welcomed into discussions; they are, in effect, escorted out of the public square.

If political debates are one subset in the realm of public discussion, it is also true that the boundaries of the public square also frame most political debates. Politicians who fail to respect the standards of civility, as set in that public square, usually face rejection. (Donald Trump encountered widespread hostility as a political candidate because he ignored the conventions of polite public discourse, and his rise to power revealed that many American voters were also ready to jettison those conventions.)

In a healthy democracy, the public square is a lively place, with a wide range of discussion. Everyone has an opportunity to speak about the issues that are important to him; new ideas are welcome. In theory the internet, by making it possible for anyone to find a worldwide audience for his thoughts, should have expanded the dimensions of the public square. But in practice, because the most powerful instruments of online communication have fallen under monopolistic control, our public conversation has become severely stunted.

The limits of civility

Again, every society places some limits on polite discourse. Libel and “fighting words” are unacceptable, as is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We know, almost instinctively—or learn more painfully, through snubs and rebukes and punishments—that there are some things we should not say. It is not easy to define the sort of offenses that make someone unpopular, but—as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography—“I know it when I see it.”

But those common standards have been shifting rapidly—as in fact the prevalence of pornography demonstrates. Not that long ago Justice Stewart could confidently assume that most Americans shared at least a general sense of what constituted a violation of civil standards; now the crudest sorts of pornographic material are just a few mouse-clicks away, and celebrities chat unapologetically about their preferences in porn. As Irving Kristol remarked, “A liberal is one who says that it’s all right for an 18-year-old girl to perform in a pornographic movie as long as she gets paid the minimum wage.”

Notice, now, that in Kristol’s wry illustration of the problem, there still are acknowledged offenses against civility. The porn is acceptable by liberal standards; the substandard wage is not. The shift in public standards does not mean that we have a broader, freer range of public expression; it only means that the boundaries have been redrawn, and different types of expression are now beyond the pale.

In fact, whereas an early generation shunned those who talked about sex, today it is deemed an offense against liberal standards to suggest any restraint on sexual expression. Drag queens are more likely to find acceptance in public spaces than proponents of traditional Judeo-Christian morality. The latter, in fact, may be charged with “hate speech” for criticizing the former. And this is a one-way street; the drag queens will not be indicted for condemning Christianity.

When truth is unwelcome

Against this background, consider the plight of Congressman Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican, whose Twitter account was suspended when he identified Rachel Levine, the transgender assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, as a man. A Washington Post headline gasped that Banks had “intentionally misgendered” Levine. Twitter informed him that his account would be unlocked only when he deleted the offending comment, because: “You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people…” on the Twitter platform.

What had Banks actually said? When Levine was given the rank of a four-star admiral, as the new head of the US Public Health Service Commission Corps, the congressman observed: “The title of first female four-star gets taken by a man.”

Here Banks was stating a fact. Rachel Levine is a biological male, and it is a measure of our society’s confusion that a leading public-health official is unable to accept the undeniable evidence of his own chromosomes. Congressman Banks did not “promote violence against, threaten, or harass” Levine; he merely refused to accept as fact the fiction that Levine can, by an act of will, alter biological reality.

But the facts do not matter. Banks has been banished from the public square—or at least from that considerable portion of the public conversation that takes place on Twitter. Other social-media platforms will quickly follow suit, as will the mainstream print and broadcast media outlets that take their cues from the same arbiters of liberal standards.

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