The US has always proclaimed its dedication to freedom of expression as the founding virtue of its vaunted “exceptionalism.” Children learn in civics classes that the only brake on freedom of expression is the irresponsible, antisocial act of crying “fire” in a theater. In such a culture, the question of censorship should theoretically never arise, but if it does, the attempt to censor should immediately be dismissed as un-American.
The omnipresence of communication technology seems to have changed everything. The question of censorship has rarely loomed larger than in recent months. It has even turned into a major social phenomenon with its own label: cancel culture. At a moment in history when a sitting president of the United States was banned from using his favorite platform for public expression while a Senator saw a publisher cancel his book contract, the debate has risen to a fever pitch about what should be permitted or excluded in the marketplace of public chatter. Some are even asking whether the idea of freedom of expression actually has any meaning in a society in which communication itself has become a weapon of competitive influence and self-promotion.
America Is No Longer One Nation
The latest example that calls into question freedom of expression is the protest at the Washington news outlet Politico by 100 of its staffers, who “signed onto a letter sent to publisher Robert Allbritton, expressing disgust with allowing right-wing firebrand Ben Shapiro to guest-author one day’s edition of the Playbook.” Politico immediately defended its choice by invoking the notion of balance. That prompted Karen Attiah, The Washington Post’s global opinions editor, to accuse Politico of hypocrisy. She complained about a well-known phenomenon in US media: “Politico’s editors defended platforming Shapiro by putting on the rusty armor of both-sidesism.”
The investigative journalist and author, Matt Taibbi, reacted in his turn by critiquing Attiah’s argument: “She wrote that Trump had been caused in part by the media’s penchant for ‘balance’ and ‘presenting both sides.’”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
1. Areas of a body that may be identical in every respect but face in opposite directions, marking an extreme outer boundary.
2. One of only two possible positions or two sets of opinion in a situation that must be defined as directly oppositional.
Politico explained that it employed Shapiro’s services as part of its policy that aims to “assemble a roster of guest authors who are prominent thinkers and writers and represent a range of perspectives.” In reality, the choice had nothing to do with perspective and even less to do with a range of perspectives. Taibbi identifies Politico’s initiative as “something I first started noticing when I published The Great Derangement back in 2008 — media people still think the issue is a mathematical question of ‘sides.’”
Taibbi is right. The unique logic that now dominates the media in politics is simplistically, even mindlessly, binary. It’s Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives, coasts versus heartlands, science believers versus doubters. The media have created a system in which the world, and every issue brought up for debate, is divided into two opposing camps. Those two camps define the two “sides” of any issue, effectively excluding nuance.
This has been the trend for several decades. Taibbi attributes it to the rise of cable television, when “with the advent of cable and the internet and the atomization of the media landscape, we developed new strategies that were based on picking a demographic and trying to keep it and dominate it.” Before cable, the networks’ news services competed to offer content that targeted the widest audience. It eschewed partisan appeal. The networks distinguished clearly between news, a small part of its programming and entertainment. Today, cable news has become entertainment. It targets the viewers’ known biases and serves to reinforce them in its quest for stable ratings and addicted audiences.
Cable news changed the culture of news broadcasts when it identified two keys to success: sensationalism and partisanship. The obvious partisanship eventually led to the idea that the media had a duty to appear balanced by presenting both sides. Not only did they rarely do it, but that attitude itself turned out to be unbalanced since it failed to admit that there could be more than two sides to any issue. This inevitably produced the for-or-against culture that has now contaminated all political, cultural and intellectual debate in the US.
At its founding, the United States adopted the motto “E pluribus unum,” a Latin phrase meaning “Out of many, one.” The idea reflected the quandary the Founding Fathers were faced with. They aimed to break free from the British monarchy while grouping together a plurality of colonies into a single political entity. Each former colony would have the status of a sovereign state managing its internal affairs. Together they would form a permanent alliance with a shared economy and collaboration on foreign policy. The founders designed their federation flexibly enough to expand and include any number of states. It took nearly two centuries to increase from the original 13 to 50.
As the recent history of the European Union demonstrates, reconciling the interests of 13 or more different states is no easy matter. The idea of “e pluribus unum” implied respect for diversity. Theoretically, there could be as many “sides” as there were participants in the debate, though the history of human behavior tells us that, in most debates, groups of a significant size tend to winnow down the diversity of vantage points to a maximum of only four or five tenable positions at any given time. The trend in today’s pre-quantum digital age — in which all data is an assembly of 0s and 1s — is to force every issue into the form of a binary choice. Perhaps the dawning age of quantum computers will help to change that culture.
“E pluribus unum” represented a very 18th-century idea. The intellectuals who reflected on politics took a serious interest in complexity. The founders were wary of political parties. They preferred to characterize them as “factions” that reduced thought to a rigid position and ended up warring with each other over two diametrically opposed positions. Jonathan Swift satirized this binary oppositional tendency in the first book of “Gulliver’s Travels.” He described the bitter war between two camps that disagreed about which end of a soft-boiled egg should be broken. It was the conflict between the irreconcilable Big-endians and Little-endians.
In his farewell address, George Washington famously railed against the “common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party” and recommended that “a wise people … discourage and restrain it.” In 1787, Thomas Jefferson had also warned against the nefarious influence of “factions,” but the same Jefferson, in 1824, conceded that “men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties.”
The binary opposition between Jefferson’s and Alexander Hamilton’s political philosophies led to the emergence of the two-party system in the US. This still made some sense in the early 19th century because concentrated wealth had not yet emerged as the determining factor in political decision-making, replacing the rivalry between philosophies of governance. A certain idealism remained — at least until Andrew Jackson’s presidency — with the romanticized idea of government by the enlightened, cultured and propertied citizens whose decision-making derived from reasoned thought.
The bold and radical sentiment behind “e pluribus unum” thus failed to survive the turning of the century, though it remained the nation’s motto. Instead, from the first decade of the 19th century, it could reasonably have been replaced by “e pluribus duum.” That fact was dramatically borne out by the Civil War in 1861, pitting North against South, but even more permanently by the subsequent domination of national politics by two parties, the Republicans and Democrats.
Today the US political system — for the benefit of TV viewers — requires identifying two sides and subordinating everything to the interests that converge around those two sides. In the age of digital communication, every issue can be reduced to a context of binary opposites thanks to the phenomenon of “piling on,” which consists of insulting, discrediting, shaming or doxxing the opposite point of view as well as systematically ignoring every other possible perspective. To be an American today means choosing your side.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.