A Compelling Read

Jonathan Haidt is a well-regarded scholar who has written a compelling article for the Atlantic, titled  “Why The Past Ten Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He begins by referencing the biblical story of Babel:

What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves. God was offended by the hubris of humanity and said:

Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.

The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular renderings of the story he does, so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.

Babel, according to Haidt, is not a story about tribalism. Instead, he insists it’s a story about the “fragmentation of everything.” And he makes a point that is often overlooked:  this fragmentation isn’t just happening between those who see themselves as red or blue, but within both left and right, and “within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

How have we come to this point? Haidt blames social media.The early Internet seemed to promise an expansion of co-operation and global democracy.

Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable. By 2008, Facebook had emerged as the dominant platform, with more than 100 million monthly users, on its way to roughly 3 billion today. In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely believed to be a boon to democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizenry? What regime could build a wall to keep out the internet?

The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.

Then, he writes, it all fell apart.

Haidt references the three major forces that social scientists have identified as collectively necessary to the cohesion of successful democracies: they are social capital–defined as extensive social networks with high levels of trust– strong institutions, and shared stories. And he points out that social media has weakened all three, as the platforms morphed from a new form of communication to a mechanism for performing –for what Haidt characterizes as the management of ones “personal brand.” Communication became a method for impressing others, rather than a sharing that might deepen friendships and understanding. He blamed the introduction of the “like’ and “share” buttons–which allowed the platforms to gauge users’ engagement–as a critical turning point.

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

I encourage you to click through and read the entire, lengthy article, but if you don’t have time to do so, I’ll end this recap with the paragraph that struck me as a description of the most troubling consequences of our current use of these social media platforms.

It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.

Haidt’s very troubling conclusion: If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse.

I’m very afraid he’s right.


  1. So, we see the majority of our fellow citizens walking around, sitting around or standing around with their faces plastered against their little screens. I’ve looked over their shoulders at the ballgame, on the bus or in restaurants and saw that they were mostly skimming through somebody else’s photos, or scanning their messages or surfing something to buy. It just seems like a colossal waste of time and electrons. We go to the Colorado symphony and watch a married couple a few rows away who pull out their iPhones the second the music ends between pieces. They NEVER speak to one another. Amazing.

    And anyone who wonders why we aren’t better connected need only watch what we’ve been sold. The marketeers have won. We, the few remaining social creatures who long to communicate are doomed to extinction. No wonder selling books is so hard. I don’t offer my books for iPhones, just Kindle and hard copy – perish the thought. http://www.vernturner.com.

  2. Let’s also attach some blame to blue tooth. Everybody is either using their phones to shop, skim, or to talk, but with blue tooth, they no longer need to have a phone in their hands to talk. Way back when, we could tell if someone were crazy, because they spoke to themselves aloud. Now they’re just speaking aloud, maybe to themselves and maybe to someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just spoke with the people around us? We have an absolute human need for dialogue.

  3. Coming apart at the seams, we are.
    Caring and cooperation have allowed the Yaghan, of Tierra del Fuego, to survive in their hostile environment for thousands of years.
    Caring and cooperation seem to be going out of style, in the “ME” world of this culture. The Bannons, Trumps and Murdochs seem to have
    a strangle hold here, cutting off the air to whatever is now left of the US in the USA.
    I’m very afraid that Haidt is right, as well.

  4. “our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse.”

    They already have. The comfortable-class has just started noticing. Too bad. Too late. Perhaps our political system,institutions and society deserve to collapse?

  5. We live in an era in which we have more information about every subject imaginable than we’ve ever had in the human history. The information, literally, is at our fingertips, accessible with just a few keystrokes. Yet, instead of availing ourselves of that information, we have deliberately walled off those information sources which don’t fit our pre-existing beliefs. As a result, people have become less informed and more ignorant about a wide range of issues.

    This trend is not entirely on the right, but it’s mostly on the right. People on the left side of the political spectrum who have thus far escaped this trend need to know it’s likely to happen to their side. It’s just a matter of time.

    I just don’t know how to reverse this trend. It is the biggest problem with society today. It is the root of almost every evil we’re dealing with.

  6. Yes, Emilio, you are correct. The higher institutions have lost our trust as have the press and our government.

    Albert Einstein took our inventory in 1949 and it’s only gotten worse. My favorite speechmaker, Barack Obama, is on a “disinformation tour” which is hilarious considering he was the greatest purveyor of disinformation.

    I guess the irony isn’t lost on all of humanity since there are many young people and folks out of reach of our 24/7 cable news propaganda outfits.

    Today’s truth-tellers are marginalized and censored because Americans only want to hear how exceptional they are from their TVs.

  7. So we have a Dunning-Kruger professional bureaucracy in love with its own hubris, self-reinforced in a feedback loop by the Beltway circle jerk of think tanks, friendly media, and corporate-international lobbyists.

    Do we really want to preserve such a form of governance? It was not emojis that has caused this effect upon things. It wasn’t the internet that damaged the infrastructure. It wasn’t software that caused stagnant wages for over 40 years. People outside of the “proper” class now have a forum/medium to vent their frustrations. The internet has brought the divisions/problems to the fore. Unfortunately,the smug and sneering comfortable-class isn’t so comfy anymore. Please,shutdown the plebes (they’re thinking). The political-executive class has become unnerved by such malcontents. I guess the plebes should be more concerned for the lack of avocados for the executive class. The rich,they really have it rough.

    This post is deflecting the blame and causes of disenfranchisement among millions of Americans. To put it succinctly, the political class declared war upon the people decades ago. They’re supposed to just hang their heads down, and keep trusting in institutions that shit on them? Institutions and politicians that have taken away their financial and political agency? A political class that has made legal representation and proper healthcare a privilege? Why ask why.

    This is the fault of the political class and its courtiers.

  8. Emilio writes:

    “So we have a Dunning-Kruger professional bureaucracy in love with its own hubris, self-reinforced in a feedback loop by the Beltway circle jerk of think tanks, friendly media, and corporate-international lobbyists.

    Do we really want to preserve such a form of governance?”

    My answer is, NO!

    However, the group Emilio lumps together want to frighten everyone into voting against Trump and his band of rejects.

    I say, let them have what’s left and let it burn to the ground sooner rather than later.

  9. The story of the tower of Babel is just another one of a petty god’s great screw-ups.

    It reminds me of Douglas Adams’ description of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in said book):

    “Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one – more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-three More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?”

    Regarding social media, it’s a scourge. Did god try to fix it, perhaps? Is it some sort of punishment from god for some perceived slight? 😉

  10. I’m not a twitter user but I think what Elon Musk is doing is fascinating! He’s turning the “establishment “ up side down. It adds interesting observation and insight regarding who is “melting” down.

  11. I can’t disagree with the analysis. I did not read the article due to time, but I hope that he hit upon the profit motive for using the “likes” to design anger inducing algorithms.

    We must add another problem and a half.

    This did not spring up suddenly. Red-baiter Nixon with his Southern strategy, and welfare queen, “the government is the problem” Reagan were there stoking hate and fear and breed distrust in government before then. I remember one time when the Republican argument was that we couldn’t let the Democrats control everything because “divided government” was the best protection against “government excess”. You can’t trust government when it wants to do something.

    The Democrats never embraced the Weathermen or SDS, disparaged all communists and never merged with the Socialist Party. Bernie and his Democratic Socialists (FDR 2.0 social democrats a la Sweden) were as far as they went. The Republican Party has dropped its resistance to the extreme right in search of a “permanent Republican majority”.

    It continues today with non-crazy Republicans remaining loyal to the “R”, and seeking to find people who sound “moderate”, but will be like Marine Le Pen or Governor Youngkin of Virginia — moderate words to get elected, but the autocratic agenda once in office.

    The other half – apathetic voters who do NOT understand how close we are to going the way of Turkey or Hungary.

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