The Arrogance of All Political Theories

I am always amazed, confused and irritated whenever my friends have opinions on politics. I have my own opinions, of course. Mine, however, are shrouded behind a veil of pronounced ignorance and only professed because of arrogance. And that arrogance, to me, is the key to any political theory, for whenever I try to debate with my friends about any topic, from abortion to gun control to tax reform to US foreign policy, if the debate is allowed to continue for the prolonged periods of time they normally occupy, we will inevitably end up in the realms of philosophy, or sociology, or evolutionary biology, or psychology, and so on. Essentially, any debate about politics, even on a micro level, in order to be examined comprehensively involves an amount of implicit assumptions encompassing all of the fields listed above and more that, if examined fully and risen to the surface, would themselves occupy an entire philosophical encyclopedia. Therein lies the source of my frustration. For to know anything at all is to know everything, and if I may be entitled to such a truth claim it would be that there is nobody who knows everything.

This is not a relativistic claim. I am here not denying the existence of an objective truth which is applicable to local scenarios in the real world. I am, however, skeptical of our ability to access, comprehend, and correctly disseminate that truth, precisely because the truth of anything is interdependent on a series of other truths that can stretch out like an ocean of incomprehension.  To follow this metaphor, if one wishes to examine the location of any boat traversing any sea then they cannot look exclusively at the boat but also the sea. Thus, whenever I approach any political or, more broadly, intellectual discussion at all I feel as if I am alone on a boat with no compass in a sea which stretches beyond my comprehension in all directions with no landmarks, and I possess no idea how I got in the sea or the boat in the first place.

If that is how I feel, then, why do I ever deign to talk about such ideas? Therein lies the necessity of ideology, as I hope will soon become clear. I say this, because, despite being lost at sea, I have some vague semblance of where I am supposed to go. When I dwell on the subject for too long I become paralyzed by the vast nature of the question lying before me, but I nonetheless have an instinct guiding me.

My thesis is thus; this vague instinct, in the context of politics, takes the form of a variety of implicit assumptions which provide the conceptual framework through which I view any given political issue.

This, to me, is what anyone who dares to consider themselves competent enough to wade into and offer their opinion on any political subject must first consider. My assumption here, which is of course unjustly unexplored much like all of the other dialectical considerations I intend to explore in this paper, is that guiding all intellectual discourse is something not at all intellectual. This guiding force can be called ideology.

Are humans rational? This is one of those lingering questions which, before anyone even attempts to explore any remotely political topic, must explore themselves and come to some (sufficiently) satisfactory answer. For, before we even consider the question itself, ponder for a moment how consequential the answer to this question will be on any comprehensive political theory? How far can ‘human reason’ take us in understanding any political question, insofar as we are even reasonable? Let us imagine the implications.

The difference between a political apparatus which presumes people as reasonable and one which does not is so large as to make any apparatus on either side of the question be necessarily incompatible with one on the other. This is evidenced by the significance of the famous ‘state of nature’ arguments which find their home primarily in liberalism. The difference between a world designed upon the assumption that people in the state of nature are Hobbesian versus Lockean is demonstrably significant. If you were tasked with babysitting for an evening, the difference between assuming people are reasonable versus not is the difference between babysitting infants versus teenagers. The difference has a remarkable influence upon the way you approach the task.

What does reason have to do with well being? Is a reasonable behaviour one which mitigates harm? Does reason concern itself with human flourishing? There again is another significant divorce; if reason is that which enables human flourishing (even the concept of human flourishing requires significant examination) then that is distinct from a conceptualization of reason which says that reason necessarily concerns itself with human reasoning. The difference between reason enabling versus necessarily causing is another difference which contains within it different prescriptions for reasonable human behaviour, for if reason is merely a tool it can obviously be used in a variety of ways, some of which may might enable the opposite of human flourishing, as opposed to imagining reason not as a tool but as a force which necessarily guides humans in a specific direction.

Thus, human reason is a question which itself begins to crumble when one even examines it. A question which seems simple but important becomes a buffet of questions which are equally as important. What is reason? Is it an escape from the passions? Are the passions therefore unreasonable,,such as the passion for food or sex? Or is reason the ability to parse and delegate the passions? Is that delegation conducted by an actor consciously or is it done automatically by the processes in the brain? Under what conditions are humans reasonable? What situations are and are not conducive to reason? Why those conditions and not others? How many of those situations are beyond human control? Are there degrees of reasonableness, that differ among people, or cultures? Why would someone be innately more reasonable than another, if there even are innate capacities for reason? Were our ancestors in Roman Republic reasonable? Does reason exist in the animal kingdom or is it exclusive to humans? If exclusive to humans, why would nature produce something capable of escaping nature? And more fundamentally, is reason even a product of nature or of something else? Did we always have reason, or did we learn it? Can it be taught, much like a skill? Does training reason result in the suppression of the passions? If so, is that tenable? Is satisfying reason as gratifying as satisfying the passions? How many times a day do we exercise reason? What is reason, other than information processing? Is it just weighing the pros and cons of some premise? How is reason related to creativity? Can unreasonable people be creative? Are there unreasonable people? What do we do about them? Thus, the question of reason is a genesis of what seems like an unreasonable amount of sub-questions.

Does one have to ponder all of these questions? It seems to me that would take an immense amount of time to weigh all of the options to all of the questions, and arrange your answers (if this is possible) in a manner that is coherent or at least not overly contradictory. Moreover, if one embarks on such an endeavour, ought they be expected to read all that the great thinkers of the past have offered to the discussion? Or ought they be left to meditate on such topics themselves, un aided by the intellectual giants who came before them. And what does all of this have to do with politics?

The point I am feebly attempting to make is, roughly, this. Any political theory, be about war or politics or anything in between, will contain in it an implicit answer to the question ‘are humans reasonable’ which itself contains the barrage of questions I just laid out. Any theory which ignores this question is standing upon nothing. But no theory ignores this question because they all, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, endorse something which resembles an answer to the question, for any theory which strives to offer a coherent and consistent interpretative apparatus necessarily depends upon a similar coherence and consistency with regards to this aspect of humans which is determinate of the totality of their behaviour.

More frighteningly, the answer to the question ‘are humans reasonable’ might not entertain an either/or answer. It might be vague, inconsistent, and change over the course of a minute or a Millenia. (and, as shown, the answer depends upon how one defines reason and its relationship to humans, which is itself a contestable subject) At least if the answer is yes, then, if you are going to develop a theory which rests upon that answer, then you are thereby justified in eliminating all of the theories which answer the question in the negative. That is refreshing and reassuring. In that scenario, the sea becomes smaller and a vague landmass appears in the distance. But if the answer to the question of human reason is vague, the possibilities upon which to build a political theory remain, frustratingly, akin to a sea which stretches in all directions with no land marks in sight.

And this is but one example of a question which determines a political theory. If it’s a question that is at present and will remain unanswered, does that mean that we are unable to develop a comprehensive political theory?

And by now surely it is time to turn to the concept of political theory itself. By that we can mean a broad structure of interpretation which provides some convincing causal explanation of the state of things.

Lets examine the concept of political theory in an example. Why did the Soviet Union fail? Firstly, did it fail? What does it mean to fail, and in comparison to who? Did the Soviets fail compare to Nicaragua, or to the Russian Empire which preceded the Soviets? If we assume that saying the system failed is justifiable, why then did it fail? A political theory would provide some mildly comprehensive and broad explanation of that phenomenon. It failed because of x,y,z. In this you begin to notice that many assumptions begin to creep up if you ponder it. Some claim the Soviets failed because it misjudged humans nature as being to cooperative and not as competitive?

So a political theory is, to me, dependent upon a number of assumptions about a number of things which we can divide into a number of categories. Here are but a few of these fundamental assumptions.

Are humans self interested? Do we strive for power, or benevolence? What is the balance between short and long term thinking? Is there a human nature, and if so, how determinate is it of human behaviour (how did it develop, why in this particular manner, are we even capable of answering such questions sufficiently)? How does nature interact with nurture; is one more determinate than the other? Is war eternal or are we capable of ending it? What is the source of inequality, and what forces perpetuate it and what forces fight against it? What is human flourishing and how is it achieved? Are humans greedy or cooperative or both and how can we, if we can, construct a society which pulls on one and not the other? Why are humans obsessed with death, pain, and torture? Are people self interested or self destructive? Is war a eternal phenomena or capable of going extinct amongst us?

Thus, a political theory vaguely provides an answer to the question ‘why are things the way they are’. That is a question which is, if one considers all of these contestable variables, unanswerable, and therefore the insufficiency of political theories is inevitable. And just to be clear, by insufficient I mean ‘objective’, in the sense that the truth exists outside of humanity.

Moreover, these questions are frustratingly interdependent. The answer to any one of them contains within it all of the others. Attempting to answer the capacity of human reason is a road with many forks; is it learned or innate or both, is it concerned with human flourishing, are some people more reasonable than others? Thus, the assumptions which serve as the foundation for any political theory are akin to a large family that has spread itself over the globe and rarely talk to each other; to assemble each individual member together requires assurances that x or y is coming to the reunion, and to miss any member is to miss them all. Are humans more cooperative or selfish; whichever one they are must consider their ability to reason between one or another.

This analogy is itself productive because, much like a large and distant family, the answers to these questions may not present themselves coherently, ultimately dooming the existence of a political theory which is capable of uniting the assumptions coherently. Assuming that we are able to ‘objectively’ discern the truth about any of these human characteristics which have been pondered and debated and left unanswered for millennia, who is to say that the truths revealed by such questions are conducive to the manner in which we try to develop them? In our endless will to truth we desire a framework of coherent truths which can reveal to us the machinations of the world. That is what a political theory is. But the truths which inform these theories may not play along with our game.

There are even more problems. For any question such as these it is not sufficient to just know the answer, but we must know why. Take reason; if I rubbed a lamp and out came a magical genie I might ask it “are humans reasonable”? Let’s assume the genie said that humans are reasonable. But why humans are reasonable is itself a question with important affects upon the prescriptions of a political theory. A political theory which assumes that humans are reasonable because God the almighty bestowed upon this gift will include a variety of other conclusions not present in a theory which assumes that reason is the result of evolution. Consider the difference between the various forms of humanism (a philosophical theory which emphasizes human reason) throughout history to acquire a vaguely more nuanced view on the relevance of why human reason exists upon any world view.

Is it true that one framework can be more true than another? Absolutely. What I am not assuming here is that there are no universal truths. The existence of universal truths means that one theory can be closer to those truths than another, hence making it more true. But I am, perhaps in a manner bordering on paranoia, excessively skeptical of our ability to access those truths. As presented, accessing the truth means overcoming the problems of why this truth and not that truth, wading through all of the variables contained within a single question, and hoping that truth A is compatible with truth B. Moreover, many of these questions are already subject to vehemently defended truth claims. Regarding human reason, psychology has been studying and discovering and rediscovering the truth for decades, and there is very little in terms of a consensus upon the subject. Not that long ago, John Haidt and the social intuitionists overthrew the entire field and the concept of human reason. I am not a psychologist, and I am not familiar with the literature. When it comes to human reason, then, I am not the authority making the conclusion but I am appealing to the conclusions of other authorities who are berated and criticized within their own fields of expertise. When I read the psychological literature on human reason and side with one authority on another, assuming that I have read sufficiently on the topic to approach what resembles a sufficient body of knowledge to come to an informed decision, I am fundamentally making an assumption. The same follows for all of the other questions which necessitate a political theory.

An ideology is defined as a “system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic of political theory and policy”. What I have been arguing, essentially, is that we are all therefore ideological. Ideology is not something exclusive to political radicals or pundits. Ideology refers to the fact that, at the base of any political theory, lie a series of assumptions which may or may not be explored, coherent, or correct. But they are there nonetheless. Is it possible to develop a political theory without a sufficient answer to any of these questions? By definition that is impossible, as a political theory is a structure which exists to explain past behaviour and make predictions about future behaviour. Therefore, it necessarily contains implicit within it a series of other more fundamental questions which do the exact same thing. Moreover, people don’t see events in isolation. They see them as causally connected, and that connection, however broad or meagre, constitutes a political theory. And that theory, however broad or meagre, is inhabited by ideology.

As you may have noticed, this exploration is itself subject to a fundamental and determinate assumption, namely, that these fundamental truths are determinate (and also unanswerable). Much like Descartes, doesn’t it seem like I am assuming that there are some truths which lie near the ‘foundation’ because they influence and are determinate of a handful of other truths? What if that premise itself is wrong? At least with this assumption I lie with good company, as to deny the existence of universal truths is to call the entire validity of science into question, with its desire for universal truths from which conclusions can be drawn. Are we not just doing to the same thing with politics? Creating or discovering some deep, universal truths which collectively encompass everything? Therefore, is the method of developing political theory not identical to that of philosophy and even science? If so, then why is political theory and philosophy so unconvincing? Why am I asking so many questions? If one question does not arise even more then I am not sure it is a question.

So where does this leave us? Does it not seem like I am suggesting that every political theory be discarded? If every theory is dependent upon a series of currently unanswerable and contestable and inarticulable questions where does that leave the validity of political theories? All I am hoping to do is exonerate any theory of a desire to be objective. Claims of objectivity are what need to be left behind. Though many theorists and pundits who regurgitate the theories of theorists profess open mindedness they invariably present their theories as fact. It is this form of presentation which we must rebel against.

The Case for the (Almost) Unconditional Respect of Others

News show panels are hardly the best place to go for political deliberation. Having several people desperately try to yell overtop one another and compete for airtime in their 3 minute segment surely is not the best format for one to fully flush out the nuances of their political opinion. In fact, in terms of their ability to communicate political ideas, such panels stand only a step above social media rants. But this phenomenon of people talking politically without truly saying a single thing to each other is being exacerbated by a normalization of political antagonism. And it is chipping away at the very basis of our democracy.

The incredible political polarization we see today is not conducive for a healthy democracy or even society. Such an observation is hardly a sophisticated one, but it is one that is just not being said enough. The solution to political polarization? Respect people you disagree with politically.

In cordially discussing this topic in unaired settings with unrestricted time to do so, I find it is the specific people I am trying to address who have such a hard time with this concept. Who would’ve guessed. But when I say something as seemingly uncontroversial as ‘respect people you disagree with politically’ the initial response is one that is nothing more than a hyperbolic justification of political contempt. There too many people on the right find it impossible to respect those who don’t support the troops, and too many on the left who find it equally impossible to respect those who are pro-life in the abortion debate. It is this incapability, this unwillingness, to respect those with whom you disagree that is the precursor to national collapse.

In her essay Politics and the Political, Chantal Mouffe flushes out her idea of agonism, which she suggests is absolutely necessary for a functioning democracy and society. She begins by pointing out that every social order that has existed and will exist is dependent upon the arbitrary construction of a we/they dichotomy. Basically, we sort each other into groups upon whatever arbitrary identity is politically salient at the time. Right now, race, religion and ethnicity are particularly salient political identities. In the past, class, gender and language have served as forms of group inclusion/exclusion in a similar manner to the ones we see today.

Mouffe says that such social ordering is an inevitable part of any human society. I find myself agreeing with this conclusion. Even in a completely homogeneous, egalitarian utopia there still has to be some arbitrary uniqueness around which people organize. Humans are just not capable of treating every single person exactly the same.

The consequence of such social ordering is the eternal possibility of a deterioration into war. A we/they dichotomy is only a step away from a friend/enemy one. As long as different social groups have different interests, then there will always be some amount of competition. And as long as there’s competition, there will always be a potential for passionate, martyr inducing antagonism.

Mouffe does point to a way out, however. The goal of a functioning society is to produce agonism amongst its social groups. Agonism is a form of social relationship that respects we/they distinctions. It doesn’t pretend they don’t exist. More importantly, however, agonism is a form of social ordering whereby each group accepts and respects the legitimacy of those with whom they compete.

Thus, different groups battle it out in the parliamentary arena. Inevitably, the interests of one group triumph over that of another. But in an agonistic society, there is an acceptance of losing. The idea is akin to a noble defeat. The victor does not proclaim objective truth, and the victor does not expect (or compel) absolute submission from the loser. The loser obliges. They do not give up their cause, but the respect and conform, even if only for the moment, to the victor.

Once again, agonism is dependent upon mutual respect.

And that crucial ingredient, respect, is precisely what is lacking in our contemporary political climate. A recent CNN panel debate is emblematic of the death of agonism. In it, a panelist begins presenting his opinion by offering the dismissive comment to his co-panelist “Let a man tell you something”. The co-panelist responds by waving him away, turning around and pulling out her phone.

There are many problems here present here. Firstly, beginning any sentence with any comment remotely akin to “let a man tell you something” is not a great way to extract respect from your female companion. It is dismissive, it implies an unearned authority, and almost immediately puts the other person on the defensive. But such comments are abundant in contemporary discourse. And just to be clear, the left has equivalent statements. When person A points out that person B is “straight white male”, and does so as a political argument, they do the exact same thing as on the CNN panel. It is dismissive, it implies unearned authority, and almost immediately puts the white male on the defensive. This is not a value judgement. It is just a prescription, and to pretend that there is a difference between what the CNN correspondent did to his co-panelist, and what person a did to person b is to resort to the exact ideological possession which is enabling the problem of insufficient political discourse. Dismissing the opinion of a woman or a white person, exclusively on that basis, are discursive tactics which are fundamentally antagonistic and therefore unhealthy for a deliberative democracy.

Now, it would intuitively seem that not everyone is worthy of political respect. Am I proposing that an African American ought to respect a KKK member on the grounds of political agonism? Absolutely not, and that is precisely because the KKK is necessarily antagonistic to African Americans. It is more than just a we/they dichotomy, but one that is founded upon the prohibition of respect for the out group.

Therefore, there are certainly some groups which are not deserving of respect. Sorting out exactly what groups are and are not capable of participating in the agonistic process is extremely difficult, however. There are lots of Americans that think that anyone who kneels during the national anthem is unworthy of respect, and likewise just as many who think that anyone who voted conservative in last year’s election is equally contemptible. And that’s just the problem. The larger the bag of groups worthy of antagonism is, the more democracy dies. When consensus, deliberation, and mutual respect perish, the only tool left is violence.

The cost of political agonism may seem like a steep one. On the left, it means respecting people who voted for who you would consider the most contemptible president in American history. On the right, it means respecting people who scoff and even despise national monuments and values you consider sacred. Hate is a lot of fun, and it’s easy. Disregarding everyone you disagree with as villains makes it a lot easier to feel like a hero. But the cost is a society filled with antagonism and on the verge of civil war.

How Social Media is Killing Democracy

Democracy has long been a contestable topic in political science. Thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau called for a democracy with massive levels of citizen participation, while others such as Max Weber were more skeptical of the common person’s ability to effectively participate in government. Though the ideal level of citizen participation will be debated into the future, there certain aspects of democracy upon which both Rousseau and Weber could agree. Democracy is fundamentally about accountability; some amount of power, perhaps minimal, perhaps maximal, lies within in the people, and it is the people who choose to keep or discard of their government officials. Thus, democracy relies upon the people’s ability to identify their interests, identify who represents their interests, and vote for said representative. The three key aspects of a healthy democracy, then, are citizen participation (to actually vote), citizen deliberation (to identify who best represents their interests), and a dependable news source (to inform the citizens and keep the government accountable). The widespread adoption of social media, however, poses a serious threat to democracy, as it has produced a populace which is less willing to go out and vote, less able to successfully deliberate, and less informed about that which truly matters.

Contrary to the supposed effectiveness of “go vote” tweets and Facebook shares, social media actually does not increase democratic participation. The empirical reality is that “social media users are not more politically engaged than nonusers” (Gayo-Avello, 14). Problematically, there does even seem to be a negative correlation between social media usage and political participation. Firstly, young people are “declining users of traditional media” (Ceron, 226). Whenever they do access traditional media, they are “more likely to do so through online editions or social media links” (Ceron, 226). Thus, young people are turning away from newspapers and magazines in favour of social media. What is interesting is that this age group specifically is “decreasingly interested in traditional forms of political participation such as supporting political parties and voting” (Ceron, 226). This growing disinterest can be attributed to young people’s increasing use of social media and subsequent abandonment of traditional media, as when one gets their news primarily from social media, which “is radically different from online and offline traditional media”, they report a “lower satisfaction with democracy” (Ceron, 229). On the other hand, “Internet users that consume news primarily from new media (e.g., websites of newspapers and magazines)” profess a much larger “satisfaction toward democracy”(Ceron, 229). Thus social media fosters a dissatisfaction with democracy which results in decreased political participation. Moreover, when young people who use social media do actually participate politically, they “tend to indulge in slacktivism”, which are “online actions performed in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, such as singing an online petition” (Gayo-Avello, 14). Petitions are certainly an important political tool, but if young people who gleefully sign petitions do not actually go out and vote (the petition that most matters) than they have skipped the single process which is most important to a democracy. Thus, social media results in a decreased satisfaction with democracy, a decreasing willingness to participate in the democratic process, and an ability to be politically fulfilled by participating in mere slacktivism.

Social media is a terrible place to go to for public deliberation. The term ‘deliberation’ calls forth images of people calmly discussing the pros and cons of their arguments, exploring the consequences of their policies, and displaying a willingness to change their opinion. The very nature of social media is antithetical to such calm, rational discussion. Firstly, short, impulsively written media posts will always be an insufficient method of communication for a topic as dense, consequential and nuanced as politics. On Twitter, insightful deliberation is greatly affected by a 280 character limit, which (as anyone using Twitter for political deliberation would know) is simply not sufficient to make a complete point. People may sometimes ‘discuss’ politics on Twitter, but when their ability to properly articulate themselves is constrained by a character limit, people often misinterpret and talk past one another. If true deliberation requires mutual understanding, than social media is simply not the place for it to happen. Secondly, the nature of social media promotes discussion that is “typically informal, frank, colloquial, humorous, satirical” and “often emotional” (Macnamara, 72). The emphasis on humour in the social media landscape, while good for satire, is bad for political deliberation, as nuanced political positions can not be reduced to simple punchlines. Perhaps Socrates, to this day the absolute personification of philosophical and political deliberation,  was a funny fellow, but there are very few jokes in The Republic and the Crito. This is because topics like the ideal state and the nature of poverty cannot be properly examined through comedy. Moreover, if a social media post about politics is not trying to be funny than it is probably just angry. Social media debate “often [takes] the form of a ‘flame’ rather than that of a compromise” (Ceron, 235). When people ‘deliberate’ about politics on social media, “64% of the time” (Ceron 237) one of the participants leaves the conversation liking the other person less than they did before. Such disdain does not grow out of healthy deliberation, but out of emotional encounters with someone over a screen. Lastly, though “deliberation assumes everyone has an equal voice”, the reality is that, contrary to the pluralist egalitarianism proposed by social media optimists, social media is “actually still a very elitist form of dialogue”, because “everyone still see’s the elite tweets whilst others are largely ignored” (Gayo-Avello, 11). Moreover, elites, who garner the most attention on social media, interact “mostly with each other and rarely with non-elite users” (Gayo-Avello, 11), meaning that social media remains a top-down, elitist form of communication. Social media enables you to tweet at Donald Trump but not talk to him, and that is just not deliberation. Thus, it is merely a reality that “social media discussion of politics rarely meets the criteria of the deliberative public sphere” (Gayo-Avello, 15).

Lastly, the present nature of social media makes it a terrible news source for a functioning democracy. The tension between democracy and social media is enabled primarily because of surveillance capitalism, which is the revenue model upon which most social media sites (including the titans like Facebook and Twitter) are built. Because these services are free, they make their revenue by selling ad space and consumer data to companies. Ad space is only effective when consumers actually see said an advertisement, so the absolute most crucial variable for all free social media sites is a high TOS (Time on Site) per active user, as a high TOS means a high likelihood that said consumer will see said advertisement (Tufecki, 2007, 22). Thus, everything about social media (down to the shade of the font any platform uses) is designed to maximize TOS (Tufecki, 2007, 22). This business model, upon which social media functions, is detrimental to the proliferation of news and compromises a healthy democracy in three primary ways. Firstly, machine learning algorithms (the algorithms which determine what shows up on your newsfeed) prioritize stories with high engagement value over ones with significant public importance, as such algorithms have determined that there is a positive correlation between a high engagement value and a high TOS (Carr, 66). Stories that are likely to yield comments, likes and shares are what the algorithms controlling your news feed select for, and this has significant effects on the news itself (Carr, 66). This was made obvious to social scientists abroad when, in 2014, “Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm largely buried news of protests over the killing of Michael Brown” because the story was “not ‘like-able’ and even hard to comment on” (Tufecki, 2016). Thus, in the name of TOS, an incredibly significant news story was buried from the consumer base. Had there not been traditional news media to cover the story, and had everyone been reliant upon social media as their primary news source, than the Michael Brown story simply would not have become the incredibly significant national phenomenon it deserved to be. What is more disconcerting than the burying of stories, however, is what such stories are replaced with. Once again, in the name of TOS, “social media dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases” (Clavo, 24) because the algorithm knows you are more likely to like, share or read something you agree with. While in theory the unmediated nature of social media makes it a more pluralistic news source, in reality “social media increases the likelihood that users filter and interpret news on their own, according to preexisting ideological bias” (Ceron, 231). This means that liberals are likely to follow fellow liberals such as John Oliver and Glenn Greenwald, and conservatives are more likely to follow fellow conservatives such as Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. Thus, two news selection factors are at work; people tend to ‘like’ pages they agree with, and the news feed algorithm keeps showing them content they agree with because they like/comment/share such content more often. The consequence of this is that people become engrossed in ideological echo chambers where their worldview is constantly reinforced with news that supports their existing bias. People thus rarely hear the other side and become more and more convinced that they are right. In a democracy, which depends upon deliberation, accountability, and a willingness to change sides, having two sides who are absolutely convinced they are right does not lead to proper functioning. Lastly, there is the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, which since last year’s election has become widely known and disputed. Fake news has of course always existed in the political sphere, but social media has allowed such news to travel farther, faster, and more often than ever before. And of course, the rapid proliferation of fake news was and still is enabled by the TOS business model of social media. Fake news stories, which are often sensationalist, fulfill all the criteria social media algorithms filter for in news stories. For example, fake news is invariably accompanied by an attention grabbing headline that seemingly begs the user for a share and a comment. And in practice, people oblige sensationalist fake news stories, as a recent study has shown that, at minimum, during 2016 there were “115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times” (Alcott, 213). It is almost impossible to calculate just how many people then saw such fake stories, but that same study suggests a healthy estimate would be “upwards of 150 million” (Alcott, 214). Thus, during the last election season, perhaps 150 million potential voters were exposed to false information about one of the candidates. This means that some number of voters went to the polls with information informing their vote that was, perhaps, completely false. This directly violates the principle democracy, which supposes that voters are (at least to some minimal extent) rational and self interested. Both of these principles are directly violated if the information informing such voters, or at least portion of their information, is just false.

Though Rousseau and Weber could barely agree on what ‘political participation’ means, they would certainly concur that actually voting, deliberating with fellow citizens, and utilizing true information are actions integral to a democratic process which holds politicians accountable and keeps the interests of the people at the core of political discourse. Unfortunately for us, social media poses a formidable threat to all of these principles.  Social media has fostered a decreasing willingness to democratically participate among active users. The actual ‘deliberation’ which occurs on social media has become invariably funny, angry, or insufficient. And current social media is a terrible news source for democracy, as its business model discourages consequential yet hard hitting stories, prioritizes confirmation bias, and even encourages the proliferation of sensationalist and blatantly false news. Though it does not look good, it is hard to say if social media and democracy are necessarily incompatible. As discussed, many of the problems posed by social media emerge from its dependence upon the TOS revenue model. If sites like Twitter and Facebook moved over to a subscription based revenue model, perhaps they could focus more on encouraging healthy, thoughtful deliberation, and proliferate pluralistic views which propel people out of their self induced echo chambers. But would people be willing to pay for a service they are used to getting for free? It is probable that Facebook and Twitter are not willing to take such a risk. But then again, if we take into account the problems social media currently poses for democracy, 5 dollars a month seems like a small price to pay.


Alcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, Apr. 2017, pp. 211–235., .

Carr, Nicholas. The Glass Cage – Automation and Us. WW NORTON & CO, 2015.

Ceron, Andrea, and Vincenzo Memoli. “Flames and Debates: Do Social Media Affect Satisfaction with Democracy?” Social Indicators Research, vol. 126, no. 1, 2016, pp. 225–240., .

Clavo, Guillermo. “Do Social Media Threaten Democracy? the Politics of Outrage.” The Economist (US), 4 Nov. 2017, pp. 23–26.

“Do social media threaten democracy?” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 4 Nov. 2017,

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Facebook’s plan to stop revenge porn is the best we have

Revenge porn, the practice of people posting intimate photos of a former significant other on social media, has become terrifyingly frequent in recent years. It’s a moment worthy of fear and condemnation, since social media is a platform which includes all of the people you are closest with. Having such photos displayed publicly for everyone you know and care about to see is humiliating and emotionally damaging. Beyond this, photos posted online can exist in the ether forever, and impact a person’s quality of life and job prospects.

The question then is how far should social media sites go to prevent such acts? Facebook has proposed an answer, and so far it seems to be the best one available.

Facebook users in Australia will have access to a program specifically designed to preemptively stop the proliferation of revenge porn. If you’re worried about risqué photos being posted online, you can submit an application form and answer questions on Australia’s eSafety commissioner website and send yourself the picture on Facebook. Facebook will then essentially remember the photo, and will prevent it from ever being uploaded to the site, whether it be on the news feed or in a private message.

There is, however, a crucial step in the process which can cause anxiety. Before a photo can be pre-emptively excluded from the site, a Facebook employee will have to see the photo to confirm that it is an explicit image. Their reasoning for having a human confirmation is to combat censorship; someone has to confirm such photos because if not, a user could flag any photo they don’t like as revenge porn and have it removed from the site.

The use of human confirmation in this intimate scenario is unfortunate, but it is the best answer. The idea of a Facebook database filled exclusively with revenge porn seems like a disaster waiting to happen. As last week’s Paradise Papers have shown, nothing on the internet is entirely secure, and such a database could certainly be accessed by the wrong people.

The new program must be assessed for its effectiveness. Facebook’s solution seems imperfect, because it is, but it’s the best one available on the market. If you really are worried about a malicious ex posting intimate photos online, then you face a tough dichotomy; do you want one person you will never know or meet to see such photos, or everyone you know, and don’t know, to see them on a daily basis? The gradations of humiliation in these two cases is enormous. The thought of a stranger seeing your photos will surely make you uncomfortable, but the alternative is enough to make you sick.

And hacking such a database won’t be straight forward either, as Australia’s eSafety commissioner confirmed that “they’re not storing the image” but rather “storing the link” to it. This means that illegally accessing such photos won’t be as easy as merely downloading a bunch of pdf’s, as extra steps will be required to actually view them.

Facebook’s attempt at ending revenge porn is one worthy of our admiration. The inconveniences proposed by the solution are far outweighed by their utility. It’s easy to scorn the seemingly unnecessary human intervention, and to worry about the fragility of a revenge porn filled database. But for those who face this problem such a service is perhaps a step in the right direction.

Ontario Universities Need More Funding

The recent college strike has sparked abundant discussion about the role of teachers and their respective demands. But we are ignoringfew people are talking about a much larger problem which encompasses that entire debate. Currently, Ontario ranks 10th in per-student post-secondary funding nationwide. The provincial funding for post-secondary students is well below where it should be, and this leaves Ontario students with the highest tuition fees in the country and an average debt burden of $27,000 at graduation.

It’s hard to say what it will take for Ontario to increase its funding, but the current disparity is clearest in poor mental health services province wide, and reminds us that we have to fight for those crucial services thatwhich help promote healthy, students who are able and confident to tackle the road ahead.

Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, has lamented that a recurring theme in discussions with students, faculty, and administrators has been mental health issues among students. The Fulcrum recently examined the U of O’s glacially slow progress in this area, despite consistent concerns from students. Of course, in this regard, the university is dependent upon increased funding from the province. Thankfully, there does appear to be some good news for once, as provincial funding for mental health services has increased from 9 to 15 million yearly.

But that extra 6 million is for the entire province, and will be distributed across all 45 of Ontario’s colleges and universities. There are more than 800,000 full time post-secondary students across Ontario. So the math works out  to a little less than 20 dollars per student. Now that 6 million seems like a lot less. If money talks, then individual mental health is worth about as much as 2 Big Mac meals to the provincial government.

Inadequate mental health funding at the U of O can help explain why it was recently ranked with the lowest in student satisfaction by students. Such a statistic ought to be embarrassing for a university thatwhich purports to represent the nation’s capital.

It’s unfortunately true that there isn’t one simple solution to mental health. Services have to provided, but if the environment itself perpetuates emotional anguish then such services can seem more like band aids over the crack in a dam. But that’s not a justification to ignore the problem and dedicate minimal funding towards it. If the U of O wants to increase its satisfaction levels, it should start with student wellbeing.

It would take an additional $750 million to $1 billion to merely get Ontario to the average level of provincial post-secondary funding. When one considers this deficit, the true meekness of the already meager additional 6 million is revealed.

Seeing Ontario actually get the additional billion dollars it ought to seems a bit utopian at the moment, especially when an additional $6 million is celebrated as a triumphant accomplishment for mental health. Public awareness that Ontario students are dramatically underfunded would certainly add more pressure in terms of actually achieving equilibrium. But we need to start somewhere, and a good place for everybody is mental health. Let’s get services for those who need them before it’s too late.

The Hidden Virtue of Victim Blaming

‘Victim blaming’ is a phrase associated with now antiquated views of sexual assault. In previous decades those now infamous ‘she was asking for it – esque’ attitudes haunted the victims of sexual misconduct, as they were dismissed as either liars or whores and shame was inevitable to follow. Naturally, allegations were often not pursued and victims were left alone and unable to seek justice.

Fortunately, we have progressed in our attitudes about gender and sexual assault. For the most part, reasonable people recognize the moral blindness that these horrendous dismissals of sexual assault unambiguously possess. Thus, victim blaming itself has now become a serious allegation, and those who are the recipient of it will find themselves shamed and reprimanded by society. It is safe to say that being accused of ‘victim blaming’ is something people try their best to avoid.

But in recent years, the attitudes accompanied by the phrase have grown exponentially. Victim blaming no longer exclusively refers to those jukebox era attitudes we all identify immediately; rather, it has come to encompass a wide range of attitudes and statements that are entirely reasonable. Victim blaming, as it is used to today, is an allegation hurled at anyone who even suggests that rape is something that can be prevented.

This attack on preventive attitudes is occurring because such attitudes hint at a certain amount of personal responsibility. These attitudes (specific examples will be given later on) tend to point out what is likely to increase the probability of a rape occurring, and thus seem to scorn victims of rape who find or put themselves into those situations. These preventive attitudes are now stigmatized because they attribute ‘blame’ to the victim, and seem to say ‘you should’ve known better and it’s your fault you were raped’. Presently, anything which does not completely admonish the victim of any part of the causal process is now considered victim blaming.

This new attitude also declares that all cases of rape should be treated and looked upon exactly the same. It argues that if we dwell on the specifics of cases then blame is inevitably administered, and rape victims will continue to be hesitant to come forward. If this viewpoint could be universally adopted and all rape cases were looked upon in the exact same way, it would certainly make victims of rape feel much more comfortable getting the help they deserve. However, if such an egalitarian investigative process were to take hold then we would lose our ability to actually prevent cases of rape from occurring in the first place.

In demanding that we stop finding a minimal amount of fault with the behaviour of some sexual assault victims we lose the essential tool that a) helps us predict sexual assault and b) helps us prevent sexual assault. Namely, the tool to identify contexts that increase rape probability.

With this essay, I will not be attempting to draw a definitive line in the sand about what is and isn’t victim blaming. I am simply trying to unshackle reasonable assessments from unreasonable stigma. To compare cases of rape and examine and critique the behavioural processes is not blaming the victim, rather, it is giving people the information they need to make informed decisions.

Actions and Consequences

To begin, a simple two part concession must be made. A) you are the author of your own actions, and B) your actions have consequences. Unless this essay turns into a metaphysical examination of free will, this concession should be one in which everyone is in agreement. If you are a smoker and you get lung cancer, it is reasonable to say that that consequence is a result of your actions. (determining the specific level of responsibility might be impossible, but there is responsibility nonetheless).

Relevant information is a variable which should certainly be included as well, as information is always playing a part in your decision making process. Being a smoker in the 1940’s is different than it is today; now we have a much more comprehensive understanding of the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. Though the smoker who acquires lung cancer in the 40’s and today did the same thing, their decisions varied in how much information they had.

So what we can conclude is that you make decisions and your decisions have consequences. Knowing this, informed decision making is superior to uninformed decision making because at least in the former you have some inkling of the impending consequences.

Gradations of Blame

Blame is a concept that is inherently tied to this discussion. Blame is defined by Merriam Webster as,

  1. To hold responsible,
  2. To find fault with,
  3. To place responsibility for.

The only thing clear about this definition is its ambiguity. It seems to cover the entire spectrum of responsibility; these three definitions don’t elicit a clear and specific concept of blame, but rather they cover any attribution of responsibility or fault. This is a problem, because there is a significant difference between a ‘sole responsability’ type of blame and a ‘minimal criticism’ type of blame, yet this difference is not captured by the uniformity of ‘blame’. If you fall down some stairs because you missed a step, you can be blamed for that consequence. If your friend who is texting you back falls down some stairs, you can also be blamed for that consequence. The difference in the amount of blame, however, is significant. In the former case, you are solely responsible, whereas in the latter, you are minimally responsible.

And blame, though it is a cousin of the word responsible, is the cousin that nobody likes to see at the family dinner table. It is a concept that is inherently linked to negative events and decisions. People will always say “Mike was responsible for his company’s recent success” instead of “Mike was blamed for his company’s recent success” even though they mean the same thing.

Thus, the problem I am facing is clear and formidable. The word blame covers the entire spectrum of causal responsibility. Though the different parts of the spectrum can be accessed through careful deliberation, the broad ambiguity of the word ‘blame’ makes it easy to misinterpret just which part of the spectrum is being discussed. Furthermore, I am dealing with this concept of ‘blame’ in the context of an incredibly horrendous personal violation. Thus, if misinterpreted, my association with the word blame can seem heinous and despicable. Clarity of writing on my part, and carefulness of reading on your part is therefore required if we wish to traverse this tightrope together.

Minimal Criticism

So, when discussing blame, what we are dealing with is a troublesome vocabulary. However, we clearly have the capacity to navigate this problematic environment. Until recently, victim blaming has only been associated with the “place responsibility for” type attitudes; the ‘she was asking for it’-esque mantras were distinguishable from the minimal criticism type of blame.

This distinguishment has been lost with the recent push to admonish victims of all responsibility, which is prima facia a just thing to do. But this loss takes away our ability to analyze and compare situations, and to critique and discourage certain behaviours. Though it may seem harsh to criticize the behaviour of rape victims, such minimal criticism is necessary to prevent it in the future. If at any point it seems like ‘sole responsibility’ is being attributed, it is most certainly not. To make it quite clear, let’s examine two distinctly different cases of a girl being raped by a stranger while blackout drunk.

Case a) Sarah, by herself, goes out to a rowdy, drunken frat house with a notorious reputation for sexual misogyny. She proceeds to get blackout drunk and is raped.

Case b) Katie stays home by herself with the doors locked. She gets blackout drunk watching her favorite TV show. In the middle of the night, a burglar breaks into the room and rapes her.

Just to make it crystal clear; in neither of these cases is the victim solely responsible for her rape. The fact that they (Katie and Sarah) were blackout drunk does not change the fact that someone else had to make the decision to rape them. They did not decide whether or not they were raped. That was an uncontrolled variable.

It is clear, however, that there is a controllable variable in both of these stories; this being the context in which Sarah and Katie placed themselves.

It’s important to be very careful here.

Let’s evaluate these cases as according to the spectrum of responsibility encompassed by blame. Imagine a straight line; on the right side of the line is ‘sole responsibility’, and on the left side of the line is ‘minimal criticism’. We can imagine this line as ‘amount of blame’ increasing the farther right you find yourself.

In comparing these cases, we are not dealing with the right half of the line. The girls are not majorly responsible for their rape in either of these cases. However, they are not in the exact spot on the line either. If the left side of the line is the ‘minimal criticism’ or “find fault with” definition of blame, it is clear that one case can be criticized more strongly than the other.

It is reasonable and empirically true to say that your chances of being raped by a stranger increase when you leave your house; they increase again when you go to a frat house; and they increase even more when you get blackout drunk at said frat house. Thus, Sarah committed actions that increased the likelihood she was going to get raped, whereas Katie committed actions that decreased the likelihood she was going to get raped. The independent variable is the same, but the dependent variables are incredibly different.

Victims and Blame

Now let’s connect everything we have said thus far;

  1. You are the author of your actions and your actions have consequences.
  2. The more information about the possible consequences of your actions the better.
  3. Some consequences are uncontrollable, (ie rape)
  4. But some variables are controllable.
  5. Some controllable variables are more likely to lead to certain consequences than others (ie rape)
  6. So comparing the controllable variables and informing people which ones are more likely to lead to which consequences is good information to have.

Now that we near the end, you may be wondering why it took 6 pages to explain why telling your daughter to not get blackout drunk at frat houses is a good idea. To most of us that is just common sense and hardly worth the time I dedicated to it.

But this common sense opens up the ability to administer blame to victims of sexual assault, and throughout history has been horribly abused to dismiss the most heinous of crimes. As soon as what I said becomes true, the ‘she was asking for it’ type arguments are given the tiniest shred of validity, and this alignment is not a comfortable one. Everything I said in this essay which seemed reasonable has most certainly used in the past to justify those despicable dismissals discussed in the introduction. It is important that we are aware of this. However, if we sacrifice the tools needed to prevent rape in order to make the victims of rape more comfortable then we have already lost the fight.

It is completely understandable why this topic is so vehemently avoided by most people. In a politically correct culture, any minimal attribution of responsibility to people who have survived the most horrible assault can be grossly misrepresented. And, indeed, the argument I have been putting forward does not have a happy ending. If what I said is true, then that means it’s likely that Sarah will receive less sympathy and more scrutiny than Katie, even though they both suffered the same thing. Thus, knowing that a terrible situation might get even worse, Sarah might be inclined to not come forward about anything at all.

But the truth is tragic and does not capitulate to feelings. The fact of the matter is that there is a difference between the cases of Sarah and Katie, and the differences are certainly significant. It’s an incredible burden to shoulder, but it is a necessary one.  If we refuse to talk honestly about the choices people make and the consequences they can experience then we are creating a much larger injustice. In order to prevent rape, we have to make informed decisions and that means asking the hard questions.

Against Free Will

The question ‘do we have free will’ is one that has throughout history been exclusively considered by philosophers and theologians. Only those interested in speculation of the most abstract sort would spend any of their time constructing arguments against something that is so intuitively obvious as free will.

And the intuitive feel that we do have free will is sufficient to convince most people of it’s existence. But given all the knowledge science has bestowed upon us in recent centuries, from psychology to physics, the idea of free will is one that is slowly perishing.

Our understanding of reality essentially grounds out at a) the atomic theory of matter and b) the evolutionary theory of biology. Both of these axioms suggest determinism. Objects can’t choose how fast they fall, and genes can’t choose if they survive the darwinian process.

The only other force of nature seems to be randomness. In evolutionary terms, gene mutations can be completely random. But determinism + randomness doesn’t get you free will; it just means that sometimes the causal process throws dice.

What we do know is that decision making (and consciousness and general) is largely reducible to brain processes. Damaging the prefrontal cortex results in increased sexual and aggressive behaviours; the capacity for emotional response is crippled when the orbitofrontal cortex suffers a blow; the examples of brain processes correlating with behaviour can go on seemingly endlessly.

And even more convincingly, our decision making is always beholden to whatever stimuli we are presented with. ‘Unconscious triggering’ documents the phenomena of being able to consistently predict people’s behaviour when providing them with correct stimuli: exposure to aggressive words makes people more confrontational; resumes are assessed more leniently when the asserer is holding a warm hug; pictures or words associated with the elderly make people walk slower.

What’s common across all these scenario’s is that you have have far less control over yourself than it might seem. You aren’t the architect of neuronal firing in your brain, and you don’t control how your brain reacts to external stimuli.

If you are religious, or for whatever reason believe in the existence of a ‘soul’, then this problem becomes much easier for you, as there is now some undiscoverable, intangible entity which can interrupt and manipulate the causal process of synaptic exchange.

But for the rest of us, we have to grapple with what we can empirically discover, and time and time again psychology and neuroscience have revealed that we are slaves to our brain, and puppets of our environments. Simply put, in a deterministic world there is no room for free will.