Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

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Tocqueville Celebrates Democracy

June 29, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that democracy presented major changes in the political world which would also affect the social world. Therefore, in his two-part volume, Democracy in America, he set out to discover how democracy functioned in America. He explains that this one experiment will affect a wide variety of nations, institutions and behaviors. Tocqueville is both heartened and saddened at the equalizing forces which accompany democracy. He sees equality as a necessary and just system, but with it comes loss of education and intellectual excellence. Whether or not this is true, he notes that from freedom follow necessary outcomes, many of which are unintended, but deserve calm, thoughtful discussion and contemplation.

Tocqueville views the blossoming equality with interest, but also fear. He notes how equalizing forces have the potential to lessen the quality of education, to minimize interest in political affairs, and that democracy allows little time for reflection. Everyone in democracy rushes to pursue an object of personal interest, but not necessarily one of societal benefit. He terms this quick pace “habitual inattention” and labels it “the great vice of the democratic spirit”. (329B) His solution to this naturally arising problem is contemplation. He does not spell out a specific plan, but rather asks that citizens spend time contemplating their existence, their fellows’ existences and that of society as a whole. He recognizes that information in an age of equality is constant and feels like a barrage. In aristocratic ages, on the other hand, Tocqueville notes that only a small, elite group controlled and disseminated information. In fact, information for the masses was altogether rare. Furthermore, the lower-classes understood their position, knew their place, and therefore, poor treatment was almost an expectation and rarely questioned. There was no path to question injustice. On the other hand, democracy reverses the problem of aristocracies by removing information controls. It is the citizen’s responsibility to seek and process information.

In democracy, Tocqueville warns, the potential for abuse actually widens because the masses must take care of and be involved with issues regarding the masses. He claims that a habitual inattention leads citizens to miss clues to their own well-being. Following a section about the level of uniformity achieved by majority-run governments, he writes, “The government’s faults are forgiven for the sake of its tastes.” By this, I think he intends to say that the majority drives contemporary rhetoric, issues and tastes, which, in turn, forces the government toward action. However, it is also the citizens who must evaluate and re-evaluate their decisions. Therefore, while contemporary taste forces government to act, we cannot condemn democracy for acting. Rather, the government’s faults are “forgiven” by future generations as people work to address inequities.

While he is sad to perceive the loss of aristocratic education, he is happy to find a more just system. Equality, he believes, stems directly from God. Democratic systems are more fair, more just and reflect the way that God perceives humanity. Pulling his thoughts together in conclusion, he writes:

“When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, very wealthy and very poor, very learned and very ignorant, I turned my attention from the latter to concentrate on the pleasure of contemplating the former. But I see that this pleasure arose from my weakness. It is because I am unable to see all at once all that is around me that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my choice from among so many others which it pleases me to contemplate. It is not so with the Almighty and Eternal Being, whose gaze and necessity includes the whole of created things and who surveys distinctly and simultaneously all mankind and each single man.

“It is natural to suppose that not the particular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What seems to me decay is thus in His eyes progress; what pains me is acceptable to Him. Equality may be less elevated, but it is more just, and in its justice lies its greatness and beauty.”

A little later, he adds: “The task is no longer to preserve the particular advantages which inequality of conditions had procured for men, but to secure those new benefits which equality may supply. We should not strive to be like our fathers but should try to attain that form of greatness and of happiness which is proper to ourselves.

“For myself, looking back now from the extreme end of my task and seeing at a distance, but collected together, all the various things which had attracted my close attention upon my way, I am full of fears and of hopes. I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided or kept in check; and I am ever increasingly confirmed in my belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, it is enough if they will to be so.”

Tocqueville introduces the idea of democratic will in his final words. It is this will which still lives in the current American “experiment,” as he terms it. Though we are still learning and re-evaluating, we can also honor those authors of our past who set us on this path. With the Fourth of July just around the corner, we can also celebrate the thoughts and ideas of our founders.

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Rethinking Invention

April 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” - T. S. Eliot

I used to work for a professor who would say: “Without the toaster, we’d have no computers!” Each invention brings about a whole new world of possibilities. The toaster may not resemble the computer, but they are stages on a continuum once seen at a distance. Of course, that is not apparent in the beginning of any invention, only hindsight provides that kind of perspective.

The first toaster came about in the early 1900s and even it did not resemble the toasters of today. The first toaster browned one side of bread at a time, requiring the user to flip the toast halfway through. And wouldn’t you know the invention that immediately followed the toaster? Presliced bread. In other words, the new product created space for another new product. This is not surprising, and in fact, seems to be an unwritten rule of invention. It is anyone’s guess which products will survive (like presliced bread) and which will fade.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony got me thinking about invention in general. Zuckerberg has repeated that he did not know exactly what he was creating Facebook. I think that can be said of all invention. And if the inventor does not fully understand the capabilities and repercussions of their creation, imagine the public. We are left wandering behind in a variety of states of interest, desire, greed, paranoia and ignorance. Listening to the questions I had two thoughts. First: clearly there is a difficulty in framing the right questions, particularly about something so foreign to our own experience and training. And two: humans really do not understand these new technologies.

It is likely that all teenagers function on nothing less than three social media platforms a day. Maybe more. They may not be able to imagine a day when these platforms did not exist. But I think it is worth our time to offer some perspective on technology. For this, I thought it best to offer a very visual demonstration of invention, namely, the airplane. In 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew the Flyer. It was not their first attempt at a plane, but it finally proved that humans could fly. Furthermore, they “discovered the first principles of human flight”. And of course, flight experimentation did not stop there. Nineteen years after the Flyer, Italian designer Caproni built the Ca 60, a prototype of a flying boat, intended for transatlantic travel. To look at it now, in retrospect, it looks like a science project (because, of course, it was). On its second flight, the Ca 60 crashed into the water and broke apart. Airplanes nowadays are sleeker, constructed from entirely different materials and a whole lot more sophisticated, but the builders learned a lot from these early experiments.

 Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That there were nineteen years between the first flight and the first pursuit of transatlantic flight is important, however, because it is also roughly equivalent to the length of time in which we have had social media. (The first blogs were generated in 1999, and took off by 2004. The intent of my blog today, however, is not to define social media, which will have to wait for another day). Blogs arrived in early 2000 and became heavy traffickers by 2010. Other sites naturally filtered in to fill niche markets. Sites like Photobucket and Flickr, Tumblr and Youtube generated a new way to use, share and create our own content. (During this time, Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004.) As social media sites visibly changed and grew with their markets, they also changed on the back end. Data-mining and information-gathering changed too. I think it is important to remember how revolutionary the internet was (and is!). Whereas with the Flyer and Ca 60 one could see the differences and reasons for construction, social media markets are much more subtle.

It seems to me that social media is less social and more media than we originally imagined. What is hidden may be more important than what is received. The way that we code documents, tag them, like them, share them, all create invisible data which now hangs onto the content in question, but also hangs onto the users. Ironically, this data is parsed and stored in a variety of middleman’s hands, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In complete contrast to the airplane, the internet has masked invention in such a subtle way that the user is unaware of our own participation in invention.

When humans did achieve the first transatlantic flight, they had few navigational systems, and no bathrooms or heaters. Imagine Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, who were embraced for their spirit of adventure and bold daring. The first airplanes carried one person or a few people at their own cost and risk of their own life. Today, we use the internet more often than we use transportation and yet we understand it less. Its implications are creating profound effects upon our lives and yet we still cannot see the wheels or wings. How do we make transparent that which cannot be seen? How do we create a spirit of cooperation, much like the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh?

I am simply wondering if, as concepts become murkier and more nuanced, how do we educate a global population which is heavily dependent upon such technologies? The Ca 60’s first flight was short and its second, disastrous. Can we risk that of our websites and internet services? Yet, one idea often inspires the next. We are fortunate to have inventors willing to test their ideas, but what happens when the inventions risk issues of identity and truth? I ask this because I believe that future inventions will continue to be hidden from sight and we should find ways for dealing with such subtlety.

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Right to Be Forgotten, or Right to Evolve?

April 6, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

When the European Union first gave legal force the notion of “right to be forgotten”, in a 2014 court ruling against Google, I was amongst those who were both confused at the practical impacts and fearful of what its long-term effects might be. Confused, because it has become an almost axiomatic truth for those of us who grew up with access to online spaces that the Internet does not forget. Anything, once posted online, regardless of how much effort is spent trying to scrub it out later on, is there forever, for anyone dedicated enough to seek it out. How, in concrete terms, was this “right” going to function, and to the advantage of whom? Though pitched as a device through which individuals could protect their reputations from false, misleading or outdated information, the potential dangers of such a “right” being active were obvious. Corporate CEOs could remove information about financial improprieties, abusers could remove information about their legal convictions, and so on. It is always worth remembering that attempts to use the public force of law to restrict informational flows have an inherent bias towards the well-resourced, as they are able to afford to bring forward the court cases which enforce such provisions. In other words, the danger is that it would become less a general “right to be forgotten”, and more a specific right to evade accountability for the powerful.

It is true that, under EU law and the various similar rights proposals that have been made in other countries, there is not an obligation for a piece of information to be completely scrubbed out of digital existence. Rather, individuals can request that particular information having to do with them be delisted from the search results of Google and other such companies that serve as primary traffic directors of the web. In this way, we are not talking about a true right for information to be completely eliminated, but rather to be made much more difficult to locate, and not be the first thing that an online searcher sees when looking for a particular person’s name. A dedicated researcher would still be able to locate something a person did not want to be known about themselves, but the casual reader would not. It is worth noting in this regard that, according to leaked internal reports from Google (which is by far the largest recipient of “right to be forgotten” requests), that 95% of the requests it receives are from private individuals trying to remove personal information from the internet, not the public or corporate figures some feared would abuse the system. Was, then, the concern over the EU’s decision entirely overblown, and should other countries embrace such a system as well? In my opinion, the answer is deeply complicated, and involves just as much a failure of social norms to evolve in response to technological change as it does a gap in the legal frameworks around information and privacy.

In terms of privacy, a couple of obvious initial points should be made. Insofar as the “right to be forgotten” is used to remove personal information or other intimate details that were posted about an individual but not by them, it is perfectly in line with existing privacy and anti-harassment laws in most countries. The system which Google uses to process requests is much more accessible than the often-obscure and inaccessible legal miasma which surrounds practically applying anti-harassment laws in online spaces. If information about an individual, which is not in the public interest, is online without the permission of that individual, it seems only natural to allow them an accessible option to have it removed. The same is true of outright false information about a person, or claims which reach the legal standard of libel. There is, of course, always going to be debate about where the lines of “public interest” and “libel” ought to be drawn (for instance, opinions differ on whether a politician cheating on his or her spouse is within the public purview), and different states have come up with different answers to this question, which have evolved over time. There may never be a legal standard in respect to public interest which satisfies everyone, but it is at least an area of both legal and political theory with a substantial background where the broad parameters of the debate are well known.

The more novel question at play concerns information or posts that one consciously chooses to put online, but then later wants removed. I came into this consideration myself recently when a comment I had made when still in high school (about a decade old at this point), resurfaced as it sometimes does. In it, in the course of making a joke about the film Silence of the Lambs, I used some language about trans persons that struck me as gobsmackingly retrograde in the light of 2018. I don’t judge it to be bigoted (though of course I cannot definitively speak to that), but it definitely is not language I would use today. I thought, however, if this had been found by someone else and I was asked to account for it, how would I do so? Would the passage of time, my intent in making the comment and the changing consciousness around those issues be explanation enough?

From this, I thought too about the recent semi-scandal of the British MP Jared O’Mara, who was found to have posted similarly crude and offensive comments about gay men on online forums in the early 2000s and subsequently faced disciplinary action as a result. He, whilst apologizing for the comments, did attempt to contextualize them within the language often used by young men at the time of their writing (O’Mara was in his late teens and early twenties), as well as his own social difficulties at the time due to his cerebral palsy, to a mixed social response. He did, however, stress that it is not language he would use in the present day and that his understanding of homophobia had progressed due to a general change in social climate around gay issues in the subsequent years. But, again, it can be asked, is his apology accountability enough, or should it go beyond that? Does O’Mara, assuming that he is sincere in his comments about having changed, have the right to no longer wear his old comments as reflective of who he is now? Would it have been right for him to ask that they be removed from the internet before his election, such that the whole controversy would have been avoided?

Though it may seem obvious to simply say that actions have consequences that should be considered before doing them, the reality when it comes to online speech is not so clear. What if, for instance, a comment is taken out of context and used to actively misrepresent the character of the person who posted it? Does this meet the standard of false information or libel, and who makes that determination? Is there a statute of limitations after which a person can reasonably say they no longer think in the way they did when the comments were made? Does this apply to people at all ages equally, or is it especially active for younger individuals? What about allowance for changing norms of speech? All of these are hard questions to answer, often embedded in the particular context of what, exactly, was said and who, exactly, was saying it. The issue is that a trial in the court of public opinion does not have even the limited guard rails for fairness we expect in the legal system, even if it is understandable that many turn to it when that legal system itself fails to provide justice.

A notional, if not often truly implemented, pillar of that justice system is of rehabilitation for all but the most egregious crimes. The idea that accountability involves a finite, rather than indefinitely ongoing, punishment is still not fully realized in the formal legal system. This is why, for instance, many organizations involved in criminal justice reform efforts have pushed for so-called “ban the box” legislation to prevent employers from inquiring about the criminal records of applicants. The problem is that, as we move to a world where more and more of our social lives and internal thoughts are expected to be put out into the world for all to see, and more importantly, archived to be looked back through, more punishment is being delivered through systems which are outside of the formal legal realm. For instance, “doxing” campaigns often attempt to get individuals fired from their jobs by connecting them to either questionable or outright hateful posts. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, as it could be reasonably stated that employers have an interest in not hiring, for instance, white supremacist activists, as do that person’s co-workers in not working with them (of course, this leads into a much more involved discussion on employment law, which there is not space for here). But, much like the drawing of the “public interest” line spoken about above, there is far from a clear social consensus on what kinds of attitudes or statements online constitute grounds for this kind of action to be taken, and there is not even a political system through which this line can be debated effectively. Instead, there are many different standards depending almost entirely on the social norms prevalent within the milieu of the individual who gets caught in a social media storm. A middle-aged white male insurance salesman from Alabama, for instance, is probably less likely to lose his job over insensitive tweets about the NFL kneeling controversy, than is a young copy editor at a magazine in New York. The latter, then, is going to be far more likely to want to access a way to make those tweets, and their attendant controversy, at least less accessible, if not disappear entirely.

In a time before the internet, if one made remarks 10 years ago which no longer reflected one’s beliefs and attitudes today, it is unlikely, unless you were a public figure at the time, that they would be held against you. There was a certain understanding that attitudes and beliefs should be allowed to naturally evolve and change over time and that being constantly confronted with one’s old statements would represent an impediment to that growth. Now, at least those expressions that are posted online have the potential to haunt us long after we have rethought them. One possibility of resolution on this front that keeps us from spiraling into ever-greater recrimination is that, eventually, those in positions of social and cultural power will all have grown up on social media, and thus a dynamic of mutually-assured reputational destruction sets in. Of course, the problem this may end up facilitating is that, as in the past, too many genuinely troubling or destructive behaviours are simply written off as follies of youth and thus allowed to fester unchecked. This use of the past as a cloak of secrecy can often also write off present behaviour by making it seem exceptional rather than as part of a pattern, and a return to a totally opaque world is also not desirable. Perhaps, then, the “right to be forgotten” is a somewhat crude and imperfect legal tool that needed to be developed in order to resist, or at least minimize, the trend towards the totality of one’s online presence being eternal and inescapable. Its inherent failure, though, is that it attempts to correct with a legal mechanism what is ultimately a social problem of a lack of allowance for personal growth and proportion of punishment.

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