The Geopolitics Of Social Cohesion

Social media is pushing liberal societies to their outer limits.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

One unique quality of Noema is that we are not a publication that just puts content out there for passive consumption. We are an active, continuing conversation on the frontier issues of the day that seeks to link the correspondence of ideas and connect the dots.

In an interview this week on his new book, “The Anxious Generation,” the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt worries that unfettered social media in liberal societies is harming childhood while fostering a fatal fragmentation of society, even putting the West at a disadvantage in competition with China’s authoritarian regime that has no qualms in trying to protect its kids and culture with far stricter controls. His observations echo the concerns also raised in Noema by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han.

For all these thinkers, liberal societies are being tested as never before by a social media ecosystem that pushes the cohesion of society to its outer limits.

Haidt’s primary concern is the damage smartphone-driven social media is doing to children, substituting virtual in-experience for physical interplay with unlike-minded others, depriving them of the skills to cope in a diverse society, stealing their attention and inducing a level of anxiety that has led to an alarming surge of mental illness, including depression, self-harm and suicide among teens.

His practical remedies include no smartphones before high school; no social media before 16; phone-free schools and allowing kids more independence in order to restore a “play-based” childhood.

Are Smartphones Making American Kids Dumber?

Haidt laments dropping test scores in American schools as the TikTok obsession distracts kids from the concentration required for learning. And he worries about the geopolitical implications as China takes the challenge of social media far more seriously by enforcing age and time limits on the use of and access to smartphones.

“China is engaged in a battle with the United States for cultural and economic supremacy. Since our young people are giving away all of their available attention,” he broods, “there’s a good chance that they will be less creative and less productive. They don’t have any spare attention to actually do anything. I imagine that makes the Chinese government happy.”

He continues: “The worst single product for American children is TikTok. It sucks up more of their time, energy and attention than any other product. And it harms them. It doesn’t do anything good for them. TikTok has more influence over our kids than any other organization on the planet. So, there are many reasons to think that that is a danger not only to our kids, but to our country. It seems the Chinese are doing the right thing by using their authoritarian system to reduce the damage to their own children.”

Of course, Haidt hastens to point out, “Authoritarian solutions are not right for us, but we can do similar things through democratic solutions, through community and civil society.” He harkens back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of America where ordinary citizens don’t wait for the state or the king to act, but take matters into their own hands. “I’m hopeful that my book presents norms that we adopt ourselves, even if we never get any help from Congress or lawmakers. Doing it ourselves … is a very American solution to what I think is one of the largest problems facing America today.”

In his take on the damage social media does to young people, Žižek looks at South Korea as a case in point. He cites another philosopher, Franco Berardi, who regards South Korea as “arguably the country of free choice — not in the political sense, but in the sense of daily life, especially among the younger depoliticized generation … lonely monads walk in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the pictures, tweets, games coming out of their small screens, perfectly insulated and perfectly wired into the smooth interface of the flow. … South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the [developed] world. Suicide is the most common cause of death for those under 40 in South Korea.”

For Žižek, it is no surprise that, worried about contagion, the authorities in next-door China are fighting back under President Xi Jinping’s project of rejuvenating traditional values associated with the continuous history of Chinese civilization stretching back millennia.

Žižek advises that we “closely follow the writings of Wang Huning, a current member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and the director of Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization. Wang is correct in emphasizing the key role of culture, of the domain of symbolic fictions.”

After all, he continues:

Fictions are not outside reality, they are materialized in our social interactions, in our institutions and customs — as we can see in today’s mess, if we destroy fictions on which our social interactions are based, our social reality itself begins to fall apart. 

Wang sees his task as imposing a new common ethical substance, and we should not dismiss this as an excuse to impose the full control of the Communist Party over social life. He is replying to a real problem.

Žižek notes that, on a visit to the U.S. three decades ago, Wang perceived even then what he saw as “social disintegration, lack of solidarity and shared values, nihilist consumerism and individualism. Wang’s fear was that the same disease may spread to China, which is now happening at the popular level of mass culture. Xi’s reforms meant to bolster ‘spiritual civilization’ are a desperate attempt to put a stop to this trend.”

Though “the establishment of stable values that hold a society together” may be a laudable objective, says Žižek, the ongoing campaign to bolster spiritual civilization “is enforced in the form of mobilization which is experienced as a kind of emergency state imposed by the governing apparatus. Although the goal is the opposite of the Cultural Revolution, there are similarities with it in the way the campaign is done. The danger is that such tensions can produce cynical disbelief in the population.”

Social Media And The Loss of Authority

One of the reasons that we have such polarized societies in the West is that the public square has virtually disappeared. Until social media turbocharged fragmentation, there was a common space where competing ideas could be contested and settled in the full gaze of the body politic as a whole.

But, as Han has observed, the peer-to-peer connectivity of social media “redirects the flows of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public.” Without a trusted platform for common discourse, democracy can’t function.

Haidt agrees with Han. “Massive changes in information flows and the way we connect people change the fundamental ground within which our democratic institutions are operating. And it’s quite possible that we are now so far outside the operating range of these institutions that they will fail,” he warns. The corrosion of trusted institutions by the proliferation of digital tribes chipping away at the authority once vested in them comes at a steep cost.

Haidt is also on the same page as Žižek:

When I wrote ‘The Righteous Mind,’ I was on the left then and really tried to understand conservatives. Reading conservative writings, especially Edmund Burke and Thomas Sowell, was really clarifying on the idea that we need institutions. We need religion, we need gods, even if it is not true. We need moral order and constraint. … Without them [authority structures], we have chaos.

Haidt notes that, even when “truth-seeking mechanisms, including the courts” determined the last U.S. presidential election was not stolen, “there’s no real way to spread that around to the large portion of society that believes that it was.”

The displacement of a public square by the viral spectacle of social media hits at the heart of the sober deliberative quality that protects democracy from the pure wash of public passions:

There’s no more public square. … Everything takes place in the center of the Roman Colosseum. The stands are full of people who are there to see blood. That’s what they came for. They don’t want to see the lion and the Christian making nice; they want the one to kill the other. That’s what Twitter is often like.

It all becomes performative and comes at a superfast pace. Just as television changed the way we are and made us into passive consumers, the central act in social media is posting, judging, criticizing and joining mobs. Donald Trump is the quintessential person who thrives in that environment. If not for Twitter, Trump never could have been president. So, when our politics moved into the Roman Colosseum, I think the Founding Fathers would have said, ‘Let’s just give up. There’s no way we can build a democracy in this environment.’

As Haidt sees it, AI will only compound matters because “With AI coming in, the problem of the loss of authority is going to be magnified tenfold or even a hundredfold when anyone can create a video of anyone saying anything in that person’s voice. It’s going to be almost impossible to know what’s true. We’re in for a wild ride if we’re going to try to run a democratic republic with no real authority. My fear is that we will simply become ungovernable. I hope not, I hope we find a way to adapt to living in our world after the fall of the tower of Babel, the fall of common understandings and common language.”

How will it all turn out as history unfolds? Are authoritarian societies that limit liberal freedoms in order to maintain authority and solidarity any more sustainable than liberal societies so lacking in constraints that the ties which bind can no longer hold?

The answer depends on whether the one can lighten up and the other can tighten up to achieve the right balance between liberty and social cohesion. What is clear is that how nations hang together internally — or not — will be a significant factor in the geopolitical competition ahead.