The old saying goes, “don’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table”. Friendships can be ruined, reputations desecrated, and, most popular nowadays, cancellations of entire livelihoods can happen on a whim. But why is it that we have grown so intolerant of uncomfortable conversations? For a couple of centuries now, the U.S. has modelled the democratic experiment after republicanism and a federalist system which paved the way for other nations to follow suit. While some countries, like Canada, brought democracy to life through different systems (i.e.: parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy), the democratic process in liberal societies has and will always require civil disagreement to be its core tenet.
As the world became more integrated through globalization, the flow of the labour force between nations intensified. Nations adopted different immigration systems based on social, economic and political principles that have created a new map of mobility previously unheard of. Take Canada, for example, where a more liberal economic immigration policy is favorable of skilled workers, whereas the U.S. takes a different approach more strongly grounded on family reunification. Many global companies then choose to “incubate” skilled workers in Canada before sponsoring them to move to the U.S. on a green card or work permit, creating a clear path to citizenship.
This example leaves out other forms of immigration (such as asylum seekers), but illustrates a critical characteristic of liberal democracies today: diversity of ethnicities, political principles, and religious values is intensifying. By design, this creates tension in a pluralistic society, which seeks to platform the best ideas to be debated and decided on to move forward with. Think back to when Abraham Lincoln was building his cabinet to lead a nation that was on the verge of fracturing over the issue of slavery. He chose to appoint men with radically differing views, from different parts of the country, and who did not enjoy each other’s company. This was received with fervent scrutiny at the time, but sent a message to a nation at war with itself: diversity of thought, regardless of how repugnant one might be, was going to be the way forward.
Although the core principle of freedom of speech is protected in various foundational documents found across democratic nations, such as the American Constitution and the English Bill of Rights, society has found ways to weaken it through social pressure at various times in history. Whether that was by burning books that went against a political ideology that was brought into office through democratic means, or by cancelling publishing and speaking contracts of authors who had controversial views and histories, public debate has been repeatedly restricted over the course of time.
Culture wars have always nurtured polarization in societies. People haven’t changed all that much since the times when Socrates was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth”. The only difference today is that the internet has opened the lines of communication further, inviting everyone to have a platform to debate on. At face value this isn’t an issue, as a matter of fact it is highly democratic. The point of contention is on two details that have a disproportionate effect on public debate, which we have not yet learned how to moderate: mob mentality and private companies’ arbitrating powers.
Today it is far easier to mobilize thousands, if not millions, of people to lobby corporations into taking action against an individual than ever before. The “meme-ization” of shallow ideas, surrogate thinking and humans’ inherent need to belong, has made it far easier for people to have an opinion about hot topics. In a society that reads on average less than four books a year and cannot hold their attention for any longer than eight seconds at a time, having millions of people make statements on intense philosophical topics that have been debated for millennia – such as, can racism cease to exist, is there a God, how free are we –, is an ideal recipe for public confusion. And, when paired with the disproportionate power that a select few tech companies have on controlling what ideas are promoted in any one’s feeds, people are quite literally living in different worlds at a time.
But there are no incentives to change any of it – humans are addicted to outrage just as much as to sugar. Tech companies make money by keeping folks engaged in their platforms, so the most absurd and false ideas attract a far larger audience than moderate ones. Yet, when an individual is kicked off their platforms for promoting bad ideas, we open a whole can of worms on the topic of freedom of speech. This ecosystem gives shape to a new form of governance that democratic societies are struggling to grapple with today: powerful CEOs acting as unelected officials moderating the direction of public debate.
And so, while the adage of not touching hot topics is a convenient one to preserve relationships, our democracies are longing for intellectual conversations about these very ideas that will shape our future. Suddenly, putting down our phones to talk politics and religion at the dinner table doesn’t sound so bad after all.