What the fall of Athens teaches us about social media censorship

What the fall of Athens teaches us about social media censorship

Fear of freedom is a real bitch.

CultureJanuary 25, 2019 By Reilly Capps

"History has a short way with optimists," wrote the historian E.R. Dodds. And he wasn't even on social media. 

Rome, Persia, Egypt. All ruled a corner of the planet, the way America runs the planet now. The men in charge thought they would last 1,000 years. Mostly, now, those are tourist attractions run by small-minded religious zealots who wear funny hats.

Realists know that all societies fall apart, crumble, surrender to invaders. Their languages change, religions die, their ideals disintegrate.

E.R. Dodds wrote about the fall of Athens, because Athens is where Western Civilization got a lot of our Democracy, science, rationality. Not to mention awesome togas, theater and our love of wine.

But Athens, once the strongest state in the world, fell apart like a paper airplane in a hurricane, as all great powers do, and the reasons why tell us something about why America is falling apart now.

(An aside: America might pull out of our current spiral. I'm an optimist. But at this moment it ain't looking great. America is the richest society in history yet we're dying earlier and killing ourselves more. We've got the best communications system ever, and we use to destroy each other. The Chinese are landing spacecraft on the far side of the moon, while we shut down our government over a Wall, a technology the Chinese mastered hundreds of years ago — and then gave up on.)

Athens was great, as great as we are now, and it was great because had the agora, the public square where ideas were debated, which America has always historically had. Athenians debated things like health and technology and Walls. (The Athenians, by the way, decided a strong wooden Navy was better than strong wooden walls.) Athenians argued over the meaning and purpose of life: To be happy? To love? To serve? To be a soldier? A thinker? Zeno taught stoicism in the agora. Socrates questioned Plato. Other societies told its people what to think. In Athens, folks thought for themselves. Society flourished.

For a while, anyway.

But E.R. Dodds says there was a problem then, and it's still a problem now: average folks don't actually know what to do with freedom. They don't want freedom. There was and is a fear of being able to think however you wanted. So as Socrates questioned the nature of god, average folks decided they wanted to return to the superstition and religion of the past, and destroy free thought. In his book, "The Greeks and the Irrational," Dodds writes about how, in 432 BC, the state started persecuting intellectuals on religious grounds, by, for example, making teaching astronomy a crime. They burned books. They banished playwrights and jailed philosophers. Socrates was killed by the state because he (allegedly) corrupted the youth by questioning the old gods. Lots of other thinkers suffered the same. When Athens was falling, society huddled together and tried to save itself by making sure everyone thought the "right" thoughts, had no "cranky" opinions. Rebels got killed.

painting - The Death of Socrates

[In this painting, The Death of Socrates, by Jacques Louis David, Socrates is about to drink poison hemlock as the price of maintaining his beliefs.]

America are not yet killing our heretics. (And we probably never will, the optimist in me thinks.) But there's some of that anti-freedom feeling on Twitter and Facebook, of hating different thoughts, of loving conformity. We rail about — and destroy each other over — such stupid shit, if it's not what you're "supposed" to say.

Today, unlike in Athens, there isn't one solitary State that decides what's allowed. There are two tribes. Whether you're in the liberal tribe or the conservative one, some thoughts cannot be expressed, or else the tribal council could turn on you. Human nature is only able to endure a little bit of unusual opinions.

Feeling and emotion seem to have taken over society, or at least the part of society that gets picked up and amplified on social media. Anyone with the "wrong" opinions can't talk on college campuses, isn't allowed on some social media, and is rejected by peers and friends.

Today, anyone with a job that depends on the goodwill of large numbers of people — reporters, publicists, influencers, politicians — knows there are certain topics none of us talk about publicly, for fear an online mob will destroy us. And while that's maybe not the worst thing — oh no, fewer non-expert opinions on affirmative action and gun control! — regular folks — schoolteachers and bartenders and mechanics — also feel like they have to silence their opinions on things they know about, in their own fields, in their own worlds, because it might alienate folks within their own tribe, and a Twitter gang could hound them. They feel boxed in. And angry. But they also probably participate in silence other people who don't agree. Everyone's mad.

We all know this; but Dodds noted, way back in the middle of the last century, how much this feels like a situation that belongs to late Athens, rather than Athen's Golden Age, when you could've said anything in the Agora, and let good arguments win and bad ones die, and not risked losing your job over it.

"Western Civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials," writer Andre Malraux wrote in 1949. Back then, scared by a horrible war, huge societies like Russia were descending into communism, which jailed people who thought differently, and re-educated them. And poet W.H. Auden said around the same time that most people thought an "open society" was seeming impossible, and that, "therefore, the only escape from economic and spiritual disaster is to return as quickly as possible to a closed type of society."

(The optimist in me says we're not going there. We'll figure out a way to think authentically, so a liberal will be able to openly oppose abortion, and a conservative support gun control, without being ostracized by their clan. But the snap judgments of Twitter and Facebook make that seem unlikely. Conform, they say — or else.)

"The major advances in civilization are processes which all by wreck the societies in which they occur," wrote the scholar A.N. Whitehead. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google get most of America's money and attention. Books, TV, socializing, and thinking — it's all changed because of them, and it may never change back. America built those platforms and they're conquering the world's attention — but America is also being crushed by them, the way thinkers in Athens built the bases to give people power by creating Democracy — and then the people turned on them.

[Cover photo of Socrates from Shutterstock.]