Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, reflecting on the James Damore story that’s already receding from memory, points out that “We Live in Fear of the Online Mobs.” Yes, we do:
I find myself in more and more conversations that sound as if we’re living in one of the later-stage Communist regimes. Not the ones that shot people, but the ones that discovered you didn’t need to shoot dissidents, as long as you could make them pariahs — no job, no apartment, no one willing to be seen talking to them in public.
The people I have these conversations with are terrified that something they say will inadvertently offend the self-appointed powers-that-be. They’re afraid that their email will be hacked, and stray snippets will make them the next one in the internet stocks. They’re worried that some opinion they hold now will unexpectedly be declared anathema, forcing them to issue a humiliating public recantation, or risk losing their friends and their livelihood.
Social media mobs are not, of course, as pervasive and terrifying as the Communist Party spies. But the Soviet Union is no more, and the mobs are very much with us, so it’s their power we need to think about.
That power keeps growing, as does the number of subjects they want to declare off-limits to discussion. And unless it is checked, where does it lead? To something depressingly like the old Communist states: a place where your true opinions about anything more important than tea cozies are only ever aired to a tiny circle of highly trusted friends; where all statements made to or by the people outside that circle are assumed by everyone to be lies; where almost every conversation is a guessing game that both sides lose. It is one element of Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” that does resonate today: Any two acquaintances must remain so mutually suspicious that every day, they can discuss only the pleasant weather and their common fealty to the regime.
She doesn’t mention self-censorship in biology and certain other design-relevant science fields. But the study of evolution obviously comes to mind. Because we’re in touch with some of them, we know how scientists who are skeptics on Darwinian theory maintain a studious, indeed fearful public silence to avoid coming to the attention of evolution’s online mob.
As a friend points out, ID advocates and Darwin doubters were the canary in the coal mine. They were the first to experience the brunt of today’s version of informal yet highly effective free speech suppression in liberal academia. In theory, there’s perfect freedom of thought and research in biology. But take one step in the direction of heresy on evolution, and you are instantly rendered a “pariah,” with all that implies about your future career and other prospects.
It’s like the world’s biggest small town, replete with all the things that mid-century writers hated about small-town life: the constant gossip, the prying into your neighbor’s business, the small quarrels that blow up into lifelong feuds. We’ve replicated all of the worst features of those communities without any of the saving graces, like the mercy that one human being naturally offers another when you’re face to face and can see their suffering.
As McArdle understands well, our precious online existence is key to the censor’s power to shame. Email, social media, and the Internet furnish amazing tools for keeping expressed opinions in line. Biologists, we could add, are well advised to “discuss only the pleasant weather and their common fealty to the regime,” aka Darwin.
We must never stop reminding people that this is how evolution’s scientific “consensus” is maintained.
H/t: Doug Axe.