Nation & World

‘Likemindedness’ can be stultifying

5 min read

Constitution Day speaker Sunstein argues for vitality of a society that can disagree

Cass R. Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter Professor at Harvard Law School and a former attorney-adviser in the Department of Justice’s Office of the Legal Counsel, spoke at the fourth annual Constitution Day lecture (Sept. 17) sponsored by the Office of the Provost.

In his introductory remarks, Kevin Casey, an associate vice president for the Office of Government, Community and Public Affairs, explained that the Constitution Day lectures were instituted in response to a 2004 Senate Appropriations–bill amendment by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). The bill requires institutions that receive federal funding to commemorate Sept. 17 with a pertinent educational program. On that day in 1787, Casey explained, 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the U.S. Constitution.

Sunstein chose as his topic free speech in the age of the Internet, particularly as it relates to the nature of self-government as conceived of by the founders of the United States. He began by noting that the framers of the Constitution were “not that original,” having come from a tradition of Republican thought. But their one original idea, he said, was in bucking the prevailing view that for self-governance to work it was “indispensable that we be similar.”

“The founders thought the anti-federalists had it backwards,” he said. “In order to be worthy of the name, democracy benefits from heterogeneity, which promotes deliberation and checks excesses. Self-government learns most and protects best in the face of heterogeneity. It’s their enduring contribution to our Constitution.”

Sunstein contrasted this idea with a trend online for personalized news pages, calling them an “architecture of control by which each of us can select a free-speech package that suits our interests.” He then discussed a few studies that show why this trend can be detrimental to a self-governing society.

The first took place in two cities in Colorado. A cohort of “left-of-center types” in Boulder and a group of conservatives in Colorado Springs were asked their opinions on a number of topics and then allowed to discuss the questions with other members of their group. “We wanted to know what would happen to private, anonymous views before and after deliberation with like-minded others.” The results? “Before talking to one another, the liberals in Boulder thought the U.S. should sign an international agreement to fight global warming. After talking, they thought the U.S. should sign it yesterday. Before talking, they thought affirmative action was a good idea. After talking, they thought it was a great idea.” A similar pattern was shown among conservatives.

Furthermore, the division between the conservative and liberal groups increased greatly after the discussions. “Boy, were they sharply split,” Sunstein said. The results of this experiment, he noted, were borne out in the “real world” in the opinions of Federal Court of Appeals judges: When they were on three-judge panels consisting only of Democrats or only of Republicans, their votes were much more in tune with the party line than when the panels were mixed. “Once sorted by environment, Republican appointees show very conservative patterns,” Sunstein said. “Democrats go far to the left.”

He called this tendency and the tendency toward self-sorting in the first place “the flip side of the First Amendment on which our culture has spent too little time.” Free speech, he added, is mostly about censorship, but also about public forums, pointing out that in tyrannical societies the government refuses to allow places where citizens can congregate to openly protest and discuss ideas, get to know people from diverse backgrounds, and share experiences. “Even though some of us would like to live in gated communities where we don’t have to encounter people who annoy us,” he said, such serendipitous meetings can actually change lives, giving us a sense that “we’re all in it together, notwithstanding our differences.”

The Internet, and blogs in particular, Sunstein maintained, are “creating a real-world version of the Colorado experiment, particularly in politics, where it is most dangerous.” He mentioned economist Amartya Sen’s contention that in no society in the history of the world that has democratic elections and a free press has there ever been a famine. “As long as governments are under pressure from widely proliferated information to avert famine,” Sunstein said, “they do.” The dissemination of viewpoints — even when they don’t agree with our own — can be a safeguard against such acute deprivation and other forms of harm, including torture, false imprisonment, and police brutality. “When people are sorted, even voluntarily,” he maintained, “it’s much less likely for this safeguard to occur.”

He concluded that new technologies are “more an opportunity than a threat,” but warned that we must encourage deliberative forums online to protect against the kind of results found in the Colorado study. He ended with a quote from John Stuart Mill: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value … of putting human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. … Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”