Jonathan Rauch discusses overcoming polarization and the critical role norms and institutions play in defending truth.

By Jahnavi Akella and Michael Gordon
06/10/2021 • 03:15 AM EST

Author, Jonathan Rauch discusses Internet trolling, cancel culture, propaganda, and his latest book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan explains how these modern components of information warfare have come together to silence centrist voices and amplify only the most extreme viewpoints. He also discusses the critical role norms and institutions play in defending truth and the innovative efforts taking shape to rebuild public dialogue and combat polarization.

0:00: Jahnavi Akella:

With us today, we have author, journalists, and activist Jonathan Rauch. Jon Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is also the author of six books, including his latest, the Constitution of Knowledge, a Defensive Truth. Jon, one of the most striking points in your work is the ways in which troll culture and cancel culture, though practiced on opposite sides of the political spectrum, reinforce each other. How does this happen?

0:28: Jonathan Rauch:

Yeah, it's really interesting because information warfare, propaganda, as people who follow Propwatch know, this is not the domain of any particular party or any particular ideology. So, these things reinforce in a couple of ways. One is that each side can point to the other and say, see how crazy those people are. If you don't join us, if you don't stay with us, you're going to help the other side. And that strengthens the extreme at the expense of the center, and that helps divide American society. But the other way that they strengthen each other is that they're both working on these disinformation tactics, that in different ways, cloud reality.

So, you get shifts toward the extreme ends of the political spectrum. You get whole debates on issues like race, class, gender, sexuality, that become skewed and whole disciplines in the sciences, the social sciences primarily in humanities, where you don't have enough diversity anymore to have enough points of view to make sure you make knowledge. So, both of these things create an environment that's more extreme. And of course, the extremists on both sides benefit in that kind of polarized environment. What does not hold what risks not being held is of course the center.

1:49: Jahnavi Akella:

What are purist notions of human thought? And why are they inherently flawed?

1:54: Jonathan Rauch:

Purism is the idea that there's one right answer, and we all should adhere to it. We just know what the wrong answers are. Why do we need those around? Classic form of this would be why allow Holocaust denial? We know the Holocaust happened. There is nothing more to learn from Holocaust deniers and up to a point that's true, but constitution of knowledge has a pretty good way of handling that. You don't censor or silence, Holocaust deniers. You just marginalize them. A few people believe that, but it can't dominate the agenda, it can't get anywhere. That's one reason trolling is so dangerous. Those people can use outrage techniques to project themselves to the front of the conversation.

What you have to have though, in order to make knowledge, is you have to reject purism. You've got to have diverse points of view. That's the fundamental ingredient to make the whole reality-based community work, because remember, we can never see our own biases. You may be biased, but I'm never biased. I'm just seeing reality as it really is. The only way we can check biases, even in principle, is against other biases, which are different from ours, any society or group or university faculty, in which everyone shares a certain belief means they're not questioning that belief ever. And that means it's in danger of stultifying and they may miss some important facets of reality. So, you've got to have a system with pluralism.

You've got to in fact, welcome wrong-headed and dangerous viewpoints. That doesn't mean you have to accept them into the curriculum or that you have to admire them or that you have to thank them for being around every day. But you do have to allow them because every so often, some of those crazy people out there with very different viewpoints, they're going to be right and you're going to be wrong. Or at least they're going to have part of the picture. Another way in which trolling and cancel culture collaborate is that they both make the environment difficult for pluralists. They both make it hard to sustain this multifaceted conversation, in which there are many different kinds of viewpoints combining together in a good faith way.

4:06: Michael Gordon:

Jon, what's happened to the center and why don't we hear a center viewpoint all that much anymore?

4:15: Jonathan Rauch:

Well, goes back to what we were talking about earlier. In the online world, centrist viewpoints tend not to be radical. They tend not to be outrageous. So they just don't propagate that quickly.

4:27: Michael Gordon:

Would you say the middle is still the majority, or is that not the case anymore?

4:34: Jonathan Rauch:

Oh, it's the majority. So one reason I'm so happy to be having this conversation at Propwatch is that people who follow propaganda know that the name of the game is to spoof consensus to make it seem like the extreme small minorities on the extreme are in fact, majorities. To make it seem like the reasonable middle has disappeared, even if it hasn't. Well, we see something like that in America today because the polls show that there's still a substantial middle. It's quite large. It's not as large as it once was. Views have shifted toward the edges, but the distribution of opinion in America on issues, it's still like pretty flat. There's lots of people at different points across the spectrum.

The problem is that the distribution of opinion among elites, the people who are voting in primaries, the people who are getting elected to office, the people who are most active in politics, and the people who are most active online, are not representative of this vast American middle. They are more polarized, they're more extreme, they're more active. So they have a disproportionate sway and they make the center seem much smaller than it is. And then politically, because of the primary system and some other things, the center also has less sway in politics than it should. So we get in this paradoxical situation where there's still really a substantial American center, but it's punching below its weight.

5:59: Michael Gordon:

Jon, based on what you're seeing, where do you feel we're heading?

6:05: Jonathan Rauch:

I see a bifurcated future. I am cautiously optimistic, maybe hopeful. So in one future, we do what we've been able to do. We humans have been able to do multiple times in the past, starting with, for example, the invention of movable type and the printing press. Massive social disruption, lasted for decades, led to wars raging across Europe. Very destructive, this unleashing of ideas. The first thing that happened when the printing press was invented was fake news. Books were published, accusing people of witchcraft and witches were burned all across Europe. And then you had the Protestant reformation, which led to all kinds of warfare. Well it took a long time, but we built institutions and norms that became the constitution of knowledge.

Then we had the invention of the penny press in the United States in the 1800s, and then the massive offset presses, which allowed huge newspaper tycoons. And for awhile we had giant media enterprises, which reveled in fake news and extreme partisanship, in the 1800s hundreds. Well then some people came along, they saw a problem and they began to develop standards and guidelines, journalism schools, American society of newspaper editors, Pulitzer prizes. And by the middle of the 20th century, journalism was pretty darn good at using protocols that got to truth.

So these are just two examples out of many. And the question is, can we once again figure out how to build reforms and institutions that can channel these things in more constructive directions. The good news is a lot of people are working on that.

You've got social media companies that are really working quite hard, within the limits of their business model, to figure out how to reduce trolling, disinformation, and so forth. We've now got institutions all over the world that are watching, monitoring disinformation networks and sometimes going inside them, burrowing into them, so that they get early warnings about the next big meme or viral disinformation and so forth.

So there's a lot going on, but we have this choice of futures. One, we sort of get control of these information technologies. The other, they control us. I don't yet know what will be, based on the past record and based on the fact that there are organizations like Propwatch, which are thinking and writing and talking about these issues. I am cautiously hopeful that this period will look like another of the difficult historic transitions that we got through.

8:40: Jahnavi Akella:

I think one of the most alarming things I read in your book was the amount of Americans that have resorted to political nihilism. And I wanted to get your opinion, whether you think that we are rational enough to like, excuse me, to reaffirm our commitment to a peaceful society?

9:01: Jonathan Rauch:

Looking a little sketchy after January 6th, isn't it? Yeah, I think so. One of them is the reasons... one reason is the one we've discussed, which is you still have a bigger center than we realize. Another is that we're seeing the outcropping of lots of civic efforts all over the country to try to get a handle on the extreme polarization that's causing this move toward violence and other forms of extremism. You've got to remember that propaganda and polarization go hand in hand. The more polarized the society is, the more vulnerable it is to propaganda, which exploits these divisions and extreme beliefs. And the more propagandized the society is, the more polarized it'll be, because what propagandists are trying to do is divide and disorient the target society, but people are catching onto this.

And Jahnavi, that's, to me, that's maybe the most hopeful thing. People have tumbled to the fact that they are the subject of these massive manipulation campaigns. And you've got groups like a group I'm involved with Braver Angels, a national grassroots depolarizing movement. Now in all 50 states, bringing people together across red and blue, not to persuade each other, just to relearn how to communicate, how to see each other as human beings. And the one thing that they most often say, when people leave these sessions that we do, these workshops and these debates, is they come away saying we are not as divided as we've been told. And there's a lot of groups like that. And then there are groups that bring the groups together, like David Brooks' Weave effort at the Aspen Institute.

So these things give me hope that they're sort of the regular people as it were, the people who are not the super polarized and the super propagandized, those people are starting to organize and starting to push back.

10:55: Michael Gordon:

Jonathan, would you say your book is somewhat of a roadmap in defense of truth?

11:04: Jonathan Rauch:

I hope my book is a roadmap in defense of truth. I hope the book leaves people with three messages and they all come at that from different ways. But, the first is it's not the marketplace of ideas, it's the constitution of knowledge. You just need a lot of structure and a lot of institutions and a lot of norms in order to make knowledge. Otherwise all you have is confusion.

The second thing I want people to understand is you're being manipulated. These breakdowns that we've been talking about, polarization, division, disorientation, the spread of conspiracy theories, the chilling effect from cancel culture. This isn't just happening automatically. This is happening because people want it to happen. They can exploit the situation that they're creating. They can make profit off of it. They can get powerful off of it. The smarter we are about realizing that the better we'll be able to fight it.

And that's, that's the third part of my roadmap, which is the hopeful part that we alluded to earlier. They're not 10 feet tall. We are. At the end of the day, although propagandists and trolls and cancelers have a lot of short-term power to stifle people or to hijack people's minds or to confuse them, they can't make the virus vaccine; the COVID vaccine that went into my arm a month ago. They can't in the course of a weekend sequence, that virus. They can't create a global infrastructure of knowledge, which has transformed humans as a species.

That gives the reality-based community, this tremendous institutional depth. If we have the confidence to use it and if we understand the tactics that its enemies are using. Right now, we're just starting to understand those tactics and PropWatch is very much a part of that. And I hope that my book will be helpful to you in those efforts.

13:03: Jahnavi Akella:

A lot of the key ideas I took from the book I tried to include in the questions, so that our audience can also experience those. Especially while reading, I think we all have to occasionally read a book for professional reasons and I didn't expect it to change me as much as it did, but I felt like it really changed me and made me examine myself. And I think it's, I think it's an invaluable book, honestly, for this moment.

13:34: Jonathan Rauch:

I'm so happy to hear that. If you don't mind me interviewing you just for a minute, in what ways did it influence you?

13:41: Jahnavi Akella:

Sure. so particularly I just got out of college and a lot of what you were talking about in college campuses, the chilling of these particular ideas, just this hostile environment, and it's kind of like they're trying to sterilize the epistemic environment from all these different ideas. And even though, regardless of my political opinion, I don't agree with that, but I was also very involved in the community that kind of is responsible for that. So for me, it was just examining how I contributed to that, to cancel culture, how I've contributed to polarization in my own community and just thinking about how I could do better moving forward.

14:23: Jonathan Rauch:

That's so heartening to hear. And it goes back to something I said earlier, which gives me a sense of hope, which is Americans don't like being in the situation we're in. We don't like social media becoming an outrage machine. We don't like politics turning into a battle of extremes in which less and less of what's said is actually true. And we don't like being manipulated. And the key has got to be for people like you and me and the listeners to this podcast to wise up, to understand the ways that we're being manipulated.

So that means we need to change some things we're doing, like that outrageous tweet. Before we retweet it, find out if it's actually true, or remember you're going to hurt someone or destroy their reputation. Remember that you might be wrong. Next time people join a pile on or sign a petition to get someone or shut someone down, don't do that. If you're a college student and you see someone being ganged up on, because maybe they're a conservative, or maybe they're questioning conventional wisdom on campus about, you know, transgender people. If you see them being ganged up on, step up beside them and say, well, wait a minute. You know, I may or may not agree, but this person has every right to express a point of view. When you see someone on campus say you're not qualified to speak because, you know, you're white, you're male, you're cisgender, whatever it happens to be, reject that. Make sure that people can speak out.

So, there are lots of things on the individual level that we can do to ensure space for pluralism in the culture. And every time you do something like that, you make it more difficult for propaganda and disinformation agents to do their work.

16:07: Jahnavi Akella:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Jonathan Rauch, author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Jon, thanks so much for spending time with us today.

16:16: Jonathan Rauch:

Thanks. And I hope people will check out my new book - The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.