Madame de Staël on the Media and Liberty
Confronted with shockingly violent attacks to the free expression of opinions, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo or the beheading of Professor Paty in France, anybody with a drop of liberalism in her blood will rally to defend the freedom of speech and the press. Everybody ought to be able to say things others do not necessarily agree with, that are deemed to be obscene by some, or that the majority may consider distasteful. Of course, others may decide not to buy your paper, not to dine at your table (where the dinner’s price is listening to your idiocy), to unfollow you on Twitter. My right not to listen to you is fundamentally different from making it impossible for others to listen to you if they saw it fit.
In her learned and thoughtful blog post at Centre Walras Pareto, Biancamaria Fontana does not question this tenet of liberal thinking. However, she poses a relevant question: what’s the effect of modern media on the quality of the political debate? Is broadening the audiences always good for modern public opinion?
The French Revolution, Fontana reminds us, lifted the Ancien Regime’s preventive censorship. Hooray! But consider what the greatest liberal intellectual of the time (my view), Germaine de Stael, thought.Consider social media: their development “carried the promise of an easier, more immediate and transparent way to inform citizens, encouraging their participation in discussions and consultations.” Yet they are commonly seen as key for the making of contemporary populism. Fontana cites the Five Stars Movement in Italy but I am sure other examples may come to mind. Demagogues are great at twisting the media. Consider Benito Mussolini, who was, after all, a journalist, and he understood one thing or two about how the masses could be mesmerized through the at the time unprecedented flow of information and opinions.
In 1800, at the beginning of the Consulate, Germaine de Staël published a work entitled: De la littérature, considérée dans ses relations avec les institutions sociales. The book was a pioneering comparative history of European literature, seen in the light of the different national traditions. In the second part, dedicated to the present and future prospects of the Enlightenment, the chapter “On eloquence” offered a retrospective assessment of political discourse during the Revolution: an object that the author had been able to observe very closely.
Like many intellectuals, Staël had believed initially that the freedom of the press would favour the circulation of information, bringing political issues closer to the general public. The reality had proved very different. Staël stressed in particular two dismal effects of the new “liberated” press. The first one was the lowering of the level of political rhetoric, through the endless repetition of empty formulas, meaningless catch-phrases and party slogans: “The time has come to reveal to you the whole truth…the People has risen…the Nation was plunged in a deadly slumber… etc.”. The second was the escalation of violence in language: faced with a public used to the most outrageous claims, speakers competed in adopting increasingly ferocious formulas to capture their attention. The result in the end had no political or ideological significance whatever, but carried a dangerous potential of hatred and aggression.
“Words (la parole) – Staël wrote – retain the power of a lethal weapon while having no residual intellectual strength.”
Fontana, and Staël, know well that “the media (“eloquence”) can only repeat, echo, amplify those beliefs and passions, virtues and vices, that are already present within society”. They would also agree that censorship is no answer to this problem. But isn’t it something to ponder that magnifying the audience of political media tends to lower the bar? Can we say that is only a kind of snobbery? Or, on the other hand, the trivialization of political matters, the reduction of political issues to slogans, the polarization of the debate has something to do with the fall of barriers and filters in the public debate? Consider what is happening today with Covid: are social media helping in sharing useful information and getting interesting and well-argued views into the debate, or are they fostering hysteria, to the advantage of those who will cynically build on it?
Fontana’s piece is fascinating and raises some uncomfortable questions. It is also an invitation to read Staël (I wish more of her writings would be available in English, besides the meritorious translation of the Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution published by the Liberty Fund) – what a remarkable woman and thinker. When it comes to possible answers, I have none and hope to stumble upon some persuasive (and reassuring) ones