This summer I had the exciting opportunity to research a topic in the intersection of political philosophy, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of language. Originally, I planned on researching the impact of social media on political belief formation, political participation, and political speech; but, as I began to read more and more about ideology, my thesis began to change. Little did I know that my thesis would change many more times.
My research introduced me to three fields of philosophy that I had very little experience with: applied epistemology, ideology critique, and philosophy of language.
Wanting to read the works of contemporary philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, I devoured as many of his writings in applied epistemology as possible. His concept of gamified online communication caused by value capture, his warnings of the seductive feeling of clarity, and his writings on echo chambers and epistemic bubbles illuminated the state of contemporary online political discourse. Although I did not continue my research into echo chamber and epistemic bubbles, those readings provided me with a new way of understanding the current political landscape and the role Big Tech has in shaping our political beliefs.
My bout in ideology critique began after a friend recommended I read Althusser. After meeting with Prof Maclure and surprising him with my foray into structural Marxism, he recommended some contemporary writings on ideology and Raymond Geuss’ The Idea of a Critical Theory. Geuss’ book proved useful in understanding different senses of the term “ideology” and the goal of ideology critique.
Sally Haslanger, a contemporary philosopher whose work Prof Maclure also recommended I read, introduced me to the field of social and political philosophy of language. It is because her analysis of generic generalizations and their role in perpetuating false beliefs and ideology that I had settled on a thesis.
My goal at the end of the summer was to unite concepts from these three fields of philosophy into a critique of social media which references our conversational practices as opposed to solely blaming a nebulous “algorithm.” Roughly my argument is as follows:
- Generic generalizations exploit our feeling of clarity by appearing as truisms. (E.g.: the generic generalization “women are females” appears as a truism because most people have neither interacted with trans people nor deeply considered the relationship between their sex assigned at birth and their current gender identity.)
- Generic generalizations have the ability to reinforce the apparent validity of some ideological beliefs. (E.g.: the generic generalization “Black people are violent” reinforces the belief that Black neighbourhoods ought to be policed more than White neighbourhoods, which then ultimately reinforces the generic generalization.)
- Social media incentivizes the use of generic generalizations through the use of character limits (after all, it is much quicker—and more emotive—to say “F is G” than it is to say “Fs are more prone to being G than non-Fs”) and flawed engagement metrics (the likes on a post does not necessarily reflect its validity).
- Therefore, social media can act as a tool for perpetuating ideological beliefs through the use of generic generalizations that abuse our feeling of clarity.
Furthermore, I wanted to provide a potential antidote for this plague that infests our online social interactions. The potential cure was found in a paper written by Heather Battaly that I had read earlier in the summer before my thesis had changed. In her paper, Battaly argues that we should engage closed-mindedly with our toxic social media feed. By this she means that we should not revise our beliefs about the falsity of ideological generic generalizations, but we should engage with the post (engagement in this sense could include interacting with the original post, interacting with those that are interacting with the original post, or simply reporting the post). By actively resisting the apparent validity of certain generic generalizations, we are able to resist the ideological reality associated with those beliefs.
After obtaining my bachelor’s degree, I intend on pursuing a PhD in philosophy, most likely in the realm of political epistemology and philosophy of language.
I would like to thank the Faculty of Arts Internship Office for providing me with this invaluable opportunity. There is no doubt in my mind that the skills I developed this summer while working on my ARIA project will prove to be a boon to my future in academia. I would also like to thank Prof Jocelyn Maclure for financially and academically supporting me throughout this process; I hope one day to provide a student with the opportunity that he has provided me.