What do the apps on your phone have to do with the fate of American society and culture? Quite a lot, if Josh Hawley has anything to say about it. The 39-year-old freshman Republican senator from Missouri has quickly built a reputation for himself as David to Big Tech’s Goliath. Like an increasing number of conservative lawmakers, he sees Silicon Valley’s liberal tilt and proclivity to censorship as unacceptable threats to conservatism. Perhaps uniquely among his colleagues in the Senate, he has begun to weave a narrative through both legislation and rhetoric that seeks to cast social media as one of several atomizing forces threatening to tear American society apart at the seams.
This article was originally published in the American Spectator print magazine. Click here for online access!
Hawley’s philosophy seems, at first, like lukewarm social conservatism. His recent internet addiction bill would compel social media companies to set soft time limits on usage, a possibility that, if passed, will surely be panned as a tweet-addicted Washington telling everyone else they’ve had enough screen time. Yet it would be a mistake to conflate him with the for-your-own-good nanny-staters running Europe or the televangelizing capitalists who galvanized the Moral Majority of the 1980s in America. The worldview that Hawley brings to Congress is new, and it offers a glimpse into the future of conservatism.
In a May column for the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti described Hawley as the standard-bearer of a young and rising faction of the Republican Party: “post-liberals.” In place of Reaganesque appeals to common values or purposes, post-liberals substitute the steadfast pillars of “familial, national, and religious authority.” Unlike the proponents of “liberal modernity” on both the mainstream left and right, post-liberals see the value in hierarchies and social arrangements built as much on tradition as on ambition and merit.
Hawley, Continetti points out, offers an apocalyptic view of the trajectory of American society and a corresponding set of solutions that would offend any traditional establishment conservative. Giving a commencement address at King’s College, Hawley railed against a culturally dominant “philosophy of liberation from family and tradition; of escape from God and community … of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” Attempts by social conservatives to reframe the concept of liberty and appropriate it from the domain of social liberals are not new. To grant social liberals their desired association with liberty and to denounce them over that fact, as Hawley is doing, is unusual. Combine this distinct line of attack with Hawley’s unabashed invocations of state regulatory power and an overarching philosophy begins to emerge in which freedom and conservatism are seen as antagonistic rather than complementary.
It is not difficult to understand where social media fits into this worldview. A spiritually exhausted and alienated population, “liberated” from tradition and God and community, turns to technology to grasp for fulfillment and meaning. Silicon Valley has become a dispenser of false idols in this struggle for America’s soul, helping to perpetuate the same ills it claims to remedy. It promises its users genuine bonding and a sense of community in a time of lengthening work days, disintegrating families, and disappearing parishes. It delivers only narcissism and commodified, ersatz socialization.
Silicon Valley has become a dispenser of false idols in this struggle for America’s soul, helping to perpetuate the same ills it claims to remedy.
American society is now beginning to feel the impact of this treatment. Some of the products of social media are benign, even pleasing, on their face, yet seem indicative of some deeper rot. Take, for instance, the rise of “sharenting.” This trend sees parents turning their young children into unwitting Pinterest and Instagram stars, documenting their every move and acting as unofficial and unrequested brand managers. The privacy and consent of the children are effectively disregarded and given secondary consideration to the parents’ own vicarious pursuit of social media recognition. In an era in which the nuclear family is being ravaged by both cultural and market forces, the increasing commercialization of even the act of parenting may be something of a death knell.
Other products of social media usage point toward its ability to drive generational shifts in attitudes, often for the worse. In a January 2018 article titled “Teenagers are better behaved and less hedonistic nowadays,” the Economist notes that young people are doing drugs and engaging in sexual activity less often, largely owing to communications technology: “Teenagers who communicate largely online can exchange gossip, insults and nude pictures, but not bodily fluids, blows, or bottles of vodka.” Yet the apparently more prudent lifestyle of Gen Z comes with a disastrous flipside, in which cyberspace socialization causes users to “pass up some opportunities to develop deep emotional connections with their friends, which are built on non-verbal cues as well as verbal ones.”
The result is a generation of kids addicted to their phones, socializing constantly but never being truly socially fulfilled or instructed in real-world interactions. This can have consequences years down the line, when so-called good behavior in teenagers turns into social stuntedness in adults. Take, for example, data from the General Social Survey in March that shows the percentage of Americans aged 18 to 29 reporting having no sex in the past year has jumped from 14 percent in 1989 to 23 percent in 2018. Another poll, from YouGov, indicates that 30 percent of millennials always or often feel lonely, compared to 20 percent of people in Gen X and 15 percent of Baby Boomers.
What will ultimately come of all of this low-quality socialization? Such a question is too great to study comprehensively, and the gradual nature of a generational shift makes it difficult to test hypotheses. But any small changes to the bulk of a set of normally distributed data must produce significant movement in the tail ends. In other words, while the majority of young people may simply live with fewer meaningful relationships and less sex, one can expect a small but growing minority to lose out dramatically and perhaps develop extremist views.
Enter the involuntary celibates, or “incels,” men who identify primarily with their inability to obtain relationships or sex with women. Ever since the 2014 attacks in Isla Vista, California, by self-identified incel Elliot Rodger, the size and visibility of this very online community has grown exponentially. Its largest community, on the social media and aggregation site Reddit, has close to 80,000 subscribers. Of course, most incels are not violent. At their most lucid, incels complain about an exclusionary social landscape that prioritizes superficiality, narcissism, and relationships founded upon the soulless extraction of value from one’s partner — complaints that may not seem entirely out of place in a social conservative’s views about the woes of the present era. Even a harmless incel, however, represents a man singularly obsessed with his lack of sexual success, often to the detriment of employment and his life in general, making him a burden to society and his family.
Though their rise is alarming, incels represent only a glimpse into what may be yet to come. This is because of the parallels between the incel phenomenon and the related (but much more severe) phenomenon of hikikomori, which is most severe in Japan but increasingly prevalent in other developed countries, particularly in East Asia. Hikikomoro, usually young people, are loners who turn their backs on society and its obligations, spending months or even years in their rooms on their parents’ money, leaving only for necessary tasks like buying groceries. The American emphasis on financial independence has helped to hold this social illness at bay, but it is not difficult to imagine something similar evolving out of the present incel community. The result of such a thing would be an economic disaster rather than a mere online curiosity: Japan has approximately 500,000 hikikomori aged 15 to 39, with another million at risk out of only around 17 million Japanese in that age bracket in total. In a country that already has a shortage of young people, such figures suggest a problem with existential implications.
What about those young men who act out, rather than internalize, their profound frustrations? Whenever a mass shooting happens, carried out by some disaffected extremist or mentally ill young man, politicians are quick to blame “mental health” but rarely social media. While 8chan and other such anonymous imageboards may not be comparable in their design and culture to Facebook or Instagram, they often play a similar role for their users: the sharing of conversation, self-expression, and humor, though exclusively by edgy young men and for edgy young men. What may be called “social media” in this case encourages egotism and degrades empathy, just as it does on more mainstream sites. More important, however, is what this social media offers as a substitute. In place of a healthy relationship with one’s community or a partner, these imageboards drive their users into the arms of extremism, where any individual — no matter how unsuccessful or reclusive in real life — can feel uniquely knowledgeable or powerful.
When Josh Hawley attacks social media for perpetuating these social ills and threatens to bring the wrath of the government to bear against Silicon Valley, he strikes a perfectly post-liberal tone. Battle lines are now being drawn among the conservative intelligentsia. As with peculiarly many conflicts on the right today, the two sides are embodied by David French and Sohrab Ahmari. French attacked Hawley’s social media addiction bill almost as soon as it was announced in early August, declaring in National Review in a piece titled “Against the Republican Daddy State” that “Josh Hawley’s efforts to micromanage social media are an affront to limited government and personal responsibility.” In his essay “Against David French-ism” from First Things two months prior, Ahmari attacked French for failing to recognize that “autonomy unbound hasn’t yielded freedom but new and insidious forms of digital tyranny.”
The traditional conservative idea of individuals as rational and self-disciplining is, to Hawley and his intellectual allies, a fantasy.
For post-liberals like Hawley and Ahmari, the right-wing crusade against government oversight is a red herring — something for conservatives to cling to while the Left commandeers every other institution in America from Big Tech to higher education. Instead, they argue, government power ought to be generously applied to either subdue the malignant influence of these institutions or wrest them away from leftist hands. As if to preempt French’s accusation that he is denying people their personal responsibility, Hawley uses the introductory paragraph in the text of his bill to accuse tech giants of “[exploiting] human psychology … to substantially impede freedom of choice.” The traditional conservative idea of individuals as rational and self-disciplining is, to Hawley and his intellectual allies, a fantasy.
Speaking to Wired in August, Hawley argued that social media encourages “some of the worst of America. We’re dealing with pathologies that they have at the least contributed to.” That is a brief way of referring to the chronic diseases that social media sites have inflicted upon American society and culture.
It may be too brief. Though Hawley’s attempt to ban addictive social media practices is a notable first step, it is much like bringing a knife to a gunfight: it attempts to solve an enormous societal problem by targeting too few micro-features on too few sites. As David French put it in a critical response to the bill in National Review, Hawley would be left playing “whack-a-mole” with a thousand different Big Tech innovations, equipped with only the slow-grinding apparatus of government. Rather than relying on the bill itself as a solution, Hawley ought to take the publicity it has provided as an opportunity to articulate a comprehensive, intellectual case against the excesses of social media and all of its social and spiritual consequences. Viral figures ranging from Jordan Peterson to Jonathan Haidt and Ben Shapiro prove that there is an appetite for such public philosophy. If society itself is at stake — and Hawley seems to think so — then there is little time to lose.
This article was originally published in The American Spectator’s fall 2019 print magazine. Click here for online access!