The Caesar Effect

It is said that we live in the Age of Facebook. Human beings are becoming increasingly connected through the facets of cellular devices, social networking, amateur journalism, and any other means which allows thoughts, media, and ideas to be shared electronically at the speed of light.

At the same time, we live in an age of massive political upheaval, one in which the debate not only centers on the extent of government involvement in our lives but whether the government should be involved at all.

These two revolutions, both the one in electronic communications and the emerging ideological revolution in the name of individual rights, have found happy union together. Now, ideological groups have the means to connect to one another faster than previously imagined possible. Such connections have spurred much beneficial action, as with the Tea Party, while also leading to baseless violence and theft, as in the United Kingdom. But, it has also altered the ways in which people speak to and view one another. The traditional power structures implicit within the old forms of ideological activism (i.e. seniority, age, political pull) can be immediately usurped by a newcomer who, though he has no prior connection, displays that he is no less capable of holding his own than those who once considered themselves the de facto leaders (or rulers) of said groups.

This, alone, is not particularly interesting. What is interesting, however, is the reaction that many of the older members in these online communities, most notably the moderators, the designated officers of a given group, and those who grew up memorizing and accepting without question the precept of “respect your elders,” take in response to dissidents. What was once a group for “open discussion and sharing of ideas” becomes immediately restrictive and the status quo is held as the standard of the “good.” Anyone who disagrees is attacked with a slew of fallacies of relevance: “Everyone is entitled to respect.” “You don’t have any right to speak to me that way.” “I’m old enough to be your grandfather – show me some respect!” Eventually, the rules of engagement alter altogether. Those that refuse to accept are simply ousted.

While, undoubtedly, it is the right of forum moderators, journalistic editors, and officers of more traditional groups to set the rules and enforce them, what sparks my curiosity is the causes in these policy alterations and some of the notable contradictions that those who claim to be the defenders of reason, free speech, and individual rights seem to possess.

First, a word on the fallacies of relevance: all too often, people of prior generations have been raised in the midst of numerous logical fallacies which they later come to accept as irrefutable maxims. Among these are the ideas that one’s elders should inherently be respected simply because they are one’s elders and also the assertion that everyone’s opinion, no matter the content of it, is entitled to equal consideration and respect. While these propositions only push me ever further from accepting the concepts within them, I want to briefly refute them.

Regarding the precept that one’s elders are to be unquestionably respected at all times, this fallacy is constructed on the idea that wisdom inherently comes from age – all evidence to the contrary. If the words of one’s elders were to be accepted without variance from generation to generation, it would suffice to assume that the concepts of “liberty” and “individual rights” would not exist today. Instead, we would still be kneeling before a throne because of the “divine right” of kings. Furthermore, all I must do is look at my elders and their actions to determine that simply because they are my elders does not entitle them to my respect: the New Deal, the Great Society, Medicare Part D, unwarranted entanglement in foreign affairs, Obamacare, and many other statist policies were all conceived, supported, and enacted by those more senior than me.

The second corollary precept asserts that, even if one cannot demand another’s respect simply because of their age, they may insist that another respect them on the grounds that all opinions are of equal value and are therefore all worthy of respect. If this position were to be applied consistently, it means that every sophist, every racist, every bigot, every statist, Rep. Maxine Waters (who is of the opinion that the Tea Party “can go straight to hell”), and anyone else with an equally damnable personal belief is entitled to respect for those beliefs. Logically, only one counterexample is needed to refute an entire argument, but this argument possesses so many counterexamples that it is surprising that one would make it at all. No, everyone’s opinion is not entitled to respect. Definitionally, opinions are nothing more than one’s “view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.” Regarding political and philosophical positions, why should one’s opinions be respected if not based on fact or knowledge?

Respect, like all values, is earned. No one is entitled to the respect, kindness, or love of another man any more than he is entitled to their life, liberty, or property. Instead, if one is to have their position respected, it ought to be supported with epistemological reason and be rooted in metaphysical reality. Create logical arguments; do not simply express your “opinion.”

Returning to the original issue of the leaders of social networking groups and online forums, both official and figurative, it is important to point out the first contradiction within their assertions. If, as they say, everyone’s opinion is entitled to the same amount of respect, then why are those that disagree with said stance dismissed and disrespected? In short, why are people whose opinions are supposedly of no less value than those of the moderator blocked by the moderator?

Nonetheless, the moderator is here within their rights. As they started the forum, they are quite literally free to set the rules of said forum and enforce them as they please. This has already been established, but the interesting point is how some of these moderators and groups are so quick to lash out against the owners of the social networking sites themselves for doing the same. If, for example, Mark Zuckerberg and the Board of Directors of Facebook decided to permanently ban all Tea Party groups (or Pro-Obama groups, or religious groups, or anti-religious groups, etc.), they would also have that right. As an owner of a social networking site, one possesses complete discretion over how that website is run. In other words, if the moderators of the forums within Facebook and other websites insist that they have the right to censor any speech that they disagree with (which they do), then they are in no position to complain if the owner of the website in which their forum resides decides to do the same.

It is imperative to point out that the owners of social networking sites have chosen not to participate in such actions. Doing so would more likely lead to a decrease in traffic to their site which, if their intent is to make money, would be against their rational self-interests. In the same manner, arbitrarily squelching dissent is most likely hurtful to the self-interests of the moderators, if that self-interest is to increase membership and promote one’s cause. For example, Peter Dawson, founder and moderator of the “I bet we can get 1,000,000+ people who disapprove of the Health Care Bill” group and online radio host, has consistently opted to separate himself from the fray in most posts within the group, instead promoting generally free discussion with restrictions only pertaining to fake accounts, spam, and gratuitous profanity. Does this prove frustrating to some of the members that would otherwise like to see dissenters silenced? Naturally. Have some left over time because of it? Most certainly, but by and large, this sort of laissez-faire moderation from beginning to present has proved far more successful than those whose policies change over time – Dawson’s group still retains over 1,287,000 members with many active contributors.

It is important to note, however, that this style of administrative passivity along with the potential changes in policy that follows it are not unique to online forums and social networking groups. Blogs and other forms of amateur journalism, such as this publication and Dawson’s radio show, could have policies similar to those on forums and social networking groups. These may not necessarily relate to the content itself which is already under administrative discretion, but content such as comments, guest columnists and speakers, and other forms of related media are all regulable by the owners of the respective media. The same holds true to political parties and political action groups that take place outside of the online world, each having policies that relate specifically to their individual needs.

Generally, many Tea Party groups, both online and offline, have started off with the same intent as Dawson (those that began under more specific policies are of another class). Oftentimes, however, these groups have shifted their policies in a more restrictive direction. I do not intend to question their moral right to do so, but what I do question is why do it?

Having seen this shift in policy occur under many forum moderators and other group leaders, I have even given it a name: the Caesar Effect. This is the phenomenon in which a group’s leadership that previously enforced generally open policies of debate and discussion begin to exert and more and more of their executive authority in order to shift the focus of the group to be more in-line with their personal prejudices and ideology. In essence, they move from a republican form of governance in their own forums to an authoritarian one.

Moderators and officers that originally act under the, albeit false, supposition that they should facilitate all positions in their groups oftentimes fall victim to the Caesar Effect and instead start silencing those that they disagree with, rationally or not. This can be achieved in several ways: through the silent banning of dissenters, through direct and open changes in procedures which are subsequently enforced, or through open confrontation and appeals to such subjectivist doctrines as, “The rules apply to who I say they do!” The ultimate result, however, remains the same – a group originally intended for relatively open discussion metamorphoses into one tailored to a particular ideology.

Though the Caesar Effect undoubtedly occurs in groups well outside of the Tea Party ideology, what interests me is that many of the positions cherished by these forum moderators are incompatible with the consistent and correct Tea Party philosophy (free markets, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government). Many of the banned opinions, on the other hand, are the consistent application of individual rights (such as the ideal that no one should be forced to grant respect to someone who has not earned it). Other rational positions – the abolition of Social Security and Medicare, the reduction in unwarranted interference in foreign affairs, the deregulation of (especially online) speech, requests that one verify their claims through logical means (a seemingly simple request which is apparently quite offensive to those that have never been questioned before) – are also routinely rejected as being unacceptable and, upon the changing whims of the moderator or officers, blocked or forbidden.

This is an unfortunate side effect of any massive ideological movement, and it is demonstrative of the need for the New Right to root itself in philosophy rather than in “opinion.” Nevertheless, it is important to note that if a moderator and a forum asserts to be a defender of the true ideals of the Tea Party and liberty for all yet rejects some of the above policies as not being worth consideration (again a contradiction in the belief that all “opinions” have value and deserve respect), then they are more likely mistaken members of the Old Right who still have not relinquished some of their former positions. It is their right, but doing so under the guise of liberty is inherently not right.

Those of the rational cult and legitimate (especially consistent and already philosophically-rooted) members of the New Right usually fall prey to these policies within “Tea Party” groups. Oppositely, the Republican Establishment, moderates, and more statist positions begin falling out of favor in genuine New Right forums. So long as neither group portend that they are something that they are not, i.e., so long as Old Right groups do not front themselves as existing for members who respect individual rights and so long as New Right groups do not pretend to be open to all positions if they are not, then they are not committing fraud and are acting morally (though changing the policies could very easily prove detrimental to the group as a whole).

How then are the rejected parties to respond? The most appropriate response to such a question comes from Ayn Rand: “Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone.” Arguing with those that reject argument, reasoning with those who ignore reason, and conversing with those that do not want to be involved in any such conversation is not in one’s rational self-interests. Instead, those rejected by a particular group should seek elsewhere to organize and debate, or even leave a group hostile to their stances through their own volition before wasting too much of their spare time trying to reach those who refuse to be reached. There are numerous groups (such as Dawson’s) in which commonly unpopular stances are left to the members to determine the validity and soundness of. Or, there are even groups with preformed policies about which positions are and are not welcome and individuals may freely seek out and join those which they agree with. Individuals may even start such groups if they like.

If they choose the latter, it is advisable that they begin by setting a policy which matches their existing ideology. After all, unless the leadership truly values debating those of other philosophical persuasions, it makes little sense to openly permit ideologies or topics into the group which are not in coherence with the purpose of the group as a whole. For example, it would be pointless for those of us at the University of Georgia to manage an Objectivist Club with the purpose of examining the doctrines of Ayn Rand while simultaneously allowing the discussion to focus solely on Immanuel Kant without any regards to Rand’s views on the matter. Avoiding future changes in policy except when necessary is often the best way to avoid conflict and to promote one’s goals (the U.S. Constitution, as another example, has only been amended twenty-seven times over the course of its history).

Whatever the case, generally open discussion groups with little inference from the moderators such as Dawson’s will remain uncommon, let alone those that remain generally open discussion over the course of nearly a year and a half as his has. Instead, the Caesar Effect will play a significant role in the vast majority of groups that are created with the intent to permit all opinions.

John Acton, first Baron Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I disagree. I do not believe the “power” held by forum moderators or group leadership corrupts their ideology over time. Instead, that power only reinforces the positions already held by the moderators and leadership, and whether that ideology be correct or incorrect, the rules governing the domains of the online and offline Caesars will only conform to those predispositions over time. Only when the philosophy of the moderator rejects such policy changes can we reasonably predict that standards of a group will remain consistent over the test of time.

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