Restraint and Civic Virtue

In his frightening and inspiring book, Reset:  Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society,  Ronald J. Deibert, director of the Citizens Lab at the University of Toronto, recommends some surprising ways to diminish the threats of social media and cybercrimes, information distortion, and surveillance capitalism:  restraint, and encouraging “civic virtue.”

Restraint includes going slow, reigning in personal habits which lend themselves to outside control, restraining the power of the major social media providers (as recently in Australia), and ensuring redundancy.  My purpose is not to explain all his theses – for that you can read the book.  It is to consider his ideas further.


Several forms of restraint come to mind.  One is to keep control of my life by limiting the amount of information I take in, whether pushed by outside sources or solicited by myself.  It certainly includes limiting the number of various sources which alert me –I don’t need noises going off on my phone throughout the day – keeping only appointments and task reminders.  I’ll seek out other  information at times of my own choosing, thank you.

Another form of restraint is to choose very carefully what I do with new information and  messages of advocacy.  In reconsidering matters, I need to not only take in new information.  I need to reconsider the old information, to discern whether what is called “new” really is.  Example:  a friend considers the new investors’ emphasis on ESG (environment, social issues, and corporate governance) to be both new and important.  It behooves businesses to report their activities and plans in these categories to attract investment.  I responded that I, an ethicist, have reviewed many companies which for years have generally reported annually their adherence to different agencies’ ethics checklists, charts, and graphs. I’m glad for “new” emphases, but they are not necessarily of a new and different quality. One must do things in the new way, of course.

From many of the books in the field of psychology I’ve cited in posts so far, I understand and accept that much “thinking” is done unconsciously, and that emotion contributes more to “thinking” than I want to credit (see most recently How Emotions are Made:  the Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett). Another author claims that most of our “thinking” is really habit (Unique: the New Science of Individuality, David J. Linden).   Nonetheless, there should be time set aside for explicit, conscious thought.  (I include in conscious thought “gathering clouds” as one fictional French police detective Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg does.)  The important quality is to set aside deliberate time for thought about this matter, and not just move onto other things, leaving the thinking to the subconscious.

Such conscious thought should include questioning why this is the argument or piece of information – why not ______________?  It should involve carefully examining the language – what exactly does this very suggestive word mean in this context?  Is this argument unique, or does it remind me of something else?  What is the background of the person putting this out – have they had experience of a life so different from mine that I should give it careful regard?  Are there academic or professional credentials?  What are the third-and fourth-order implications of this information, or argument?  Does it use analogies which break down quickly when considered in a real-life context?  Is the argument well expressed – am I giving it consideration primarily because of the content or because of the quality of expression?  If it is not well expressed, is it potentially worth my working hard to be sure I understand it, or should I simply give it a miss?  Is the argument merely logical, or is it inductive, building one anecdote on top of another until I can see the whole structure and realize it is a valid description of how things are?

Civic Virtue

Deibert also prescribes bringing back “civic virtue.” This includes “…self-restraint, compromise; skilled knowledge of, and deference to, civic institutions.”  This can be fostered by mass education, public ceremonies, public architecture, and iconography.  I like the concept in theory, but we are all aware of the dangers attending the state’s fostering a particular view of patriotism through associated institutions.  Such things may be done too thoroughly, prescribing the “proper” attitude. 

For example, parades may promote militarism, because they are often military in style, involving uniformed people marching in unison, playing what is supposed to be uplifting, inspiring music with a commanding beat.  A parade of actual military people suggests strongly that they are to be respected because they are the military.  A march by the RCMP suggest the same respect by association. Or parades may promote particular cultural values. In Canada, to attend the Orange Day parade used to be a sign of particular sympathies which were divisive and intolerant of some other senses of citizenship. Many are the people who do not think these organizations represent the country we want Canada to be, or, perhaps, they once did, but are unsure now.

We think of the statues and street names which are being re-considered because they commemorate people who established the ill-reputed schools for aboriginals, or who professed highly racist views.  Some feel that society should no longer give witness to the reputations of those commemorated, even when they also stood for other more respectable views.  An example would be Egerter Ryerson, a founder of the aboriginal schools system, but also of Ontario’s public school system.

Sometimes we can change commemorations of the past without causing current problems. Canada seemed to be able to change our national anthem from time to time to meet new sensibilities.  Forsaking male-oriented language,  recently we changed “true patriot love in all thy sons command” to “in all our hearts command.”  Perhaps there are such easy routes to detach ourselves from other questionable commemorations.

No doubt “civic institutions” would include democratic processes, Parliament, our courts, our schools, universities, and hospitals, places of worship, public gathering places, hockey arenas, the Queen’s representative and the monarchy itself.  Generally their purpose seems to be to identify causes greater than ourselves, representing qualities to which we aspire either personally or as a country, as well as values and goals which we can set before us on the physical and moral landscape. 

The Need for Trust

Respecting any or all these requires trust, i.e., a dead certain conviction that they are reliable placeholders that will not let us down.  As we consider the difficulty of doing this, it`s not surprising that social media have fragmented us.  It is easier to hold onto a set of values about which we, and people we like, agree, than to adopt more general values to which all must subscribe, but not all agree.  So choosing our civic virtues requires difficult work to find words which express our own values, and then ensure either that the same words have the same valued meaning to others, or at least do not offend them.  We must also listen to words which have meaning for others, and decide whether they offend us.  A difficult example was the  description of Québec as a “distinct society” during the Meech Lake Accord fiasco in the late eighties (my American readers will have to look this up – it’s much too nuanced to explain in this post).  The words were the same in the two languages, but the meanings were significantly different.  Using these same words did not provide a satisfactory solution.  Québec nationalism and desire to leave Canada grew right through the middle of those words, and the rest of Canada did not want to condone that sense of separateness.  Nonetheless the country had enough desire to stay together, even without agreeing on the words.  Perhaps our civic virtue is that we were able to keep talking even after the referendum (for Americans: the question was whether Québec should and could separate from Canada) was defeated.  I’m unsure that the talking would have continued had the referendum passed.  Perhaps it would have: after all,   much talking and actual negotiating continue after Brexit.  Perhaps talking would have continued then, too.  The very fact that there is an exclusively Québec political party in the Parliament of Canada also suggests that this is so. 

Further examples:  Québec`s governing house is the National Assembly.  We also refer to the aboriginal populations in Canada as “nations.”  I suspect that the term as used among aboriginals means the same thing to them as it does to Québecois, but the rest of Canada regards these nations very differently, because the latter’s meaning is more threatening to national unity than the former.  It is these distinctions and these tensions, together with highly differentiated institutions in each culture, which cause us to continue to talk and disagree.  These compose Canada’s “civic virtue.”

Civic virtue, then, is not necessarily something which can or should be imposed by the state, nor is it necessarily about words on which we agree.  It more nearly seems to be a basic desire to get along with these people somehow, accomplished in part by continuing to talk with the “others”, even without explicit agreements.  What we see in social media is the very opposite.

What`s needed, as I`ve posted elsewhere ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­(The Usefulness of Talking – Upon reconsidering…)  is talking with others, and lots of it.  That is our civic virtue. The place of restraint is obvious.  As is the place of informed consent, along with a great deal of reconsidering.

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