C.S. Lewis Describes How To Combat Fake News
In 1945, the great English author and medieval scholar, C.S. Lewis, penned an incisive essay in The Spectator called “ After Priggery—What? ” that discussed the dissolution of priggery as a prominent vice in British society. The absence of priggery is in itself no bad thing, but Lewis warns that the vacuum created by the absence of priggery cannot be sustained. In the absence of a replacement virtue, another vice shall come to fill the void. Lewis identifies this vice as an excess of toleration, specifically regarding what is tolerated in the public discourse. Unfortunately, the state of contemporary discourse demonstrates that rather than heeding Lewis’ advice, our society has instead done the exact opposite.
According to Lewis, British society had “sunk below” priggery in its open toleration of a journalist Lewis identifies with the pseudonym Cleon. This Cleon serves as a stand-in for mendacious muck-raking journalists and media personalities who purposefully lie and stir up trouble. In a priggish society, Lewis argues, a fellow such as Cleon would be regarded as being on the same social level as a prostitute, or perhaps even lower. Yet, in Lewis’s time, even those who hold Cleon to be a horrid liar will still meet with “him on perfectly friendly terms over a lunch table.”
Lewis pulls no punches in his assessment of Cleon’s danger to society, claiming that Cleon has sold his intellectual virginity, that “he gives his patrons a baser pleasure” than a prostitute, and that “he infects them with more dangerous diseases.” To Lewis, Cleon’s vile work “is poisoning the whole nation.”
Lewis is careful to explicitly argue against the idea that such danger necessitates government regulation of speech, noting the danger such laws would pose to freedom and questioning whether such a course of action would even be effective. Instead, Lewis goes on to propose that Cleon be socially shunned, not, Lewis is careful to note, because we are morally better than Cleon, but rather because there is one area in which our moral superiority stands in clear contrast to his own vice. And that is that while Cleon is poisoning the country with his lies and sensationalism, we are not.
Unfortunately, our society has, for a variety of causes, taken part of Lewis’ message to heart, while ignoring this important aspect of moral humility and as a result brought about the rebirth of priggery. The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of vice.
People have taken with great zeal to calling for the social ostracization of contemporary Cleons, while at the same time, thanks to social media, it has never been easier for individuals to become full-on Cleons in their own right. In effect, we have the worst of both worlds; widespread self-righteous priggery against those we disagree with while at the same time tolerating and even praising the Cleons in our own camp. The result is an infection of hatred and divisiveness spreading throughout the body politic worse than a venereal disease.
Traditional and social media are full of Cleons on all sides, with seemingly endless hordes of followers ready to do battle in the comments. Such persons thrive on the oxygen provided by these views, clicks, and comments, yet, many of us cannot bring ourselves to avert our eyes.
Some of us may even find ourselves taking perverse pleasure in reading and following Cleons just so that we may smugly observe how terrible they are and how much better we are. Sometimes we find ourselves rooting for “our side’s” Cleons, knowing full well that they are agents of mendacity and then seeking justification for our indulgence in the base pleasure they provide on the flimsy grounds that such tactics are sadly necessary in these troubled times.
Given the current deluge of Cleons, it is not uncommon to hear politicians gripe about how “there ought to be a law” whenever their feelings are hurt by the press or even random people on Twitter and we see increasing pressure for censorship on social media platforms. However, Libertarians, who are no strangers to the abuses of Cleon’s duplicitous contemporary descendants, know that at the end of the day it is consumer preference that ultimately decides who succeeds and who fails in the market. And it is because of this consumer sovereignty that hope for a return to civil coexistence is not entirely lost.
Lewis implicitly acknowledges the power of consumer sovereignty when he suggests that his readers begin their battle against Cleon by canceling the subscription to his newspaper. While few readers today likely have a literal newspaper subscription, we all subscribe to Cleons in one way or another, even if just on a mental level. Canceling such subscriptions, to Cleons on all sides, is something that each and every one of us is capable of, even though some particularly pleasurable ones may be harder to kick to the curb than others. Doing so has the two-fold benefit of denying Cleons the oxygen of attention on which they depend while simultaneously denying us the opportunity to indulge in the delectable temptation to engage in priggish self-righteousness.
There can be no doubt that today’s Cleons contribute to our current state of social disharmony. This disharmony poses a great threat to liberty as the lack of social trust in turn leads not only to people trusting more and more in the power of the state, but also a greater urgency to control the powerful state as a shield and later as a sword against one’s enemies. Expelling the Cleons from not only our news feeds but from our minds as well will not only play small part in helping to promote the conditions that allow for social peace, but will also allow us to expel a source of vice that inevitably makes our own lives more miserable.