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Last Saturday, AEI President Arthur Brooks penned a New York Times column titled “Our culture of contempt.” The article discussed our increasingly polarized political environment through the lens of “motive attribution asymmetry,” the assumption that your ideology is based on love, while your opponent’s is based on hate. Brooks explained how this dynamic breeds contempt, which makes political compromise nearly impossible and corrupts the exchange of ideas that drives progress and innovation.
The column resonated with me — because it captured the discomfort I felt less than 24 hours before. I was a panelist at a symposium titled “The net without neutrality: Economic, regulatory, and informational access impacts” hosted by the University of Pittsburgh Law Review. It was a lively seminar filled with truly exceptional presentations that suddenly became a hostile and oppressive environment due to the toxic politics of net neutrality.
Much of the conference reflected the lively give-and-take of ideas that are the hallmarks of a successful academic conference. Georgetown’s Gigi Sohn, with whom I have amicably disagreed on many occasions, gave a strong keynote address summarizing her career as an advocate for democratizing media platforms and connecting those themes to the net neutrality debate. Professor Raymond Ku delivered a paper challenging Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s application of the First Amendment to broadband providers. I discussed my draft article on state net neutrality efforts. A pair of presentations focused on the nuances of the zero-rating debate.
But the final speaker of the day struck a different tone. A business professor, the speaker described net neutrality as a “life-and-death situation” for entrepreneurs, whom he has advised to leave the country. He then continued with the following proclamation:
“Everybody who argues for abolishing net neutrality . . . knows they’re lying.”
His remarks continued in this vein, exclaiming that we should not be “having this debate in an academic sense in a way that . . . legitimizes the other side.” After describing net neutrality skeptics as flat-earthers who want to destroy the American dream for entrepreneurs who are “trying to make our planet a better place,” he concluded by stating that the fact that we are even discussing the issue “makes me think, Oh My God, where am I?”
I sat in stunned silence. The conference effectively closed with a plea to the audience, consisting mostly of law students and interested lawyers, to not even acknowledge the ideas that have shaped my academic career. I am not afraid of conflict; I love policy debates, and given where I stand on issues, it’s usually not hard to find someone who disagrees with me. But this ground had shifted from ideas to tribalism. There was time for one question, but I couldn’t muster the effort to take the microphone. After all, the speaker had signaled his disinterest in conversing with those who disagree with him. And anyway, who wants to step forward as the face of the lying flat-earthers? Rather than being buoyed by the lively discussion that marked the rest of the day, I left the conference and flew back to Boston feeling a mixture of fatigue and sadness.
Unfortunately, this dynamic has increasingly become the hallmark of the net neutrality debate. No one has felt it more than Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who has suffered an endless stream of social media vitriol, harassment of himself and his family, and death threats because of his support for the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The effect of this dynamic is to shut down policy discussion and instead relegate the issue to the raw power struggles of the political arena.
I woke up the next morning knowing how I should have responded. Channeling my inner Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, I should have said, “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” And then I should have gone on to discuss some of the good ideas on this side of the net neutrality debate. Like the fact that paid prioritization can benefit consumers by improving the quality of apps that are susceptible to congestion. That zero-rating can narrow the digital divide by bringing connectivity to people who cannot afford a traditional internet access plan.
Maybe others would have agreed with these points. Maybe they wouldn’t have. But it would have shifted the ground back to the realm of ideas. And while the speaker may not have engaged with me, the students and lawyers in the audience would have benefited from knowing the policy arguments that animate each side of the net neutrality debate.
Ultimately, the ping-pong match of net neutrality will not be resolved by political struggles over control of the Federal Communications Commission. A lasting solution can only come from bipartisan legislation, which will involve compromise. Identifying the points of compromise, places where each side is willing to give ground, is impossible if the two sides see each other as enemies worthy of contempt rather than basically good people who can reasonably disagree, even about important issues. I agree with Arthur Brooks that we need to think better of one another — and recognize that even our political adversaries are merely our partners in the joint, but messy, project of democratic governance.
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