Who Will Our Future Leaders Be?

 /  March 27, 2024, 5:41 p.m.

Soren Kierkegaard
A sketch of Soren Kierkegaard

Who will the leaders of the future be if their whole lives are known to the world? In politics, we should take this question increasingly seriously. It is a natural instinct to believe that as a voter, you deserve to know everything about the candidates you choose between in an election. However, only recently has it become possible to actually receive that information. The news is filled with exposés about the personal scandals and past lives of world leaders. We are addicted to collecting these crumbs of information. 

Opposition (oppo) research is a necessary part of the campaign system. Normally, it involves gathering information on a campaign opponent in order to publicize personal or political shortcomings from the past. Failure to perform thorough oppo research can result in blatant lies going unchallenged, an issue which manifested itself most recently in the election of George Santos to the House. While running for office, Santos claimed to have attended a prestigious New York City high school, graduated from Baruch College, and worked at both Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, none of which turned out to be true. Some basic level of background knowledge on political candidates is clearly necessary to keep our elected officials honest about their qualifications.

However, there is a distinction between taking the time to perform the proper due diligence on a political candidate and subjecting the minute details of their life to scrutiny. One common danger arises when voters expect the entirety of a candidate’s life to align perfectly with their current position. However, not every candidate is held to account for beliefs they once held that no longer represent who they are. Senator Elizabeth Warren was famously a “diehard conservative” in her earlier years, and former President Donald Trump claimed in 2004 that “It just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans.” Both went on to lead enormously successful political careers. With that being said, allowing current public expectations based on a politician’s past to completely shape who they are today would be detrimental for our system of government. This kind of social pressure is not a new phenomenon. Early societies relied strongly on shame and a natural tendency towards conformity to achieve cohesive social structures. However, it took until more recently for social pressure to evolve into a form similar to what it is today.

Soren Kierkegaard lived in Denmark during the first half of the 19th century, yet in his book The Present Age, he wrote with remarkable foresight about the social dynamics of modern society. It would be naive to suggest that Kierkegaard predicted the interpersonal relations brought about by the internet, but so too to believe he has no insight to offer us in the interconnected world of the 21st century. 

In The Present Age, Kierkegaard’s main concern is with a social process he called leveling. Leveling, according to Kierkegaard, creates an environment in which individuals are reduced to a perverse state of thoughtless equality. In the modern day, when we hear that a process promotes equality, we are liable to think well of it. However, Kierkegaardian leveling is not a mechanism which provides equal opportunities for all to share ideas and succeed. Instead it creates a bland mass of people in which any decisive action or thought is suppressed – an abstract entity he calls “the public”. The public does away with important distinctions between concepts like speech and silence, for example, and discourse gives way to a mindless gossipy chatter. If someone breaks free from the influence of the public and decides to act as an individual, the public uses the media to mock, diminish and otherwise “level” them.

When reading Kierkegaard’s polemic, the contemporary reader cannot help but draw parallels to our own toxic online discourse. It is not necessarily that Kierkegaard’s concepts map perfectly onto our own: leveling is not cancel culture, the public is not the social media mob, and the internet is too much larger than 19th century Copenhagen to contain only one monolithic public. However, the social dynamics described in both Kierkegaard’s Present Age and our own internet age deliver largely the same results. Talk has become cheap but dangerous. We are not predisposed to think carefully or generously about our fellow internet-goers’ opinions and intentions. Fear of the faceless court of public opinion smothers authentic passion in the womb, replacing it with a phony, borrowed anger and then widespread apathy. Those who succeed in such an environment have become masters of presentation without substance.

Kierkegaard regarded himself as the victim of the leveling process. In 1846 he engaged in an exchange of mockery with the Copenhagen-based literary magazine The Corsair, a public spat that quickly turned vicious. Ultimately, Kierkegaard largely retreated from broader Copenhagen society as a result of what came to be known as the “Corsair Affair”. When The Corsair attacked Kierkegaard, they did so not only with writing, but with cartoons as well. How does one respond meaningfully to a mocking cartoon? It is not a medium which allows for a thoughtful riposte. 

If Marshall McLuhan is right that “the medium is the message”, then there may be some important similarities between The Corsair’s shift towards a visual medium and our own modern obsession with photos and short-form video as opposed to long-form writing. Both are indicative of a larger transformation of the possibilities of publicly expressible thought. Our means of communication circumscribes what we are able to say at all. As Neil Postman so accurately observes in Amusing Ourselves to Death, our future was described more accurately in Brave New World than 1984. We are far more likely to limit ourselves through our addiction to public trivialities than face oppression from an all-controlling authoritarian Big Brother. 

The Present Age is one of only a few works written by Kierkegaard that was published under his own name. The majority of his most famous works were published under pseudonyms. For Kierkegaard, these pseudonyms were not a means of disguising his own opinions, in fact, even his pseudonymous works were universally recognized as his own at the time of their publishing. Instead, Kierkegaard aimed to represent the genuine thoughts of pseudonymous authors – imagined characters which existed in Kierkegaard’s mind. He went to great lengths to be sure that the pseudonymous writing was not attributed to him, writing, “anyone with just a fragment of common sense will perceive that it would be ludicrously confusing to attribute to me everything the [pseudonymous] poetized characters say”. 

Scholars have struggled to understand the purpose behind Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors for nearly two centuries. However, in the context of The Present Age, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors can be viewed as a brilliant counter to the leveling power of the public. Kierkegaard felt a calling to clarify mistaken conceptions of philosophy and religion. Often those subjects proved most legitimate to explore through a different perspective to his own. He was disgusted with ‘premise authors’ whose commitment to their arguments was limited to writing, as opposed to embracing their claims through their very way of life. Often the message Kierkegaard wanted to convey would have been muddled by the reader blending context from his own life with the argument contained within the text. While Kierkegaard was certainly guilty of not-so-subtle references to his own romantic life in pseudonymous books, the primary message contained within may have suffered from his direct authorship. Kierkegaard wanted to explore religious and philosophical ideas genuinely, and pseudonymity helped him do it.

In the modern day, we have no such benefit of pseudonymity in our writing. The eternal archive of the internet has already begun to claim its first major victims, those whose past tweets, blog posts, and photos have come back to haunt them years later. To be sure, there have been many just and important exposés for which we have keyboard warriors to thank. However, anyone who rejoices too loudly at the news of the latest dramatic takedown should reflect carefully on whether they have always been proud of the things they have said and done and how they would feel if the world suddenly had access to that information. Our society needs to nurture ambitious thinkers who are unafraid to experiment with their ideas at a young age. Unfortunately, anonymity on the internet today is associated with hate and violence stemming from toxic message boards like 4-chan. However, just because bad actors hide behind avatars on the web does not mean that some level of protection of our online histories from the public view is not an admirable goal we should strive towards. 

It might be argued that the contemporary reemergence of fiercely individual, demagogic figures like Donald Trump is evidence against the existence of leveling in the present day. However, the social dynamics of the modern internet can have counterintuitive consequences. If we are to take Kierkegaardian leveling seriously as a phenomenon in contemporary politics, then we must be prepared to combat the two politicians of the future: Politician A and Politician B. Politician A is scared of the public and of being leveled for things they did in the past. They will be bland and passionless, the human form of a phony corporate statement on the political issue du jour. Politician B, on the other hand, will take advantage of the fact that no one will ever truly be a perfect Politician A. They will use this fact to form false equivalencies between their own thoroughly checkered past and the slight imperfections of those around them. Since no one is free of sin, we are all equal. Trump has become the paradigmatic example of Politician B in the 21st century.

This is the future we all may face if we continue to obsess over the private lives of our political leaders and if the largest companies in the US continue to profit from the sale of our personal data. The US lags behind the rest of the developed world in the fight to establish data privacy as a human right, focusing instead on a harms-prevention strategy. While the recent domestic push for internet privacy rights has begun to chip away at the unfettered public access to our online history, we should be prepared to see both the Democratic and Republican debate stages filled with Politicians A and B for years to come.

This image featured in this article is in the public domain (PDM 1.0 Deed)

Teddy Foley


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