From Oct. 15, 2017
So, here’s a question for the media history people out there. I have a strong sense that after the invention of the printing press, the popular or vernacular press had relatively few internalized limits or prohibitions on what could be written about someone else. Libel laws didn’t exist yet, and it took until the Enlightenment to develop a way of using the technology of printing in a manner other than just attacking your enemies. There were external restrictions, of course – the Fifth Lateran Council prohibited publishing anything that wasn’t approved by the church, and early newspapers also saw their role initially as reporting facts, especially those from other places (i.e., stuff that wouldn’t get anyone in trouble). But there are all these privately published things that seem to me to be quite pointed about one’s enemies or about groups that were considered bad.
Maybe it’s just my work on Jacob Boehme’s early stuff, which was circulated up to his death in 1624, and translated and circulated around Europe by about 1655 or so. There was lots of name-calling that went around after that.
I’m looking for someone who’s written on this, if you know of anyone. My sense is that we had to learn the social and cultural ways of using communication technology, and it took a long time to do so. A rise in literacy didn’t immediately come with a rise in knowing how to dialogue. Things get codified in the Enlightenment, although part of that meant excluding those who were deemed morally or intellectually inferior, so that the white men (and the women who ran the salons) could conduct their genteel conversations. That’s not only print, of course, but it involves print.
Obviously, there are implications for our point in time. I think we have few internalized rules for dialogue on the internet, and I also think that those patterns of communication replicate in real life, rather than the other way around, so that we end up with a more tribal situation than we had before. Part of it is that there’s more inclusion on the internet – anyone with a connection can say something. There’s no Lateran Council to act as a censor, not exactly anyway, but there are lots of tweaks and nudges to try to get us to have better conversations. Most of these fail. We have an abstract rule, the First Amendment in the US, which is taken as a moral rule for all exchange, even though it really isn’t a moral rule but a rule about what the government can or can’t do when it comes to communication. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t tell us what is worth doing, but only what must not be done.
Anyway, it seems to me that we’ve been here before. But I can’t find a really good place that outlines this phenomenon in the couple of hundred years after the invention of the printing press in Europe. So, if anyone knows of something, I’d appreciate it. And, if anyone knows about similar social dynamics in cultures other than European ones, I’d be interested in that too.