In the social-media vortex, somehow all we're left with is our bared teeth
Over the past few years, a number of academic brouhahas has drawn me into checking what professors tweet. Almost all of it is ugly. Within two or three tweets the online exchanges between Professor A and Professor B, or between Professor A and Concerned Citizen B, have devolved into wild accusations. To go by what the tweeting professors say, snarling racists and would-be slave traders are everywhere. We live in a society which resembles nothing so much as an auction block in old Port-au-Prince.
In my own life, I believe I have met precisely one person who was genuinely a hateful racist. He claimed to be in the Ku Klux Klan. He barged into a Wednesday supper at a rural Catholic parish in Louisiana twenty years ago and made a nuisance of himself before we threw him out. I don’t know his name. It was all over in five minutes.
That’s one person out of surely thousands, tens of thousands, of people I have encountered in my 45 years.
Online, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that the ratio of Twitter users to Klan members is one to one. Everyone is apparently a racist, at minimum, with often even worse accusations thrown in for good measure.
I have not seen the latest Klan statistics, but I very much doubt that even a small fraction of the accusations of white supremacy leveled on Twitter is true. So what’s going on? Why do people hyperbolize, confabulate even, the sins of others?
I think it has to do with roles, with the frameworks in which we live our lives. In physical life we work through our hours and strive to overcome our worst tendencies. Online, the only mode is polarization, rushing to one precipice or the other. Online is centrifugal, in other words, while real life is centripetal, driving us ever back into ourselves, constantly reminding us that we, as St. Paul said, are the greatest sinners of all. If we lose that constant check on our pride, then we have lost everything. Twitter, the internet in general, strips us of that very real role as penitent sinner and makes us into howling Pharisees, into Sanhedrin with noses in the air and writs of condemnation in endless supply to hand.
In my day job I teach at a university. I like the work and enjoy the academic life. Chalk dust is to me what I guess wads of cash are to rappers in their videos—it’s just a natural and comfortable environment.
But it wasn’t always so comfortable. The first years of teaching were really hard. I’m painfully shy. I had to force myself to stand in front of a class, force myself to speak in a loud (and not squeaky-mousy) voice. My first reaction was to hide behind sarcasm. But over time I grew out of that. (It’s a bad look, and it doesn’t help students learn.) Now when I take the podium, I am more or less prepared. I know what I’ll talk about over the coming class session. I know that I need to speak slowly and clearly and stop often to ask if there are any questions. The focus is on history, philosophy, language, current events—whatever the subject is. The focus is, by my preference and by absolute necessity, not on me.
I have come to learn the role of teaching, of being a teacher. It is a framework for my energies. It structures how I approach my surroundings, how I comport myself for the public to see.
A vocation like this, a profession of any kind, is a way of being in the world. It’s a way of objectifying the subject, or of subjectifying the object. One is a carpenter, a truck driver, an accountant, a priest. The outside and the inside are fused. The upshot of this is that one must reflect, internally, in order to improve, externally, at what one does for a living. A role is in no way a mask. A role is a profound element of being a human being. Mother, doctor, athlete, prince—everyone has some role to play. No one can possibly enter society naked, as it were, and unformed.
This term “doing something for a living” connotes not just a paycheck but a Nicomachean Ethics commitment to bringing one’s whole being into one’s daily work, a commitment to doing the right thing at every turn. It also entails constant disappointment. As Christians, we know that we will fail. But we also know that surrender is not an option. So we pick ourselves up and get out there again. Remorse, regret, shame, bitterness—these are the raw materials of the life lived better by slow degrees. We know from deep intimacy with our own shortcomings that we are not there yet, not by a long shot. So we wake up, we get out of bed, we wash our face and comb our hair, and we try the world on for size again. We try to live our role, try to imitate Christ (the greatest “role model”) while knowing that we are saved only by His death for our sinfulness.
In the online world, though, we have no vocation. We have no role models at all. We certainly have no Christ. “Twitter” and “Facebook” are not callings for human beings. They are traps, time-sucks, dehumanizing “platforms” where everything is flattened to instantaneous reaction. There’s no way out. There’s no Blood of the Lamb. There’s no blood, period. There are electrons, and that’s it. Human beings have no business in such a hellscape as this.
In this one-dimensional vortex the human person disintegrates, and somehow all we are left with is our bared teeth. We cannot reflect, because we have no inner life online. We have nothing but a fake image, a digital “avatar,” some staged photos and a whole long string of nasty commentary.
The reason for the nasty commentary seems, like the bared teeth, to be purely defensive. In this unreal zone, we have almost no choice but to posit a dualism that simply doesn’t prevail in real life. We have no more inwardness, no more Keatsian negative capability. We play no role besides osmotic cell wall. All the bad goes out there. All the good stays in here. But it’s not real good and not real bad.
To wit, the more we scream about the Klan, about our opponents all being “literally Hitler,” the more darkly comical the whole thing becomes. They are saying the same thing about us, are they not? They are Hitler, and so, it seems, are we. So is everyone else. Hitler, Hitler everywhere, and not a stop to think. The avatar on the other end of the Twitter mashup is just as flat and inconsequential as the avatar on this end. Neither is “literally Hitler.” Neither is in the Ku Klux Klan. And, conversely, neither is an angel. Neither is Mother Teresa.
Let me pause here. Because I think Mother Teresa should be the patron saint of getting off Twitter. As her private writings revealed, Mother Teresa, a woman who strove to see Christ in everyone, often saw only darkness within herself. She was apparently tormented by inner suffering, by spiritual abandonment, by doubt, by unease. She had no time to lash out at anyone. She had her hands full, her whole soul full, just trying to wrestle the demons in her heart. Mother Teresa would never have tweeted, “You are literally Hitler!” Because Mother Teresa knew that we are all lapped by a dark, cold ocean along our inner shore. I think those of us who want to turn off the social media, to unplug from that hatefarm, could do a lot worse than to pray to the saint of Calcutta to help them find the strength to do so.
I’m not even on Twitter, but I will pray to Mother Teresa, too. As I was walking home last night I was thinking about some things from the past. I was thinking about people I had hurt, about ways I had destroyed good things, about the graces from God I had rejected. One often feels, at this point in the confessional-toned essay, the need to add the usual disclaimer: “I never robbed a bank, I never murdered anyone.” True, I didn’t do any of that. I don’t belong in prison. But, “whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”
Then I thought of the professors on Twitter, who write tendentious screeds about how everything and everyone which and who doesn’t meet their liking is racist, or “literally Hitler,” or in the KKK. It’s all so transparently theatrical. But, despite the melodrama, there is no role there. The distance from Exhibit A to the pure evil to which the professors wish to connect him/her/it is quite often infinite. So the rhetoric ends up getting jacked higher and higher.
I’ve heard it said by professors, for example, that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a “white supremacist.” This is too absurd even to comment on. But it doesn’t stop people from saying it. Online, of course.
One reads longwinded tracts online, too, at the legacy East Coast magazine sites, about how A or B or C is actually racist, or misogynist, or secretly Nazi, or what have you. There is no limit to the silliness. At The Atlantic recently, readers were informed that the Holy Rosary is “extremist,” akin to AR-15s. It’s simple, and simplistic, symbolism puppetry. You take flattened icon A, which has come to be hyperbolically adjectival (“Nazi,” “white supremacist,” “hate speech”) and smoosh it against target B, as though the internet were a supercollider for smashing accusations against accusees at the speed of light. At the meeting of the two unconnected entities, the amped-up word alchemy on the one side and the unsuspecting person or thing in the crosshairs on the other, one finds what it means to be online. There is no parity between “literally Hitler” and the person accused of being such. It’s crazy talk.
So why do we do it?
What it comes down to, I think, is crushing alienation — deafening distance between one’s outer and inner selves. The split between “literally Hitler” and the person who is not Hitler at all is a role-play, a cheap and tacky one, of the split inside ourselves between who we are and who we are pretending to be. We are alienated, and it hurts.
Marxists used to talk about alienation, about false consciousness and the mismatch between who people are and who they are allowed to be as part of oppressed classes. But one hears almost nothing about alienation anymore. This deafening silence about alienation is telling. Probably it’s because the online world is made of the stuff. Alienation is what Twitter sells, the service it provides. People are so deeply enslaved to it that they cannot even see the alienation. It’s all they have, it’s the baseline of the life they lead.
This explains, to my mind, the kneejerk condemnation of even the slightest display of imperfection or weakness on Twitter. To put a finer point on it, unexamined alienation is, I think, the mechanism of “woke.” Everyone is racist. Everyone is “literally Hitler.” Everyone is a Klan member. Everyone is unaware of their depravity. Except me. I must shout down the other on Twitter. I must brand everyone as beyond the pale because I have lost access to the ballast of darkness within me. I see microscopic faults magnified into hanging offenses. (The rise of “microaggressions” is more than just coincidental.) It’s kill or be killed out there. It’s be sinless or be stoned. If there’s nothing obviously wretched about you, well, then, I will find something anyway. You’ll be damned. I’ll see to that myself. You’ll be Hitler, or else.
I remember John 8:7, where Jesus asks who in the crowd of accusers is without sin himself. This absolutely does not mean that we should sin, or that sin doesn’t exist. It means we are all dyed deep with it. Overcoming alienation means looking within and noticing that there is more than enough horror in just this one heart to keep me working on it in this one, short life I’ve been given.
Social media is a wedge. It drives our two selves apart, our inner and outer worlds. This dis-integrates us. It alienates us against ourselves. It spells social doom, the breakdown of all human kindness. On Twitter, one finds, impossibly, that everyone is “literally Hitler” or a sinless angel. But what a strange prism this is, what a twisting mirror. For I, who have no Twitter and so have no distraction, have no choice but to look inside. There I find that the war between darkness and light is raging in my own heart. That is where the real battle must be joined.
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