Perhaps the birthpangs of our modern era of mobility began with the railroads. But the automobile (and later the airplane) made mobility go viral. The inevitable effect of this has been the increasing capacity of human beings to choose their neighbors. One might think that this simply means choosing one’s physical neighbors. But it has progressively involved choosing one’s relations altogether. It is not uncommon to live in a neighborhood where few persons know one another, not because these persons know no one, but because the automobile makes highly tailored community possible. One need not choose between two or three churches within walking distance, but between two or three thousand churches within driving distance. Before the advent of the internet or social media, Americans (in contrast to the almost universal experience of the human race before them) already existed in highly elective communities. This accounts, to a large extent, for the role that bonding over ideology takes in American society. It has, of course, always been the case that persons are attracted to those who think like themselves. But where one must engage in frequent communal activity with those who think quite differently than themselves, the virtue of cooperation is habituated quite naturally. Man has traditionally felt limited by the immediacy of the other’s body – limited (that is) by the fact that one, in order to navigate the world well, must discover the peculiar incantations that get other agents to relate to them this way rather than that (even if this has often just meant making little fuss).
Given the human tendency to select for immediately relieving solutions to deeper problems, it is not surprising that (in our current circumstance) most people choose to invest in a social life that implicitly affirms rather than criticizes their way of life, and requires them to change rather little. Crucial to my developing point is that tailoring one’s community, however, is a simple given of modern life. It is a civilizational default setting – a game that must be played or one would have no community at all. Even if one chooses to invest in their immediate physical neighbors, it is still experienced precisely as a choice – and this renders such a relation distinctively modern.
The upshot of what I have claimed so far is this. For at least a century, a large portion of (especially) Americans have lived lives that demanded the virtue of cooperation far less than their ancestors. This does not mean that cooperation has ceased to exist in America. Rather, it means that cooperation is now a virtue that must be consciously pursued and developed. And it must be actively exercised in order to develop. It is no accident that the so-called “culture wars” (often seen as starting in the 60s) originated at the height of the American middle class – complete with wide distributions of literature and media to persuade all persons that their chosen labels represented the right side of history. Of course, this trend was not entire. Some of life is still lived in the limited horizon of the local.
But the world of the internet and especially of social media have begun to evaporate this. Many jobs are becoming virtual, and social media has drastically augmented the extent to which Americans bond over ideology. This is worth explaining at more length.
As L.M. Sacasas has recently argued, the modern “digital city” is drastically reshaping human habit. We find ourselves in a world over which we have little control, and one where missteps now have quite real-world consequences. The inevitable pressure is to conform one’s performance to the aggressive gaze of the status quo, or to engage in performative independence (ironically along with all the other millions of mutually affirming “independent” dissenters). But it habituates us in still other ways. Already in a society that tends to bond over ideology rather than immediately shared communal life, social media has given a new degree of solidarity to all such “communities.” One hears far more “messages” from one’s abstract spectral community than they do from their embodied neighbors. To the extent that communal investments increasingly correspond to one’s own tailorings, negotiation with one’s actual neighbors (formerly the most intimate of exchanges) takes on the character and complexity of foreign policy. This is not a sustainable trend.
Adding to this problem, as Sacasas points out, is that the modern “digital city” (which has taken on enormous prominence) operates by different rules than the “analog city,” the world in which mediation took the form of writing. Already with the daily newspaper, but exponentially more in the era of Twitter, the printed word takes on the “presence” and “dynamic” of the spoken word. That is, it is not a slow-moving and methodical medium which allows for thoughtful retort. The written word now moves with the speed of speech – and yet crucially – without a concrete interlocutor. Unless actively cultivated otherwise, social media defaults to closed monologue rather than open dialogue. The capacity of others to “like” or “comment” does not derail this. Our digital communities are maximally tailored, and can be modified at will. It is not surprising that most persons craft their virtual world to be one in which they are constantly affirmed rather than criticized. Virtual affirmation is indirectly engineered praise.
Those who don’t purge their feed, it is worthy of noting, often speak of how stressful it is to be online. To consider one’s self as belonging to no ideological tribe is only to find one’s self being accused of belonging to each of them by each of them. One has traded a single firing squad for many. In such cases, one is liable to speak little.
Threaded through all of the above is a universal human tendency – the tendency to instrumentalize our neighbors. Modern mobility and social media have simply made this extreme. Unless we actively cultivate the habit of true co-operation (where two free and different persons enter into full negotiation with an end of mutual blessing), we default to instrumentalizing our relations. If one’s family is a source of pain, they can be disowned. If one’s friends are no longer pleasing, they can be replaced. Friends are chosen precisely for their benefit (affirmation, reinforcement). And it is crucial to note that this is not simply true of the allegedly “woke.” The online discourse of the conservative intelligentsia may criticize the replacement of individualism with communitarianism, may speak of the necessity of thinking for one’s self (etc.) – but they are quite liable to be speaking precisely these things as a hive-mind, conscious of their appearance to other actors whose approval they desire. The phenomenon I am attempting to describe happens underneath conscious ideology.
There is another sense in which we have been habituated into instrumentalizing others. For those whose spectral communities are increasingly cleansed of foul spirits (Trump-voters, cultural Marxists, etc.) – there remains a curious amount of chatter about the “other side.” For all the refused dialogue, all sides in our current cultural crises can monologue about hardly anything else than the apocalyptic outcome of the other side’s victory. It says quite a bit, in fact, that each side fancies that the other is winning, and each are sincerely terrified of a coming apocalypse – whether in the mode of 1984 or of A Handmaiden’s Tale.
What’s going on here? Why do we seem to “need to talk about one another” so much? A recent article by Wilfred McClay perhaps helps us out here. He argues that one of the crushing burdens of modern life is that we are overly aware of every malady in all corners of the earth. We are aware of racism, of the injustice suffered by many women, of sex trafficking, of damage to the earth, of damage to our health, of corruption in government, of the plight of animals, etc. It is natural for human beings to feel a sense of responsibility relative to their knowledge. If there are awful things going on in one’s own soul or in one’s community or country, one wishes to do something about it. But if one’s conscious attention is diverted to all communities, all suffering, all problems – then one develops a godlike burden of responsibility that is unfitted to human finitude. And yet, we have not yet developed a sustainable way of handling this as a civilization.
McClay argues that this accounts for the moral status of identifying with victims in modern political discourse (a phenomenon he describes as “a particular and peculiar form of identity theft”). It is in the distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed that one is able to solve the crisis of modern moral responsibility. And not surprisingly (per the above analysis), this division is increasingly mapped along ideological lines. The oppressor is any possessor of dangerous ideas or identities. The oppressed are all the victims of these identities. An African-American defending capitalism is, on this understanding, quite literally appropriated by the ideology (like a puppet) of an oppressive class who are instrumentalizing him against his own interests. In that act, he is not an agent but a puppet (an enigmatic fusion of oppressor and victim). What this distinction enables is the outsourcing and scapegoating of guilt (in light of one’s overwhelmingly felt responsibilities) to those who are really responsible – when push comes to shove – for the world’s ills. In this strange new world, the self-flagellation of those in proximity to the “oppressor class” becomes less an act of repentance (identifying with sinners), and more an act (even when sincere) of identifying with the righteous. The actions of others (no matter how trivial) increasingly bear the totemic weight of the whole history of some oppression. Incautious speech is now viewed as possession by a diabolical spirit who – unless exorcized – will “lead to violence.” Best, for most persons, to self-exorcise (which is more likely to involve sublimating the demon below the level of conscious self-awareness).
The problem, as McClay points out, is that the faceless god behind this mob knows no atonement. What can one do, he asks, to sufficiently repent for the institution of slavery? It turns out that in modern complex civilization, the cross of Christ possibly has objective and real-world political significance – the concrete absorption of “ultimate” human guilt in the global moral economy.
It would be tempting to think that this relation to victimhood is only a leftist phenomenon, as the language of oppressor and oppressed belongs to that discourse. However, if McClay is right, one would predict that this is also a phenomenon on the right, and this is precisely what we find. While such language is chiefly theorized by the left, the same mental motion is all over the right. Our problems are likely to be seen as due to sinister ideas, acting as the parody of the Logos that animates some “group” of dissidents who are persecutors of the great West (now understood as a victim). Once we had the Founding Fathers and freedom, and then we had hippies infect us with a cultural gateway drug to creeping Marxism through television programs, H.R. departments, and various “progressive” legal initiatives.
What shall we say of all of this? Much; though I I will save most of it for the next installment. Most immediately, I am struck by the almost prophetic words of Stephen R.L. Clark (in a book published in 1986), “If we…believed that it was by our conscious efforts only that evil is averted, what leisure would we ever have? And what enormous evils would we perform, with the plea that we must prevent yet worse evils?” But perhaps a political Pelegianism has its counterpart in a political Augustinianism. Perhaps, that is to say, civilization is unsustainable apart from (common) grace through (natural) faith. Moreover, while it is possible to achieve some measure of this virtue by ordinary participation in natural law – perhaps King Christ leavens the world with reconciled man and the influence of man’s habituation (ultimately Christ’s) on others. Said differently, perhaps late modern civilization increasingly requires the reign of Christ, through the Spirit, in the gospel. Perhaps late modern civilization agitates for the Father.