Cuties and Cognitive Dissonance

I could be misreading something, but it sure seems to me that a majority of defenses of Netflix’s indefensible Cuties are coming in from the same groups of folks who cheer the age of the “trigger warning” on university campuses. I’m not sure how one arrives intellectually at the conclusion that Rudyard Kipling and Huck Finn are nuclear, but a movie that would land its creator in prison had it been filmed with a camcorder instead of a film crew is not.

Actually, I take that back. I do know how one arrives at that conclusion: one decides to be for whatever the people one despises are against.

For my money, this is the single most urgent epistemological crisis in American culture. Everywhere I look I see evidence of people whose deepest moral intuitions are negative. They don’t know what they believe, but they definitely know who their enemy is. They don’t have a vision of human flourishing, but they can label the people who will enslave us all. This is deeper and worse than polarization. People can be polarized because they have strongly competing worldview. But what I’m describing doesn’t require any worldview at all. It only requires that you manufacture cultural resentments as efficiently as possible. And then what happens when a particular tribe achieves a political or social victory? I have no idea. Maybe something consistent with worldview X. But maybe something consistent with worldview Y. Who knows? That’s the point. You don’t have believe in anything in order to “win.” You just have to keep the other tribe away from power at all costs.

Against this context, “cognitive dissonance” simply stops being a thing. Cuties is the definition of low-hanging fruit for #MeToo activists; the distinction its defenders have made between depiction and endorsement did not help Salma Hayek when Harvey Weinstein insisted she perform a lewd scene in a Miramax film. If the #MeToo reckoning in the entertainment industry has shown anything at all, it’s shown that the indemnity filmmakers and artists build around their work is disingenuous.

Why then are some of those closest to the cause defending the film? The answer is that the Wrong Kind of People are criticizing it. This is moral formation in the age of the comments section: skip the article, see what Your Kind of People are saying about it, and then join the chorus.

I’ll be honest. I’m increasingly of the mind that the most relevant distinctions in American society are not between Left and Right, but between people with ideas and people with just enemies. The conservative and progressive mindsets may be irreconcilable on many points, but the differences between consciences formed by ideas and those formed by enemies are arguably bigger, deeper, and much harder to control. This may be why both political tribes tend to save their fiercest wrath for those inside the tribe who don’t join every charge against the Enemy. This is painfully obvious within progressive culture, but it happens inside conservatism too (if you doubt me, check Tim Keller’s Twitter mentions).

But this isn’t the worst part. When you exchange ideas for enemies, you open the door for things like Cuties. There are always perverted and unjust opportunists waiting to take advantage of a society too fractured to stop them. It’s how Harvey Weinstein got away with it for years. It’s how QAnon is getting away with it now. The people who can see it for what it is have no voice. The people who could see it if they wanted to refuse to look.

Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Between the absolute insanity of American politics and the catastrophic toll of COVID-19, it seems fair to think that public trust in experts is bottoming out. The political sphere is little else but weaponized polarization. Elected officials as public servants is a quaint idea; now they are tribal figureheads in America’s increasingly unwinnable culture wars. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has exposed the depth to which partisan commitments shape our cultural spirit. No one is exempt: not the conspiracy theory-embracing right, not the scornful and elitist left, and certainly not a compromised media class. Years of education and grooming for leadership or journalism are being wasted in the service of the cheapest imaginable political brownie points. We could say, with some justice, that America is currently without any morally qualified leadership.

But if the unraveling of public trust is a compelling analysis, it’s also more complicated than that. A few months ago Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent blog post on Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Anthony Fauci. It’s important to keep in mind that this post was written in March, right when most states were scrambling to form a response, public fear and anxiety were peaking, and the threat of mass death was real and urgent. This was, obviously, not the correct time for Limbaugh to play his part in what Tim Nichols dubbed “the death of expertise,” and Alan took him to task fairly and astutely.

I sent Alan an email about his post and he ended up publishing what I sent him. I’m reposting it because it alludes to a theme that I think bears more fleshing out:

You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.

I still think what I told Alan is true and a fair observation. But I’ve started suspecting that I drew the wrong conclusion from it. The fact that QAnon readers go to their checkups and take prescriptions may not mean that the death of expertise is hypocritical, it might mean that the loss of public trust is a different kind of loss than I supposed at first. None of my family or friends who think COVID-19 is entirely or mostly a hoax refuse to see doctors. None of them refuse to get prescriptions, or receive exams, or obtain insurance. If their physician says, “Let’s get your blood pressure under control,” they don’t say, “That’s not what Sean Hannity says.” But that’s because it’s their doctor. If a Biden-appointed chairman of the FDA were to tell them to get their blood pressure under control, they might (and probably would) suspect Big Brother is at it again. But their doctor is different. Their doctor is for them.

I think it’s very significant that COVID-19 has been covered in American journalism almost exclusively with a political angle. One of our church friends is a nurse in the Chicago area, and for the last 6 months she has kept us updated on her work with families infected by coronavirus. She has seen brutal, heartbreaking cases. But she has also seen entire families get infected with mild or even no symptoms. She knows the names of many people who’ve died alone in an ICU, but she also knows the names of children for whom missing school poses a greater threat than the virus ever did. Lindsay interprets what she sees medically, not politically, and her perspective is not easily leveraged in support of any narrative. The mutual church friends we have who lean toward the “hoax” thesis listen to her carefully and I’ve watched their views change as they did so. Why? Because they trust her. They may not trust the medical establishment, and they certainly may not trust journalists, but they do trust their nurse friend.

I think this means that the “loss of public trust” needs to be understood in a specific way. Something real is being lost, but it might be that what is being lost was not entirely well-kept in the first place. To the extent that public trust and the “death of expertise” describe real phenomenons (and they do!), it seems like they mostly describe phenomenons that were only possible in the recent past, and that came to us downstream from technological and sociological transformations that marginalized the role of place and asked for a generic, detached kind of civic life. In other words, I’m not sure anymore that people are supposed to greatly esteem expert cultures. Perhaps trust is a more precious commodity than that, which costs the price of knowledge, proximity, maybe even something like friendship.

And perhaps when public trust is demanded for people and institutions that grow more and more remote, and more and more beholden to invisible stakeholders, that kind of trust is far more fragile and prone to manipulation. Yes, by the rules of strict logic, you need trust in universities and medical boards and licensing laws in order to trust your physician that tells you to take better care of yourself. But those universities and boards and laws are not your doctor. They will not take your call and they will not look at your pain. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Power and the Blood

The Mirror and the Light is a magnificent novel that finishes a magnificent series. I tend to struggle with contemporary fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is so rich, so elegantly written that I couldn’t stop at any point. The depth of what Mantel has achieved is simply stunning, nothing less than a Tolstoy-esque artistic accomplishment. It’s a work of genius that I expect to reread for years to come.

What’s most interesting to me is the character of Cromwell himself, and how Mantel portrays the effect that power can have on someone unable to overcome their private sense of powerlessness. Mantel’s Cromwell used proximity to Henry VIII to further the cause of Protestantism in England, and in that he becomes much like Thomas More. But Cromwell also leveraged his authority to prop himself over against the slurs aimed at him because of his low birth. In this he becomes like Anne Boleyn: threatened into treason, manipulating the world around them to stave off fate and walking into it unawares. The three books in the series each end with beheadings: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, then Cromwell. Mantel’s insight seems clear: these three lives are really one life, absorbed by the black hole that is power.

Can you do the Lord’s work in Henry VIII’s way? Mantel mostly steers away from explicit theological reflections on marrying the throne and altar, but her narrative brilliantly shows how the latter is almost always at the mercy of the former. One of Mirror’s best scenes is Henry’s “debate” with a Protestant “gospeller,” Robert Barnes, who denies transubstantiation. Cromwell supports Barnes; they both know the bread and wine are that and no more. Henry, though he has named himself Supreme Head of the church and executed those who object, still holds Roman sacramenentalism. Because Henry believes it, it is treason to deny it. Cromwell knows he could lend his support during Barnes’s trial, but he stays silent. When Cromwell is locked in the Tower on (questionable) allegations of treason, his fellow Protestant Thomas Cranmer has the opportunity to support, but likewise wilts. The halls of earthly power require self-preservation at the same junctures which the gospel calls for self-loss.

What’s unsettling about Mantel’s Cromwell is how ordinary he is. Some readers have objected to her sympathetic portrayal of a “hatchet man,” but I think that’s the point. We assume that only certain kinds of people can be twisted by the powers of their office. We assume politicians and judges are just born more prone to corruption than the rest of us. But lesson of the Wolf Hall trilogy is that people with humane, even evangelical aspirations can be seduced by the throne, a seduction that is fundamentally about survival (as Cromwell’s thoughts frequently betray). Cromwell, the abused son of a blacksmith, is an incredibly loyal person, but eventually that loyalty is leveraged in self-service so often that it cracks.

I’m not fond of simplistic takes about Christians and politics. It’s too easy to dismiss political power as irredeemably corrupting and insist that no true believer have anything to do with it. But this ignores both history and justice. On the other hand, Mantel’s journey through the rise and fall of Cromwell is a compelling parable about what usually happens to the human spirit when it is pressed by the demands and luxuries of authority. The world of the Tudors is of course a world in which “religious liberty” does not exist. The English-speaking world was Catholic and then it was Protestant, on the word of a capricious, power and sex-crazed sovereign. Contrast this with the founding of America. For all their (and our) moral failure, the founding fathers knew they were a group of potential Henrys, governing a society of would-be Cromwells. The beheading scaffold ends where the First Amendment begins. When theology sits on a throne, it almost always drops the gospel to pick up a sword.

Yet we are left at the end of The Mirror and the Light with a paradox. Many have been executed, but William Tyndale’s New Testament has gone forth. The king of England presumes to rule the church, but justification by faith is preached on the streets. Behold the mysterious sovereignty of God, who raises up kings and cuts them down, but whose church withstands the gates of hell.

Experience, then Ambience

The story of Western society’s relationship to the Internet so far is this: experience, and then ambience. For a couple of decades the internet was an experience a person had to seek out through physical parameters. You needed to be at a computer. That computer needed a connection. For most people these two parameters terminated in place: a specific place to use your computer, and a specific place for that computer to connect online—at phone modems first, and then broadband cables. In other words, for most of the last 20 years access to the internet has been filtered through technological and geographical barriers. If you didn’t have a computer, you didn’t have internet. If you had a computer but you didn’t have an available connection (or better yet, if someone else was chatting on the phone during the days of dial-up!), you didn’t have internet.

Those barriers were part of what made the internet an experience. You went online. Remember those commercials that used to run? “Hey kids, grab a parent before going online.” There it is: the verb going suggests a contained experience, one that could be anticipated, realized, missed, etc. You were either online or you weren’t. You were watching a movie, working, going to school, eating lunch…and then after that experience, maybe you would find time to go online.  And then after you logged off you would do something else, until the next time you went online.

Thus the internet was an experience that was enjoyed, even depended on, yet also contained. But now the internet is no longer an experience. It is an ambience. The internet has few parameters to mediate it. It is instead the default mode on which most of us operate. The idea of “going” online is absurd. We are online. The internet is not so much something we go do as it is something we are. We are on Instagram. We are streaming music. We are reading the news. And we are doing it everywhere and anywhere, with no geographic parameters and only one physical mediation (a phone signal). Thus, the internet has invaded every conceivable social setting, every space and slice of time. The internet is ambient in the car, ambient in the airplane, ambient in waiting room, ambient in the office, etc. Ambience, not an experience.

This seems pretty significant to me. If technology forms and shapes us, then logically it follows that the more access technology has to us, the greater its formative effects. Technology that is mediated through place and time has formative effects that are more controllable or manipulatable: i.e., in the experience-age of the Internet, moving the family PC into the living room instead of someone’s bedroom undermines addiction and secrecy, but it also undermines the idea that I should have constant access. It undermines that nervous tick we are developing where if we read something good or see something funny we instinctively reach for our phones. The internet is perceived to be more important to our lives, not because it actually is but simply because it is more present.

Ambient-age Internet, however, does the opposite. It generates a low hum of anxiety and boredom as brains become dependent on the web’s neurological matrix of change and feedback. It recalibrate how we think, tangling thoughts into sub-literate knots. And it gives the impression of the greatness of minutia, as fringe ideas and people take advantage of our lowered epistemological barriers and turn themselves into memes. The experience-age of the Internet was not without problems, but while it lasted we at least remembered that this technology was finite and fickle. Walking away from the PC was a dose of reality. In the ambient-age, there is no walking away, and the doses of reality much harder to get—or want.

Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulates our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

Impotent Rage

Here’s Freddie Deboer with a point he has made many times before, but perhaps never so eloquently:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary left is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get reparations, the more we rename buildings; no end to mass incarceration, but recasting of cartoons; no seats in the Senate, but oh, how we make the Poetry Foundation shake…. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

This is such a good question…and not just to progressive leftists. What do you think would happen if we swapped out certain words in that paragraph and turned into a question for, say, Christian conservatism? It might look something like this:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary religious right is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get Roe reversed, the more we call out media hypocrisy; waning evangelism and theological education, but protesting COVID-19 masks; no institutions creating Christian culture-makers, but oh, how we can trigger the libs …. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

Hits close to home, right? The more I reflect on it the more I can’t stop suspecting that a large swath of conservative evangelicals are in a similar position as the leftists Freddie describes. Genuine cultural influence, meaningful institutional power (not just the power to appoint judges—an unreliable perk, as we’ve seen this month)—these things elude us. Baptisms keep declining. For every healthy, biblically literate church there are 4 more where Father’s Day is the least attended day of the year. Christian media, such as music, is often aggressively banal. Our cultural engagement is reactive, caught at opposite polarities of either total appropriation of secular culture (to own the fundies) or heavy-handed worldview exercises (to own the libs). The closest Christians come to a rigorous, relevant expression of principle that commands the attention of the public square is a Jungian psychologist.

Here’s what I think might be going on. Similarly to how Freddie’s fellow leftists feel politically impotent, many conservative evangelicals despair of their prophetic power. The Left processes their failure by redirecting energy to symbolic causes, trying to gain in the arena of words and names and celebrities what they feel they keep losing in the arena of policy. Likewise for religious conservatives: the Trump era represents not an attempt to re-Christianize America as much as an acceptance that we’ve lost the first battle we wanted to win (a regenerate public square). Despairing of the church’s power, religious conservatism has, like the Left, turned its attention toward victories that seem more doable: owning the libs, triggering the media, preserving 20th century cultural inflections, and having “Merry Christmas” printed on Starbucks cups. In this understanding, evangelical outrage over meaningless minutia is not arrogance, but defeatism.

This is why I don’t anticipate the recent Supreme Court losses to inspire much reevaluation of things. If the above thoughts are close, the Courts are not downstream from evangelical strategy. Rather, the current state of the church reflects acceptance of the Courts. The most pressing issues facing the church, such as racial reconciliation/justice, require spiritual revival, and it is spiritual revival that we’ve already punted on. Thus, the current status quo will continue until there’s a radical un-acceptance, a rejection of defeatism and a new conviction that the fix isn’t in, the game hasn’t already been decided, and the kingdom really doesn’t depend on the things we thought it depended on for so long.

Somewhere along the way we stopped believing gospel-shaped people really could change the world, so we stopped worrying about making gospel-shaped people. Maybe we ought to stop looking at The Washington Post and New York Times’s scoreboards because they were always showing the score of the wrong game. Impotent rage is an equal opportunity employer.

The Only Topic More Controversial Than Religion or Politics

Bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make a compelling case that callout culture—the punitive spirit of shutting down people’s lives and institution over their allegedly bad political views—is primarily a parenting issue. Viewing people who disagree with you as your existential enemies is, they argue, an unintended but real consequence of systematically being shielded from things you don’t like, and this dynamic begins very early. Modern parents believe their children are fragile, so they intervene early and often in their kids’ lives in order to ensure not just genuine safety but feelings of safety. But this has blowback because, as Haidt and Lukianoff argue, humans are not fragile, they are anti-fragile: confronting challenges makes human will and courage stronger, and avoiding those uncomfortable moments makes us worse, not better.

When I reviewed the book back in 2018 I chose this theme as the angle of my review. I’m glad I did that. Not everything in The Coddling has aged equally well, but the idea that parenting is at the root of much of our political and cultural dysfunction is more convincing than ever. As long as I’ve tried to understand callout culture in terms of politics or worldview, I’ve run into the same logical conundrum: How can people who believe their opponents should be destroyed not see how this belief could equally apply to them?

But what I’ve realized is that this question is based on a false premise. It assumes callout culture comes from conviction and belief, but it doesn’t. It comes from fear, and people who are controlled by fear don’t care about future ramifications. They only care about eliminating the threat. A child who hits another child for touching his toy doesn’t naturally think,”If I do this, I might want to touch his toy and he might hit me back.” That’s mature, future-oriented thinking. A child thinks, “He’s going to take my toy, that’s my toy!” Nothing else exists except the threat and the need to get rid of it.

We are all dependent on parenting to wean us off of immature thinking. The world we are looking at right now, however, is in large degree a reflection of a major shift in parenting. Recently I saw an Instagram post published by a mother who was upset at a well-known children’s book. The main character fell of his bike and said, “But I was brave and didn’t cry.” The Instagram mom objected to this dialogue and took a permanent marker to the page, where she crossed it out and wrote instead: “So I cried because I was sad.” Her point, as she explained in the post, was that children must be told their emotions are valid and expressing them honestly is always right.

Even if I couldn’t articulate it, I knew when I read that post that this was a different kind of parenting than I had experienced. Not crying even after getting hurt would have been seen in my home as admirable (though crying was certainly allowed and cared for). Emotional authenticity had its place, but it was not a virtue to be aspired to in lieu of, say, being brave or holding your temper. From this mom’s tone of prophetic righteousness I could tell this was not merely a different method but a different value system. She crossed out the book’s original dialogue because it was morally wrong to her.    For her, guarding her children from the suggestion that sometimes it is best to not express what you’re feeling is guarding them from harm.

A lot of people struggle with this kind of analysis. It comes off as generational snobbery, attacking those entitled millennials or clueless Gen Z’ers. I agree that it often sounds that way, and I also agree that generational stereotypes, even ones that seem legitimate, hurt and obscure far more than they help and illuminate. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make these observations, which seem really important, without sounding like a scold.

Worse, I think the role that parenting plays in the shaping of public discourse means bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think. Polarization is a problem, yes. Sensationalistic, partisan media is a problem, for sure. But the reason these conversations bottom out is that what’s really being exposed are deeply personal intuitions that we protect because of what—or who— criticism of them implicates. If our definition of “justice” is actually ill-formed, if our treatment of those who disagree is actually cruel and regressive—then we have to confront some deeply uncomfortable possibilities about how we and our children are being oriented to the world around us. Parenting is perhaps the only topic in the world more heated than religion and politics. If you doubt that, go read Facebook. You’ll see.

This is Probably What We Needed

Will a pandemic tie us closer to social digital technology, or expose it as empty?

As we continue to try to wrap our minds around the surreal events of COVID-19, one thought has been recurring for many:

This will destroy the last motivations in our society to actually interact with other human beings.

I understand this fear. It’s reasonable. As the jokes and memes attest, social distancing was happening well before it was mandated. Loneliness has been pandemic a lot longer than coronavirus. It’s logical to imagine that a society voluntarily isolating itself to death would interpret mass quarantine as a validation of the wisdom of living online. I think this fear is probably what kept many churches in the US from closing their doors this past Sunday. People already ask what’s the point of waking up to go to church if I can find a world-class preacher on the Podcast store. If we start asking them to say home, it’s over. Right?

Maybe. But maybe not. There’s another version of this whole story that keeps playing out in my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t shake the feeling that an oppressive pandemic might actually be the one thing that disrupts the unthinking embrace of virtual social behaviors. When the toxic dust settles, I’m wondering if we’ll find that the punishment fit the crime, and that the anxiety of not knowing when we will see the people we love in real life is sadder than getting a new “Like” is fun.

I’ve written previously in this space about Facebook, and how over the past decade Facebook has made a series of design and functional choices that drop even the pretense of trying to connect people to each other. I’ve been without an account for almost a year now, and even I’m surprised how little I’ve missed it. When I’m looking at wife’s personal feed, here’s what I see: influencer post, influencer post, meme, link to an article, influencer post, somebody trying to sell something, etc., ad infinitum. In other words, Facebook has shifted from a tool to facilitate contact among friends, to a platform by which individuals can communicate with the masses, preferably to help turn a profit. The friendship ethos is totally gone.

People know this, which is why just about everyone you know under the age of 30 has either deactivated their account or gone to Instagram. That’s why predictions that places like Facebook or Twitter  will just become more and more omnipresent until they’ve essentially totally  replaced communities have never been compelling to me. A lot of us are addicted, yes, but that doesn’t mean we cannot tell when the grass is greener somewhere else. Twitter has the advantage of monopolizing the journalist class and therefore being the substance of choice for  “informed” people. But people leave Twitter too, and the odds are good that if Jack Dorsey keeps it up, they’ll keep leaving Twitter. Eventually the same will happen to Instagram.

Before COVID-19, most of us held the assumption that when these companies decline, it’ll be because their users find some other platform. But that’s what I wonder about.

If people in the West will be, as is expected, confined for several months to an absolute minimum of social contact, holed up within their homes and cut off from classmates, church members, concerts, and sporting events, then I think it’s more than possible that social media will fail the cultural test that is given to it. In the coming months social media will be asked to fill a void that is fundamental to who human beings are. Count me among the number who believe that it will fail that test because it cannot do otherwise.

It’s not difficult for digital technology to replace human contact. It is impossible. Silicon Valley advances not just tools for harnessing human nature, but an alternative belief system about what human nature is. That belief system is sort of like the prosperity gospel—it works as long as it doesn’t have to work. When the infrastructure of normal life crumbles, when suffering and sea billows roll, the check always bounces. I understand the fear that people will emerge from their quarantine wondering why they ever left their living room in the first place. But I see another question coming: “Why did we ever bury ourselves with our machines in the first place?”

The logic of tech addiction has been so powerful in part because it almost never feels like we’re losing control. We’re so agile, so upwardly mobile as a society that literally limitless options available to us make retreating into our screens feel like a necessary act of self-care. The infinity potentialities of self-expression in offline life make online life feel accessory rather than replacement. What COVID-19 is about to strip away is the illusion of options, the illusion of total control over what our tech does to us. We are faced with several months of having little else aside from our screens. There’s a gut check coming. And a lot of us will decide we don’t want to live that way.

Maybe this is what we needed. I’m not talking about death, obviously. The deaths of thousands from coronavirus don’t serve the “higher” purpose of rehabbing a culture off technological delusion. I’m talking specifically about those who survive, and go on after this crisis is over to live relatively normal lives. For us, maybe this is the only thing that could really trigger change. I’m optimistic that it will. Once upon a time meditating on death was a spiritual discipline that wise believers said would fortify against complacent worldliness. Hardly anyone remembers their death until they have to. That’s human nature. Human nature.

The Hot Potato

Invoking relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep doing it?

One of the ideas that Douglas Murray comes back to time and again in The Madness of Crowds is the backward relationship within contemporary progressivism between confidence and evidence. When it comes to identity politics, Murray points out that lack of scientific or biological or mathematical data is not a problem for many activists. They simply ignore it; or, they pit experience and felt needs against cold, inhumane information, and ask audiences which of these is more likely to keep people oppressed. In the emerging social justice culture the level of certainty always exceeds the amount of rational justification. This is why people can lose their livelihoods or even be criminally prosecuted for believing in something that no serious consensus disputes—the categories of male and female, for example.

Certainty is a strange thing. In a religiously postmodern era it is fashionable to cast certainty as the enemy. Aren’t all we just giving our best guess? Yet as postmodernism gives way to the kind of New Morality that Murray documents in his book, one wonders whether the death of certainty hasn’t been greatly exaggerated. From where I’m sitting it doesn’t look people are capable of living without it. Even the most irreligious groups need an unshakeable framework that imputes meaning into their lives and beliefs. For many who’ve been shaped by western higher education, that framework is social justice.

Yet even the critics of social justice mania cannot cleanly critique certainty. For one thing, almost every opponent of outrage mobs and shout down chants believes with certainty that free speech is an absolute good. At the very least they believe with certainty that people ought to be able to hold unpopular ideas and a job at the same time. Now those open-minded philosophers who extol doubt and portray the life well lived as one of never knowing what’s above are in a real pickle: If certainty is the enemy, then we can’t be certain that those who wield certainty to suppress their opponents are certainly wrong.

I thought about this after listening to a “deconversion” narrative by podcasting duo Rhett and Link. Alisa Childers also listened to it and she put the issue well:

After poking holes in Christianity, Rhett offered no plausible alternative to explain reality. When he jumped the Christian ship, he didn’t jump into another boat, but into a “sea of uncertainty.” His Christianity has been replaced with what he calls “openness and curiosity.” He describes how liberating it’s been to let go of the “appetite for certainty.” To the careful observer, it’s evident that Rhett has traded in one worldview for another: Christianity for postmodernity, with all its skepticism, denial of absolutes, and relativism.

Except it’s not actually relativism, right? As Rhett rattles off the list of scientific discoveries he made that his childhood Christianity could not explain, he didn’t sound very relativist. He didn’t sound like a true patron of uncertainty. The scientific research he had read was not vulnerable in the presence of “openness.” Despite the plaintive word picture of a person exchanging rigid dogma for a peaceful, relaxing float on the river of discovery, what’s actually happened is that Rhett is certain of something he wasn’t certain of before: That Christianity isn’t true. The buzzwords of openness and curiosity obscure the reality of a door slamming shut.

What’s most interesting to me is not how often people decide that the religion they were raised in is not true. It’s how often people sand over their definitive religious or ideological transformations with language about “openness” and “curiosity.” It reminds me very much of transgender activists on a college campus, screaming “Who are you to judge” while they campaign to get an administrator fired and harass his or her family. The nod to relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep offering it?

My only theory is that in the current intellectual climate, the best way to bring someone over to your side is not to try to convince them they’re wrong, but convince them they’re irrelevant. “Look, I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying I’m open and curious and you’re not.” Who wants to hear that? Ours is the era not of debates and arguments but of epistemological hot potato: whoever carries the baggage of certainty for too long loses. Here’s how you win: Say you’re not sure, then act as if you are. You’ll avoid the existential crisis of having no center, and best of all, you’ll seal yourself off from almost any critique. Define yourself as open, and everybody else gets closed automatically.

The Magic of Secularism

Contemporary paganism meets modern individualism.

Alan Jacobs recently linked to a concise summary by Charles Taylor of “buffered selves” vs “porous selves.” The dichotomy is crucial to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age. Taylor argues that the essence of secular modernism is the transition from an enchanted world—which creates porous selves—to a disenchanted one, which creates buffered selves. Here’s how Jacobs puts it:

The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

Sometimes this contrast is referred to as the difference between paganism and modernism. Paganism is a magical worldview, where spirits roam the cosmos, elixirs heal body and mind, and the self is open to the influences and effects of a whole spectrum of metaphysical forces. Modernism is the age of science, logic, and rational belief. Spirits do not roam, bacteria and viruses do. The world is disenchanted in the sense that it can be explained without reference to things beyond the material.

Almost everyone would say that we live in a rationalistic age. We are buffered against the superstitions of our pre-modern ancestors through modern science, medicine, philosophy—the heritage of developed Western thought.

Or are we?

Consider a thought exercise. Ask yourself this: Is the individualistic, self-determining, self-expressive ethos of modern society a porous worldview, or a buffered one? In other words, is “follow your heart” the logical sum of rationalism or is it closer to a mystical mantra? If you’ve read many books on this topic, especially books about identity, you probably got a good dose of “From Descartes to Nietzsche” history of ideas. These books argue that Western rationalism created the modern self. I think that’s probably true and as reliable a narrative of how-we-got-here as we’re going to get.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There is a cultural rise right now for actual paganism (witchcraft). In this Atlantic piece, the author and her interviewees frame the contemporary pagan self in explicitly fashionable terms. It seems there’s a seamless continuity between being a witch and “telling your truth.” Stay for the final sentence:

Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.”

…To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“I’m doing magic when I march in the streets” is about a clean a summary of the post-Christian West as you could ever read. The porous theology of Wicca is transposed onto politics-as-religion, and the essence of telling one’s pagan truth is to become an activist. The only question is whether it’s the secular, political identity that is masquerading as a witch, or if the paganism is putting on an activist front. I think somebody committed to the Cartesian theory of self-expressionism would say the former. But what if it’s the latter? What if modern witches reach for political self-actualization precisely because the Modern Self is not a rationalistic creature but a mystical one?

There are clues that point me toward that theory. For one thing, the liturgical and creedal nature of social media culture strongly suggests that many in the contemporary West are becoming less shy acting on impulses and habits that are religious in shape. For another thing, the ecclesiastical personality of spaces like university campuses—featuring excommunication, defenses of orthodoxy, etc—reveal not so much a secularized public square but a religiously redirected one. Yes, in one sense formal religious affiliation is thinning, but in another sense, religious practices have arguably never been more mainstream.

I’m reminded of a great blog post a few years ago in which Ross Douthat flagged a feature essay in Elle magazine about a woman’s experience with mediums. Pointing out that irreligious Americans tend to show interest in things like spiritualism and astrology, Douthat argued that the best way to understand modern secularization is not as a negation of the numinous, but as an ambivalence toward it. I think that’s a compelling theory, and it stands as a challenge to Christian observers of culture to get too sucked into a “transition” narrative—from porous to buffered, from pre-modern to secular—without accounting for the ways in which human nature falls back into contradiction in order to meets its felt needs. As tidy and seamless as the line from Descartes to Disney may seem, there are complications along the way.

And one of those complications is the impure alchemy of many modern worldviews. If the dogma of modern paganism is to be “an embodiment of your truth in all its power,” then we should ask whether the porous selves of the witch coven are plagiarizing expressive individualism, or whether the whole time expressive individualism was actually plagiarizing the porous Self. It could very well be that the arc of post-Christian history doesn’t finally point toward the scientific laboratory or transhuman technology, but toward Amazon, Oprah, and activist witchcraft.