Label Me!

Personality profiling is a way for moderns to receive an identity, rather than craft one.

Everyone who knows anything at all knows you must never attribute someone’s character or behavior to their identity. It is universally agreed in polite society that no person is ever good or bad at something because of their gender, or their race, their family, sexuality, etc. To indulge in this reasoning is at best a crude stereotype, at worst an expression of flagrant bigotry. A president of Harvard University was once forced to resign simply for observing that male students displayed more consistent interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science than female students (an observation which was backed up by all the relevant data, and still is). The unwritten law is clear: A person’s ethnic, genetic, or sexual identity must never explain anything about them.

This makes the cultural fascination with personality profiling all the more intriguing to me. To listen to people talk to one another about their Enneagram numbers is to listen to urbane, educated, and socially conscious people insist on being labeled. It’s not simply that the Enneagram is fun in the same way that all self-knowledge tools are fun. There will always be a market for figuring out the “secrets” about oneself. But the Enneagram fandom I’ve seen takes it quite a bit further. Your Enneagram number is not simply descriptive, it is explanatory and authoritative. Listen closely to enthusiasts talk about their experience with the test, and you will hear explicit appeals to one’s profile as an explanation for even the most trivial facts or behaviors. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like, “I’m such a 7,” or, “Yeah, that’s a very 4 thing to say.”

The same thing happens with in introvert/extrovert conversation. Depending on which you are, certain kinds of habits or tendencies can be expected from you, and it’s a matter of social decorum for others to recognize this. Introverts get nervous at invitations to gatherings; they’d rather watch Netflix at home. Thus, relating well to the introvert in your life means (among other things) not taking offense when they don’t show up. You should also learn how to work with introverts, date them, and recognize the dozens of signs you’re probably one of them.

It took me a long time to realize just how odd this kind of pathological self-categorization really is. For one thing, I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, and I’ve claimed the label throughout most of my adult life whenever I was uncomfortable or wanted to protect my time. For me, introversion has often been permission: permission to not be like those around me, to make choices others didn’t understand, and to be my own person.

But then I started realizing that it no other aspect of life was I as ready to sort myself into a prefabricated category. Why did I so readily accept the logic of personality profiling when that same logic, if applied to my skin color, my childhood, or anything else about me, would likely deeply offend? More to the point, why did so many people around me — people who rejected all species of stereotypes and determinism — make an exception for their personality?

Here’s one guess: Personality profiling is the last politically-acceptable way of receiving an identity, rather than crafting one. And many people today are weary of crafting their own custom identity and would very much like to belong to something instead.

It’s not been that long since the most fundamental fact about you was considered to be your family. For most of human history an individual’s life was conditioned by their parents. You lived where your parents lived (likely until death). You worked at what your parents worked. Your marriage was in large part downstream from your parents’ relationships and community. You were born into a religion, you were born into a value system, and you would born into a social fabric.

When most of us hear this description of the past we drop down on our knees and thank God that unlike our pre-liberal ancestors, we are not consigned to a pre-written fate. Every Disney film ever made is at some point a story about a person remaking themselves into their own image, getting out from under the restrictive and unfeeling expectations of their family. That’s the kind of story that resonates with Western people who feel their individuality keenly.

You won’t find me arguing that upward mobility is a bad thing, or that people should have no option to improve their life. But something is definitely lost to our humanity when the only identity available to us is one we have to tirelessly craft. There’s something in most of us that tells us that to belong and to be received is better than self-determination. It’s not an accident that The Rise of Skywalker, in its pursuit of fan satisfaction, essentially re-wrote the story of Rey to give her a family name after all. After spending two films arguing that Rey’s anonymity was immaterial and that she could build her own identity through her actions, the filmmakers end the ill-fated trilogy with a scene in which Rey assumes the last name Skywalker. To belong is better than to self-determine.

I wonder then if personality profiling is a kind of refuge for those of us who’ve been catechized in hyper-individuality. A finite amount of Enneagram numbers means that you really can belong to a group. Who you are is not opaque, it is discoverable. Maybe there’s something deep within Western people that craves the kind of self-knowledge that comes from outside rather than inside. Weary of curating our own sense of self, sometimes we just need to be assigned a number and know who we are.

Yeah, But What if the ‘Elites’ Are Right?

Mark Galli and the editorial leadership of Christianity Today believe that Donald Trump should be removed from office. Carl Trueman writes that this is a perfectly defensible position, but takes serious issue with Galli’s notion that Christian faithfulness entails it. I too worry that Galli’s editorial took the wrong angle, emphasizing the constitutional case against Trump and implying that consistent, Bible-believing Christians can come to consensus on that issue. That seems to me to be a category error, as if we can know from Scripture whether the president of Ukraine was pressured into a political favor. If that’s genuinely what Galli meant, it’s a bad take.

Yet is it what he meant? I doubt it. The last sentence of Trueman’s response bothers me: “Lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.” I certainly agree. But why does Donald Trump somehow stand-in for all Christian populism? Must the demerits against his character, his behavior, and his qualifications trickle down and apply to any and all who are disaffected by America’s two-party administration?  I can’t see any reason why they should.

Galli writes: “That [the President] should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” This isn’t how I would have worded it. But Trueman’s complaint that this line accuses “every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be,” both misses and undersells the point. It misses the context of this line, which is Galli’s citation of CT’s editorializing against Bill Clinton in the 1990s, at which time the magazine also declared the elected president of the US as morally unfit for his office. This is a strange track record of consistency if Galli and CT are simply intellectual elites, unmoved by the plights of the Christian working class (more on that in a minute).

But I think this response (which has come from many more people) also undersells something Galli’s editorial understands. It’s not enough to say that there are understandable reasons to vote for Trump, and so no one can dogmatically claim that doing so is a sin. Trueman points out that many evangelical Trump voters despise infidelity and coarseness, yet felt as if their political alternative was worse. But is this reasoning not also subject to moral evaluation? Is the existence of Planned Parenthood and GLAAD really a biblically and ethically sufficient justification for endorsing—hesitantly or not, joyfully or not—this president? Galli has an answer to this question: No. Perhaps that’s the wrong answer, but it is an answer.

What’s not an answer is to double back on #NeverTrump evangelicals, label them elites, and declare the conversation pointless. I wish so much that evangelicals would fully resist the allure of identity politics, especially the versions that seem to be popular in our conservative theological circles. Substitute the word “white” for “elite” in much evangelical political discourse, and you would end up with lengthy essays that would be logically indistinguishable from those of the wokest SJWs.

Whether Galli and the staff at CT are elites has absolutely no bearing on whether they’re right about this president and the morality of supporting him. The argument fails for the same reason the common pro-choice canard about pro-life’s being “out of touch” with the physical and social trauma of unplanned pregnancy fails. I completely accept the fact that I, a white, middle-class, nuclear-family raised male, cannot sufficiently empathize with a poor, disadvantaged, unwed mother, just as I accept that the editor in chief of a large Christian magazine cannot sufficiently empathize with my rural, pastoring, Trump-supporting relatives. A failure to empathize is not synonymous with a failure to speak truth. Babies are still babies, and low character is still low character—regardless who’s elite and who’s not.

And in any case, are we so sure there’s not something to be said for being at least a little out of touch with populist conservatism? Just last night I was visiting my grandmother. The television was muted but tuned into Fox News, where the chyron read, “SOME ON THE LEFT SAY LITTLE WOMEN IS TOO WHITE.” From what I could gather host Mark Levin had rounded up a couple of obnoxious Tweets from “the Left” and, wham, a segment was born. I found myself wondering what it would be like to consume this kind of “news” hour after hour, day after day. I think I’d be a rather angry person, though I suspect I’d be unable to name the people I was mad at. If you ask me, that’s the kind of thing that can perpetuate a divide, too.

Death of a Critic

On Scorsese, cinema, and parenting.

There was a time not very long ago at all that I would have enthusiastically agreed with Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel movies. For a handful of my early 20s I was in love with what Scorsese calls “cinema,” enraptured by artistry and moral ambiguity and disgusted by anything that smelled of kitsch. I once registered a blog domain called “The Astute Film Critic,” and let me assure you it was every bit as pretentious as it sounds. Even now, reading Scorsese’s comments pokes at a tender spot in my heart that conjures up joyful memories of discovery, optimism, and a feeling of genuinely falling in love with film.

And then last spring I attended a screening of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. As the end credits began flickering I knew beyond any doubt that the film buff I had aspired to become in those years was gone beyond recall. I left the theater feeling little else but contempt and scorn for what I still believe is an utterly confused movie. Yet I knew I was supposed to love it. Critics, including several whose work I still respect, tripped over themselves to declare First Reformed a brooding masterpiece. There was absolutely no square inch of my soul that concurred or even comprehended that judgment. I hated that film. And I knew immediately what that fact meant: it wasn’t meant for people like me.

First Reformed was the climax, not the beginning, of my exit from cultured cinema. By the time I was parking the car in the Yorktown AMC for the movie, I had been sensing a transformation. Cinema had lost its charm. I was bored by the same critically lauded, morally ambiguous films I had devoured in a previous life. Whilst critics lost their minds over Three Billboard Outside Ebbing Missouri, I stopped watching after 90 minutes. I’m told by multiple columnists that The King’s Speech is one of the worst Best Picture-winners ever. I really like it. See what I mean? There’s only so often you can be out of step with an aesthetic culture before you realize the differences are irreconcilable.

For the last few years my movie tastes have become what the cultured despisers call normie. I like Avengers and still love Spielberg. Noah Baumbach bores me to tears. Wes Anderson annoys me. Christopher Nolan thrills me. Don’t get me wrong, I like good movies (Phantom Thread was much better than I expected). But I agree with Scorsese…cinema is its own thing, and it’s not for me anymore.

As best I can tell, what happened to me is that I started having kids. I don’t even know why, but as soon as my inner film critic met my son, he hit the road. It’s not a logistic thing, like, “I can’t watch movies for grown ups anymore.” Nothing prevents me from streaming cinema after the kids’ bedtimes. I would just rather re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t always like this, but it’s definitely been this way since I became a dad. Is it simply nostalgia or sentimentality? Probably somewhat! But I’ve got two other theories.

1) I think becoming a father had a transformative effect on why I put myself in the way of stories. My “astute film critic” days were mostly about being an astute critic, not the film. In other words, I think for me the operative desire was not to delight and learn from and be shaped by story but to be the kind of person people thought of as intelligent, while using movies to get that desire.

The more I reflect on this, the more I think bastions of “elite” opinion are pretty much all designed toward this end. It’s inner rings all the way down. Yes, if all you read is Harry Potter your imagination and your moral intuitions will be stilted, but all this means is that the Potter books are finite and limited. It doesn’t mean that the antidote is to subscribe to the New York Review of Books and farm out your soul to the coastal literati. Why not? Because—surprise!—if you do that, your imagination and your moral intuitions will likewise be stilted.

What did becoming a dad have to do with this? I’m not entirely sure, but it may be that children have a way of disabusing one’s delusions of grandeur. Want to be The Atlantic’s film critic? First, change this diaper. I wonder if even more than student loan debt, this is what keeps millennials from having kids. You can do anything in the world, until you have to do one thing.

2) When my son was born, my heart was flooded with the desire that he grow up to be a certain kind of person: Strong, courageous, compassionate, confident, etc. When I looked at the kind of movies that Scorsese dislikes, I saw, imperfect and idealistic, characters like this. When I looked at “cinema” I saw characters who were supposed to be “the real world.” The more closely I looked, though, I realized that the “real world” was actually not a real world at all, but a world created by people like Harvey Weinstein. Was this sex scene or that ideology really a reflection of the authentic world, or was it simply put in there to placate a powerful suit?

I don’t know. Not knowing is part of life, of course. And there’s something to be said for art that is personal instead of market researched. But more than anything, becoming a father has made me want to unite truth, goodness, and beauty, to keep them all together and to resist selling out to the expert opinions of people who know how to win Oscars but apparently not how to spot a hero. I just think that’s a poor trade-off.


image credit: By hashi photo – hashi photo, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9976941

Josh Hawley and the Need for Tech Stigma

Josh Hawley, the junior US Senator from Missouri, is waging a small war against Silicon Valley. Twice this summer Hawley has introduced legislation that targets social media corporations’ out-sized role in the lives of Americans. His latest bill is perhaps the most straightforward legal challenge to the biggest social media firms yet. The SMART Act would tightly regulate social media technology, forcing developers to make specific changes that dilute the addictive and omnipresent qualities of the apps.

In a May lecture that was published by First Things, Hawley lays out his case against Silicon Valley. He warns that Big Tech firms are pocketing obscene profits by maximizing addiction and carefully overseeing a monopoly on news and information. All the while, the American workforce is being populated by users diagnosed with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus.  Hawley concludes by reflecting that the culture being shaped by social media technology is an “economy that does not value the things that matter.”  Hawley: “That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time.”

David French, an evangelical columnist at National Review for whom I have great respect, dismisses Hawley’s legislative prescriptions as a misguided attempt to control consumer habits from Washington. French believes Hawley’s bills do address real problems, but establish a dangerous precedent for a “Republican Daddy State.” Writing in First Things, Jon Schweppe rebukes French and other conservative critics of Hawley’s proposals: “Historically, our politicians have determined that government should have a role when corporations exploit consumers by putting their physical or psychological health at risk,” he notes. “This is especially true when those consumers happen to be children.”

***

It’s hard to resist evaluating Hawley’s proposed laws and the debate over them in light of the larger, intra-conservative kerfuffle (also starring First Things and French!) that’s emerged in the Trump years. On the surface this looks like yet another installment in the “What is the proper role of government in the formation of virtuous citizens” question, an issue that takes on radically different shape depending not just on your politics but on your ecclesiology. Because I think David French is right about justification by faith and the mission of the church, and I think the editors of First Things are mostly wrong about them, I tend to gravitate toward a Frenchian perspective on statism.

But Jon Schweppe is right about something crucial: The question is not whether government will regulate the behavior of the citizenry, the question is how. If a legal minimum age to drink alcohol is an acceptable manifestation of a “daddy state” (and to Schweppe’s point, I don’t think any conservative columnists are arguing otherwise), why not proportionate regulations on a consumer product (social media) arguably even more omnipresent and accessible to children than alcohol?

French is right that overreaching regulation, even to fix a serious cultural malaise, could and probably would have long-term consequences. On the other hand, we’re almost certainly already signed up for long-term consequences from the overabundance of digital technology. Worse, functional monopolies held by Apple and Google make it almost impossible for creative solutions to supplant existing business models. “Digital literacy” programs come with the moral and legal authority of government to the benefit of manufacturers, all the while sites like YouTube, extolled as educational tools, oversee an algorithm-based disaster that targets children with disturbing content.

Though I share French’s view of federal intervention, “Daddy State” is a an epithet that fails to reckon with how consumer habits are conditioned and even constrained by the complex relationship between Silicon Valley and the information age. The latter is an unchangeable revolution; there is no rewinding the clock on the internet, and nostalgia is not a synonym for virtue. The former, however, is nothing more than a corporate culture that should be viewed with no less skepticism than pornography industry. What Hawley understands is that our experience of the information age has become cripplingly dependent on a fistful of companies that use jargon and confused lawmakers to exploit loopholes.  Michael Brendan Doughtery (writing in National Review, no less!) was exactly right to say that Facebook is a media and publishing company, regardless of what its executives say or the exemptions and allowances they request.

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But there is something missing from Hawley’s agenda. The senator is eager to handcuff developers with laws about “infinite scroll” and time limits. This is interesting, but it plays into Big Tech’s hands. The problem with targeting granular technologies is that such technologies are always on the cusp of changing anyway. What does infinite scroll look like in, say, an augmented reality channel? Unless you’re well versed in the psychology and coding of this tech, you probably have no idea, and if there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg proved, it’s that befuddling aging Congressmen with terminology almost any 13 year old would recognize isn’t that difficult.

What Hawley’s efforts lack is an element of stigma. Rather than trying to play the developer’s game, legal efforts to help our tech addiction should try to put a social stigma on always looking at your phone, or spending hours on YouTube, or anonymous message-based sites that foster radicalization. There should be a social shame to digital addiction that is comparable to the stigma around pornography, which is mediated through age-gate laws, laws that protect the depiction of minors, and other statutes, as well as practices in the private sector (such as cordoned off “adult” sections).  While of course most of us would say that social stigma around pornography is far too weak, since pornography is still too common and accessible, there is reason to think that promoting a stigma around tech sickness would be better and more effective than targeting the zeroes and ones of software.

In a brilliant essay almost twenty years ago, Roger Scruton pointed out that the contemporary West has introduced law and politics as a replacement stigma and custom. This is decidedly not how societies past operated:

In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they [generations past] believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts.

Stigma is not effective at eliminating a social ill. But that’s precisely the point. There are some social ills that cannot be radically destroyed, and efforts to do so may seriously damage the underlying social fabric. Scruton uses sexual morality as an example of a communal virtue that protects the vulnerable when it is enforced from within, but tends to turn abusive and corrupt when such enforcement is outsourced to the governing authorities. Of course, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between social stigma and the law, because the law teaches as well as restricts; thus, men who abandon their families must pay child support under the threat of the law.

Might the same principle work for responding to the crisis of digital addiction? Restricting social media to legal adults, for example, would not eliminate its addictive qualities or even fully prevent children from using the services, but requiring a credit card number or some other age-verification tool would create a “mature audiences only” stigma that highlights social media’s addictiveness and tendencies toward vice. Another stigma would be requiring that smartphones or internet-capable tablets not be sold to anyone under 16, and requiring parents purchasing such equipment for minors to sign informational disclaimers about addiction, psychological development, distracted driving, etc. Without restricting speech, such laws would introduce moderate hurdles to using such tech, making it especially difficult for children to have their own private digital lives.

We need a digital stigma. Rather than assuming that mobile, interactive technology is inherently valuable, we should assume that Silicon Valley’s products are comparable to cigarettes and alcohol: Not for children, not for habitual use, and certainly not for tax exemptions and public school programs. This of course doesn’t solve the problem of distraction sickness, nor does it even guarantee that parents would have the will to protect their kids. But it would strike a blow in the cause of cognitive and emotional flourishing, and puts Silicon Valley billionaires off the pedestal of philosopher kings and in the corner, where they belong.

Is Reality Only for the Privileged?

Is retreating from social media really a “privileged” thing to do?

Listen to this post:

Whenever someone points out the dangers of social media and recommends curtailing use or abandoning it altogether, a response I’m starting to hear a lot more often is that abstaining from social media is an expression of privilege. Though it’s not always made explicit, I think the idea behind this argument is that social media is a democratic tool by which many people express social and political opinions or perhaps engage in activism. Thus, social media has intrinsic value as a vehicle of “engagement,” including (and maybe especially for) ethnic, sexual, or economic minorities who might otherwise never be offered a platform to speak.

Calling on folks to cancel their Twitter accounts is therefore on one hand an implicit call for less visibility of these marginalized voices; on the other hand, it’s also a failure to see (or perhaps even a failure to regard) the positive effects of social media for certain kinds of people, vs. the relative comfort and lack of social or existential disruption that majority culture people would experience by deleting their accounts.

As someone who is actively trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate my social media footprint, I take this response seriously. If it’s an accurate and coherent objection, then my deletion of certain social media memberships and my thousands of words spent critiquing the technology are de facto failures to love my marginalized neighbors, and such failure demands repentance and a change of ways. I also respect this objection because it makes an objective claim of value on social media and doesn’t impishly retreat to, “Well, whatever works for you, just don’t force your opinions on people.” In other words, full-throated defenses of social media on the basis of privilege and marginalization are arguments that actually understand the seriousness of what social media critics are saying.

Nevertheless, I think this argument is deeply flawed. More than that, I think it’s flawed in the exact ways that we should expect ideas shaped by social media culture to be flawed. Let me offer a brief rundown of these flaws.

Flaw 1: This objection accepts what social media corporations say about themselves at face value.

One of the major indictments against social media is the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the past 13 years (roughly Facebook’s lifespan) about how these Silicon Valley companies design their products. We now know they’re designed to be addictive. We now know they’re designed to hit mental triggers that release feelings of intimacy and productivity. We now know that the CEOs and braintrusts of the major social media corporations tend to have disturbing views about everything from personal well-being to utopia. To sum up, we now know not to conflate tech industry marketing with the product itself.

The argument that social media levels the playing field and gives platform to heretofore marginalized voices assumes that the kind of exposure and “platform” that happens on social media is an unmitigated good kind. But to assume this means to assume that social media technology is what it appears to be. Is there a reason to assume this? What if the “platform” of social media is actually an algorithmic illusion designed to make users more dependent on the technology and in the process less likely to understand or even care about what cannot be experienced through it? What if 10,000 retweets send a chemical affirmation to your brain of being seen and heard, but in reality half of those retweets are from people who simply wanted to join in with their friends in RTing you, 1/3 are from non-human accounts, and the remaining 2,000 are a niche group who will neither do anything about what you said or even remember it after dinner? Let’s say all that is at least plausibly true. Would it be more accurate to say that Twitter has given you a platform, or that Twitter has rewarded your time on the site with a temporary dose of extra entertainment?

There are very good reasons to believe, as several media and technology critics are now saying, that social media culture is significantly disconnected from “real life,” and that what happens within social media culture is often self-referential and fails to escape the walls of algorithm. Assuming that’s true, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that the platform bestowed on anyone—regardless of race, gender, or class—is the kind of platform that can sustain and empower positive offline transformation. Instead, it seems just as likely that the addictive elements of social media, which translate into thousands of hours being spent on the technology every day by many of the same socially conscious users who might otherwise be doing something else, are mostly sunk costs.

Flaw 2: This objection assumes that the democratizing effects of the Internet are best mediated through social media networks.

Beneath the objection that social media abstention is an expression of socioeconomic privilege is another assumption about the nature of social media—specifically, that it really does challenge the privileged, platform the marginalized, and level the playing field better than the alternative online technologies. But this is an unnecessary and inaccurate assumption.

Measuring social media’s real-life effects are tricky. For one thing, “social media” doesn’t seem to be a monolithic entity with equivalent effects in every sphere of life. Facebook and Instagram seem to be better at helping people sell stuff, whereas Twitter is considerably more likely to affect what gets talked about in newspapers, magazines, and cable news. Which example of social media influence is more “real”? Obviously, it depends on what you mean.

The most important aspect of any social media platform is the number of users on it. But there are other, more significant things to consider, such as privacy, and it’s not at all apparent to me that the advantages of a highly populated social network should always trump concerns about user data. Someone might argue that Facebook is still worth using, despite its absolutely terrifying track record on user privacy, because of its massive user base and potential reach, but only a foolish person would argue that privacy is never worth missing out on being part of a huge network.

As it is, there are good reasons to think that the current configuration of the online economy is very broken, and that it would be better for everyone—rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay—if the Silicon Valley model were trashed and replaced with an ownership-driven digital commons. Again, you don’t have to cancel your Facebook account today in order to grant there are good reasons to question the wisdom of the social media corporations. Wise, kind, justice-oriented people are doing just that.

Flaw 3: This objection gets “privilege” backward.

It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would define privilege as “the inability or unwillingness to spend portions of my day typing out messages online for strangers.” While it may not be exactly right to say that social media per se is classed, it would definitely be fair to say that social media activism—the kind of activism this objection takes as incumbent on moral people—is an activity available to a small, select group of users. Plenty of American workers cannot even look at their phones during their work hours.

Twitter especially seems to be an online activity geared toward knowledge workers with surplus time in their day (i.e., privileged folks). According to Pew, 80% of all content on Twitter comes from 10% of the site’s accounts. In other words, what goes on in Twitter-land is dictated by a very small, very select conglomeration of power users, brands, and algorithms. Twitter reflects the experiences and views of working class Americans about as well as Lake Shore Drive does.

A large majority of tweets come from a small minority of tweeters

By arguing that social media silence is privileged, critics of digital minimalism reveal to what extent they have conflated a particular kind of sub-cultural pastime with basic responsible citizenship. This conflation isn’t only socially and economically ridiculous, it’s also hostile to the formation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy public square. Thinking, grieving, and praying in silence, away from the pressures to signal our virtues or vices in exchange for clout, is not an act of privilege as much as it is an act of humanity.

Whether you cancel your social media accounts is not as important as thinking and feeling properly toward these digital technologies. I humbly submit that one evidence we are failing to think and feel properly toward them is when we react illogically when they are critiqued. The architects of Silicon Valley are more than happy to make billions out of our neurological dependence on notifications. Everyone, from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to the most privileged and powerful, should be more than resistant to hand it to them.

Why Facebook Failed

During the summer before my freshman year of college I registered for a Facebook account. Since I wasn’t yet a student at any of the schools whose “network” Facebook required all users to join, I had to pick a regional network, in my case Louisville, Kentucky. I immediately added friends from high school, church, summer camp, etc. Almost overnight the friendships that were ordinarily built around structured, shared times—like college classes—grew into 24/7 connectedness. I learned about my friends through posts and photos, and most exciting of all, relationship status updates. When I think back to the first couple years of Facebook I invariably think of the same ten or so people who made it rewarding for me. Facebook brought me further up and further into a community I desired. At times it felt unreal, but most other times it felt like it made the real times more real.

This past spring, roughly 12 years after registering for Facebook, I decided there wasn’t any point to it anymore. I deleted my profile and haven’t looked back. Though it took me until now to do it, deactivating was surprisingly easy, even routine. There just wasn’t a sense of loss. The thrill was gone.

In the early days Facebook was charming and rewarding. I logged in with a naively hopeful expectation of seeing something happy. Something close to the opposite is true now. Facebook has become a slog, a digital membership I kept for years not out of delight or even usefulness but out of serfdom to Mark Zuckerberg’s reign over the writer’s economy. For me, it’s not even ultimately about the obnoxious polarization or “fake news.” Sure, those are ills, as is Facebook’s appalling use of data. But I confess I could probably live with all those things. Facebook’s sins don’t alienate me nearly as much as its nature. There was something about the experience of social media ten years ago that was almost beautiful in its own way. Now it feels hollow beyond redemption.

Many younger Facebook users have no possible way of understanding how different the site was around 2008-2010. It’s common nowadays to refer to Facebook as part of someone’s “platform,” and that word helpfully reveals the transformation I’m talking about. Once upon a time the experience of Facebook was very much the experience of a “network,” ie, a place where people were put into contact with one another and the point of the site was to facilitate some kind of mutuality. This was evidenced by Facebook’s requirement in the beginning that new users join a preexisting college group as part of their registration. This process mapped Facebook users into a specific location and helped the website facilitate something genuinely local. Flawed? Misleading? Certainly. But still, it was a kind of community, something that at least vaguely resembled or at least supported offline friendship.

Now, Facebook is a platform, not a network. As Michael Brendan Doughtery points out, what Facebook most resembles is a multimedia publishing company, except one not bound by the same laws as actual publishing companies. It’s a tool for individuals to bolster themselves in a digital economy. This can be literal, as in the cases of people who use Facebook professionally and flood the newsfeeds of those who “Like” their page; or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of normal Facebook users who nonetheless use the page almost exclusively to initiate some sort of self-serving interaction with others (I confess that for at least the past 2 or 3 years, this is basically how I was using the site). In the not too distant past you could scroll endlessly through your Facebook “feed without any clicking—or even seeing—any external links. Multi-level marketing, bloggers, and sensational “fake news” headlines have obliterated this experience beyond recall.

The question is why. Is it because people have changed in the past ten years and this is what they are genuinely after nowadays? Or is it that Facebook has steadily configured its website to reward people who use it a platform and punish people who want to use it as a network?

Facebook’s recent ad campaign in response to controversy over its use of data and political content is a clever acknowledgement that the site isn’t what it used to be. But fake news and political overload are symptoms, not causes. They’re symptoms of Facebook’s overall structural evolution, from a site designed to put you in close proximity with people in your life to a site that replaces you with itself.

The best example of this is Facebook’s notification system. In a previous life, a notification from Facebook was almost always to let you know that something meaningful had happened on your page: Someone asked to be your friend, someone wrote on your “wall” (an appealingly spatial term that has been replaced with ephemeral Big Data jargon, “timeline”), someone tagged you in a photo, or invited you to an event (that wasn’t a sales pitch). Again, depending on when you started using Facebook, you may have zero idea the kind of site I’m describing.

Somewhere along the road Facebook decided it would use its notification system to drive us insane—or, more accurately, to drive our attention and our money into the waiting arms of third party developers. We started getting notifications when someone we didn’t know commented on a photograph 3 days after we did, or when a “friend” we barely spoke to needed to send invites in order to get fake tokens for the game they were playing, or (my personal un-favorite) whenever someone was merely “interested” in attending some event within 100 miles of you. In 2008 a notification on Facebook meant something happened that merited a response from you. In 2019, a notification means that Facebook thinks you should spend more time on the site.

Lifting its signature “network” requirement was a crucial first step that signaled the trade-offs that would happen as a social network became a ridiculously lucrative media platform. The reason Facebook thrived even in the years when it required a preexisting network membership was that such a requirement made Facebook a valuable social commodity. People want to belong, and they wanted to belong to Facebook only because the real people with whom they already wanted to belong also belonged to it. In this way Facebook was actually a remarkably intuitive technology: An online gateway to offline membership.

Almost every major technological or aesthetic decision Facebook has made since has severed the connection between online and offline. Consider the site’s decision to combine its messaging feature and its inline chat feature. When Facebook introduced Chat around 2009, it was an obvious idea that made sense given the value of instant messaging. For several years there was a difference between receiving a chat and receiving a message. A chat was like a text message. An inbox message was more like an email—more personalized, thought-out, and less spontaneous.

Facebook eliminated this distinction from their system several years ago. A chat is now automatically archived as an inbox message, and an inbox message appears (if the recipient hasn’t turned off the chat feature) as a chat. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s actually a very revealing feature. Facebook’s developers decided that it wasn’t in the site’s best interest to assume that people might use an instant messaging feature differently than they use an inbox. Why not? Because such a distinction assumes that Facebook can be used differently for different purposes. That’s not what Facebook’s developers want to happen. They want a Facebook that is creating and dictating the user experience, not serving it. Collapsing the distinction between an IM and an email is a good way to encourage people to always be reachable on the platform.

Facebook is thus mostly about itself, not about the people on the other side of the screen. There’s a reason Facebook is now overrun with people trying to sell stuff: that’s what this kind of technology is actually good for. Facebook’s design is now a naked attempt to cultivate addiction, and addiction and marketing have always gone hand-in-hand (“A man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance,” wrote C.S. Lewis). In the absence of being truly connected with friends and family, tech users look for emotional fulfillment in buying and selling, in political diatribes and personal brand building. Meanwhile, the clicks just keep coming.

Nostalgia for Facebook’s more sanguine days reminds me of the conversation many Christians are having about classical liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, Rod Dreher’s bestseller The Benedict Option, Jake Meador’s new In Search of the Common Good, and other books and articles all describe a cultural transformation similar in spirit to the transformation of Facebook. These writers describe the deterioration of solid institutions and meaningful civil life in favor of a “liquid modernity,” an absolute autonomous freedom that is self-evidently ultimate. Affluence, libertine individualism, and social mobility quickly eroded and replaced it with the atomized, therapeutic self-determination that dominates our contemporary society.

I’m wondering if Facebook’s slow burn from a social network into a multi billion-dollar media platform might be some kind of symbol or symptom for this much larger (and of course, more important) cultural shift. Why did my experience of Facebook downgrade like it did? The first answer is that Facebook changed. Chasing profits and clicks, it fell into an all-too-familiar, all-too-American pattern of trying to create customers who served the product rather than a product that served its customers. This is, in a crude way, the failure of liberalism (or, if you prefer Deneen’s explanation, its success). Liberalism begins on the premise that it is meeting inalienable human needs of liberty, and it ends by creating people who are permanently indentured to morally empty social order. Facebook’s algorithms favor people who choose to manipulate them through outrage and compulsion. Liberalism’s anticulture, its own kind of algorithm, likewise favors those who can most efficiently exploit the freedoms of others.

Perhaps Facebook, in its own way, typifies the critique of classical liberalism. It’s become an engorged technology that feasts on the shortened attention spans and withered credulity of its users. Yet the site itself is succeeding marvelously, because its algorithms do with astonishing efficiency precisely what they’re designed to do: Minimize the personal and the beautiful while maximizing the perceived value of the site. Meanwhile, the only thing that can puncture Facebook’s PR is high profile scandal, like the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, much like the only serious reconsideration of American cultural mores usually comes through economic disaster or something like the #MeToo epidemic. Facebook’s response to scandal is to produce sympathetic ads while trying to get banks to fork over their clients’ personal info. Our sociopolitical response to scandal is not much better: More diversity seminars, more HR training, more outsourcing of our moral and intellectual work to corporations and pop culture—while we remain as indifferent to our inherent dysfunctions as Facebook is toward their algorithms. Our mobile society is lonely and fragmented, and ironically, all you have to do is spend a couple hours “connecting” on Facebook to experience it.

Will Facebook will ever become a substantially better experience than it is right now? That’s hard to say. Stacking the odds against it are Facebook’s gargantuan profitability and domineering of the news economy. It’s rare to see a corporation that monetizes its worst tendencies this effectively backtrack. The reason it’s difficult to imagine a better Facebook is the same reason many critics of contemporary liberalism cannot imagine a genuine renewal of our public life; repentance is always hard, but its doubly so when you have to repent from something you’re really good at.

And yet, unlike Facebook, the public square is still salted by the gospel and its army of churches, filled with the refugees of a disenchanted age. On Facebook there is only the power to curate. In the world outside we must confront un-curated reality, and come to terms with a bloody world that demands a bloody salvation. The best Facebook can offer is to help us meet up with our fellow man. The best Christ can offer is to come to us himself. Any critique of classical liberalism that doesn’t explicitly locate the remedy in the person, work, and community of Jesus, fails.

Years ago, my friends and I would laugh as we thought about what it would be like to still be on Facebook as adults with children. We were so busy laughing at the idea that we hardly noticed when it actually happened. I want more for my two-year-old son than the empty promises of going viral, accumulating “Likes” and being sucked in an endless algorithm. Yet I have to confess that the thought of his going off to college and not having a Facebook for me to keep up with is a sad thought. I can’t say definitively what his experience of the digital world will be like. But I’m pretty sure it will be a mixed bag that requires him to constantly reassess his heart, weigh his time, and choose the true, good, and beautiful above all. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really what we should be doing all the time—especially when logged in.

The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”

The Propriety Advantage

A case for Christian propriety in a “handsy” culture.

A few years ago I endured one of my more embarrassing moments in adult life. My wife and I had just arrived at our church small group leader’s home for the Monday evening gathering. There was another married couple in our group with whom we were becoming good friends; the four of us were close in age and they had been married just a few months after us. Shortly after arriving my wife walked ahead into the kitchen while I attended to something  in the living room. A few minutes later I joined the group in the kitchen and saw my wife standing with her back turned toward me. I walked up behind her and gently started rubbing her shoulders. About 3 seconds into this spontaneous massage, I looked to my left and saw—my wife. With deep horror I realized I had mistaken our friend for Emily (I have insisted to this day that they had very similar haircuts). The room roared in laughter, including her and her husband, and we got good mileage out of that story the next few months.

I was very grateful that everyone in the room, especially the couple, was so good humored about it. Sometimes people describe conservative evangelical Christians as the type of folk who are scandalized by even the most innocuous impropriety. I actually think that in that kind of situation, the propriety—the sensitivity of a gathering like that to shared norms about sex, marriage, and gender—empowered the humor. My crimson blush, my wife’s awkward moment of realization, and my poor friend’s utter confusion betrayed a shared value of modesty that made the faux pas innocent and funny. What would the husband’s reaction been if, say, I had had a reputation for being handsy? How would the situation have changed if I hadn’t stopped? I think one thing is for certain: It wouldn’t have been funny.

The take du jour is that rules are bad. Everybody hates rules, especially rules between the sexes. “The man pays for the date” is sexist and archaic. The Billy Graham Rule is patriarchal and anti-friendship. Ironically, in mainstream political culture, the more intimate and explicitly sexual the interaction, the more rules—and more shaming— can apply. Try to lay down some standards for a first date or working lunch and you come off as prudish at best, pervy at worst. But if the clothes are coming off, passion must be paused for the acquisition of “informed consent.” It’s as if the rejection of public propriety has created a need for private legislation.

I don’t think many people genuinely believe that Joe Biden is a predator. For all most of us know, he could indeed be, but that’s not a conclusive inference to make from the accusations that have thus far been levied against him. It seems more correct (again, with the information available now) to say that senator Biden is a physically affectionate person who, like many, is a Thoroughly Modern Man who lives and works far above the regressive and puritanical constraints of propriety. He is “handsy” because he has no reason (until now) to not be. That’s just “who he is.”

Biden’s habits have hardly been a secret.  But they have not threatened his political viability until now because the only objections to impropriety that count in our contemporary public square are individual narratives that speak from experience and describe it in predator-victim language. Prior to the #MeToo era, a criticism of Biden’s handsy-ness that focused on its inherent impropriety—e.g., it’s always inappropriate for any man to pull his non-wife in close and smell her hair and breathe on her neck—would have been labeled regressive and sex-negative. Everyone believes Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose hosted “meetings” with female employees in their hotel rooms for sinister ulterior purposes, but hardly anyone other than oppressive religious folks have been willing to say that hotel room meetings are inherently improper. We are swimming in an ocean of spotlight investigations and civil suits, while the evasive virtue of propriety remains by far the cheapest option.

Our cultural elites are clearly struggling with how to articulate sexual morality without using any morally transcendent vocabulary. They are trying and failing to fit the round peg of a stigma-less sexual marketplace into the square hole of health, equality, and respect.

Even some conservatives seem unable to put two and two together. I like Mona Charen’s reminder of the emotional and psychological benefits of human touch, and the connection she makes to some really fascinating research showing declining sex and happiness is intriguing. But even a social conservative like Charen stops short of saying that the bridge between the humane balm of physical touch and respect for sexual boundaries and consent is propriety, habits of restraint and prudence that can be deployed indiscriminately. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the androgyny demanded by the modern market economy is just a foregone conclusion for Left and Right by this point. Perhaps we are facing a severe dearth of virtue ethics. Perhaps both.

In any case, the loss of propriety in contemporary life is an example of how sexual revolution liberates the body from constraints by severing its limbs. We need not wax foolishly nostalgic about the 1940s to see that something has been lost in the post-Woodstock age. It’s true that social propriety has often reflected a double standard for men and women, especially as regards modesty and faithfulness. A Christian propriety doesn’t wink at womanizers while branding scarlet letters on their victims. Rather, it takes seriously the physical and spiritual differences between men and women, honors marriage above market economics, and models chivalry on the perfect self-sacrifice of Christ, the church’s bridegroom. It doesn’t see every male-female interaction as an opportunity for lust, but neither does it ignore the inherently gendered character of our nature. Christian propriety expects men to behave toward women a certain way not to avoid a lawsuit or curry political favor but because they are men and women.

Sound regressive? But what has the escape from propriety and modesty achieved but a porn-shaped public soul, bad faith between the sexes, a banquet for predators, and a ruthlessly opportunistic shaming system? I shudder to think of what would have happened to a naive soul in the Democratic Party that stood up 5 years ago and told Joe Biden that men ought not make intimate gestures to women who are not their wives.

At least they would have been on the right side of history.

Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era

Christianity offers something better than dating yourself.

This morning I read the following passage in Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:

One of my favorite cultural critics, Ken Myers, argues that the kind of atheism we experience in America today is not a conclusion but a mood…If secularism is not a conclusion but a mood, we cannot disrupt it with an argument. We must disrupt it with a presence.

The truth is that we live in a culture where most people are remarkably resistant to hearing verbal proclamations of the gospel. What’s more, it seems some of them really can’t hear it. We not longer share a common vocabulary for communicating whether truth exists, what can be called good, and what love means. But that is okay. God is not alarmed. Our secular age is not a barrier to evangelism; it is simply the place of evangelism.

Ever since returning from China, I’ve had an abiding interest in asking this question: “How is it that the West can be re-evangelized?” One of the reasons I’m so compelled by the life of habit is that I see habits as a way of light in an age of darkness. Cultivating a life of transcendent habits means that our ordinary ways of living should stand out in our culture, dancing like candles on a dark mantle. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe . . . but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Though I think this passage risks short changing the value of intellectual argument, the overall point being made is, I believe, extremely important. Continue reading “Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era”

Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”