Deconstructing the Christian faith in which you were raised due to suffering or intellectual/existential crisis is a move that deserves a careful and nuanced response. Deconstructing your faith because you’ve grown up and discovered cooler people than the folks in your youth group deserves something different.
I know there are plenty of people in the first category. But to be honest, I’m starting to suspect that the deconstruction content industry is funded and operated mostly by people in the second category. There are too many common schticks, stories, and even experiences among the ex-Christian books and podcasts. Some similarities among people who were raised in conservative religious circles is completely expected. But when just about every de-converting personality says “There were never good answers to my questions,” any reasonable person might begin wondering if there’s some note-sharing going on.
Christians want to understand why people leave the faith, and our evangelistic beliefs mean that we instinctively make it our responsibility when a person who was in church for several years ends up disavowing everything they once believed. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But I also think, in a time when #content is king and everyone’s perspective is potentially for sale, it’s an easily exploitable thing. If you want big, rich publishers to pay attention to someone who was raised in a mostly white, conservative Christian environment, tell that person to come out of the gates swinging against it. If you want highly-followed accounts on Twitter to link to you and say things like, “Really important thread,” insist that you were brainwashed by your youth pastor.
Of course, merely pointing this out can feel like a callous disregard for the way bad theology or bad church cultures can shipwreck people’s faith. They absolutely can do that. That’s one reason why the flavors of novelty and detachment from history and tradition in American evangelicalism are so destructive. We’ve certainly already seen how much Christian spirituality in America cashes out to spiritual jargon + conservative political beliefs. When you storm the US Capitol building with a placard that says “Jesus Saves,” you’ve jumped the shark.
But in the halls of influence and affluence in American society, pointing this out is easy. It’s nearly a form of social currency. Which is why the popularity of the deconstruction story is something a little bit other than a rebuke of the spiritual formation practices of backward conservative evangelicals. Plenty of “deconstruction” stories are predictably American: someone grows up in a small, conservative community; moves away to college or career; and discovers that bars and sex and Left politics don’t immediately vaporize them the way they thought. What’s worse, this story is often soaked in ex-Christian shibboleths, like the one mentioned above about never getting answers to questions—as if the questions didn’t have answers. There were questions I had growing up in Christianity that didn’t get good answers from my youth pastor or Sunday school class. But it turns out those answers exist and functional, college-educated adults can find them: if they want to.
I guess the point of this post is to say: maybe lots of people who’ve abandoned the Christianity of their youth are suffering in ways they don’t realize. Maybe their deconstruction is just another part of their life that they have built around getting the approval of people who will be glad to join a social media cancel mob against them if the wrong post ever gets dug up. Maybe, more than being assured that their childhood Christianity was malformation, they need to be inspired to care about whether things are true or untrue, rather than whether they get attention.
Rush Limbaugh died today. I have zero intention of saying anything good, bad, or otherwise in this post. In fact I would not be writing this article at all except that, as news of Limbaughs’s death broke on social media, I saw someone make an interesting comment. It went something like: “If you are lamenting Rush’s death but cheered when Rachel Held Evans died, you’re the problem.” Rachel Held Evans died nearly two years ago. She was a young wife, mother, and arguably the most influential progressive Christian blogger on the internet. Her death was sudden and shocking and distressed even those who didn’t agree with her theology. The point seemed to be that Rush Limbaugh is a much worse person than Rachel Held Evans, and if anyone out there in theological social media world feels more bereaved by the loss of Limbaugh than of Evans, something is wrong with you.
I kinda understand what this person was trying to say. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tweet that exemplified better the dysfunctional and odious effects of social media on the human experience. There is no emotional or psychological state that would inspire someone to compare the responses of strangers to a recent death, and try to extract some kind of tribal vindication from that comparison, other than the state of being online. Before social media, if you read that a celebrity you disliked had passed away, how long did you linger over that news? Did you call your friends and compare emotional responses to know which of the people in your circle were “the problem”? Or did the news simply wash over you and you went on with your day?
I just don’t think we are conscious enough of how internet life has created illegitimate categories of thought that are not just illogical, but emotionally destructive. Let me say that again: it is emotionally destructive to cultivate the kind of habits that go into keeping track of who is mourning which dead person on Twitter. It doesn’t feel destructive in the moment because online culture is by definition suffocating and insular, and the only reason any of us use these technologies at all is that while we use them we forget that anything else exists. But other things do exist. And for most of us there will come a day when, either by choice, incapacity, or unavailability, we won’t be able to use Twitter as a broadcast for our resentments. But to the degree that we cultivated them, day by day, tweet by tweet, those resentments will be overpowering, and will spill out in offline relationships and thought life in ways we just never imagined.
OK, sermon over. Now I’ll just make a quick comment about “speaking ill of the dead” when the dead were, at least in your view, bad, dishonest, or harmful people.
I don’t think being more conscious of either justice or orthodox theology is a good reason to celebrate or make glib comments when someone who was bad at either of those things dies. For one thing, the vast majority of human beings on earth are not tyrants or mass murderers whose death is objectively just and good for the rest of humanity. The death of wicked and oppressive rulers naturally causes a degree of joy to those whose suffered under them, but this does not describe 99% of cases. In 99% of cases a person’s legacy is more complicated, cherished by some but not by others. This does not mean that objective moral judgments about a person are impossible. It does mean that they are often difficult, and treating something that’s difficult as if it were easy is a sign of a fool. Death, in most cases, is a reminder of the insufficiency of human wisdom and the mysteriousness of God’s final judgment. We embrace the reality of God’s judgment and the necessity of it, but we cannot try to over-immanentize a personal eschaton. Saying what we know is true about a person is one thing. Translating that into a comprehensive evaluation of their state before God is something else.
Any conservative evangelical who logged on the week of Rachel Held Evans’ death to gloat or “own” her—“Now she knows how wrong she was,” etc.—showed an extraordinary lack of character. Evans’ death was a tragedy and tragedies merit grief or silence (the assault on silence is one of social media’s worst crimes). This doesn’t mean that nobody can ever talk critically about Evans’ legacy. The best I can tell, Evans was deeply wrong about many important theological questions, and even worse, she seemed to have pioneered the #exvangelical moment that has convinced many people that rejecting the claims of Jesus is fine because they’ve met some bad Christians. That is a horrific legacy. But the time to point that out was not in the rawness of her passing.
And here’s the thing: almost every normal person would know this intuitively if it were not for the internet. If you were in a room of different kinds of people and somebody announced a death, you would never (unless there was something very wrong with you) immediately respond by sizing up the deceased. Why wouldn’t you? Because in the physical, embodied presence of other humans something inside us responds to death with the heaviness death deserves. It is when we are separated from our bodies, sliced up into digital text and avatars, that we begin to form inhuman intuitions.
Death is silence. That’s why silence is the right response. Let God speak, and log off.
I’ve decided to put into practice a habit I’ve dabbled in on my only social media membership, but never committed to until now. Going forward I’m going to delete anything I tweet after about 48 hours or so, with the exception of links. I’ve seen others commit to the practice of periodically deleting their older Tweets. You may be able to guess the reasons people would do this if you know much about online culture. My own reasons are intuitive in this way, but with an added concern that pertains especially to me.
Here’s why I’m deleting my tweets every 48 hours or so:
1) The big reason is that nobody who is regularly active on Twitter is wise to let old Tweets exist publicly for an indefinite amount of time. A disproportionate percentage of people who get viciously torn apart by an online mob do so on the basis of something they posted in the past, and the overwhelming majority of these victims did not get any criticism or flak at the time they posted it. In some cases they should have been criticized. But in many cases the reason the victim of the rage mob gets attacked now but not then is that the anger of the Internet is downstream from its temporal neuroses. The reason that joke X was inoffensive in 2015 but morally unacceptable in 2020 has nothing to do with the joke, but everything to do with the audience. The words didn’t change, the audience did. And because social media is literally designed to make anger and addiction easier and self-awareness harder, nobody stops to consider this, and the result is a deep dishonesty masquerading as righteousness.
There’s no reliable way to outsmart this, but there are ways to make the threat to yourself much worse, and one of those ways is to Tweet thousands of times across several changing years and just hope something you said when the context was self-evident is not seen by someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t like you today.
2) But on the other hand, this isn’t wholly the fault of bloodthirsty snipers who quote-tweet those they dislike into oblivion. Part of the problem is the way Twitter works. Twitter (and social media in general, but I’ll focus on Twitter) is epistemologically gaseous; its contents are momentary in the most extreme sense of the word. For all practical purposes Twitter is a cast and crew commentary, not on a piece of art or even life but on the minutia of current events, ideas, fads, etc. Even that may be going too far. Twitter is really a commentary on commentary, a second-by-second content machine that creates cultures and “moments” out of the ether. I’ve seen people refer to what happens on Twitter as a “conversation,” but no mentally healthy person would tolerate a real-life conversation that moved at the speed, the randomness, or shallowness of Twitter.
Aside from links to outside websites, every single Tweet is a creation of the moment, and every Tweet’s legibility depends utterly on how much users are absorbing the ambient moment. When the moment passes, so does the truthfulness, the helpfulness, the coherence of the Tweet (quotations, such as from Scripture, resist this somewhat, but even then the felt applicability of a quote depends on the moment. And there are plenty of Bible verses that will never and can never be put on a Twitter meme). While I’m sleeping, my Tweets lose the context that made them (at least in my view) accurate and reasonable.
Deleting Tweets is thus a recognition of the limits of real-time commentary. It treats the discourse of the internet more like the dry-erase board that it really is, instead of the printing press that it is not.
3) [Here I’m going to talk entirely to myself.] A strong desire to “go viral” is much like a craving for pornography: it is overwhelmingly strong in the moment, but it leads to very bad places and it never, ever satisfies. The single most alluring thing about Twitter is when a Tweet gets a lot of Retweets and Likes, and the notifications keep coming. This dopamine hit is so powerful it is the single biggest reason that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and a lot of other men are billionaires.
But going viral is perhaps the single most destructive desire in our cultural discourse right now. Until recently I had never asked myself what the difference was between a conspiracy hocking news site that twisted truth for clicks, and my own carefully worded Twitter dunks that I hoped would get a lot of attention. I’m not making stuff….but then again Alex Jones wasn’t always making stuff up either. Almost every media personality who has become wealthy by saying stuff that isn’t true started off trying to say things they thought were true. The truth didn’t stop being compelling, it just stopped being as rewarded.
I want to go viral. I want a million followers. I want the neural and career rewards of being a “thought leader.” I want that so much that I cannot be confident in myself as to what I would not be willing to do to get them. Already I see the cracks. A tweet that lives for only 48 hours is my best defense. If it resonates with a lot of people in that time, great. But I can’t afford to be willing to chase it.
Every week on social media I seem to see something new described as “toxic.” Toxic has become the word of choice, it seems, to describe something that you feel is bad but seems to resist more precise condemnation. This word is everywhere. I’ve used it myself. Everyone seems to know what “toxic” means even though the word is applied to a staggeringly diverse group of maladies. Here’s a sampling just from my own reading:
Evangelical culture is toxic
YouTube comments are toxic
Jordan Peterson is toxic
Political discourse is toxic
The New York Times is toxic
Pornhub is toxic
John Piper is toxic
I know exactly what each of these statements is supposed to make me feel: loathing, disgust, avoidance, etc. The problem here is that “toxic” seems to be a stand-in for other words, other descriptions, and those other words probably won’t mean the same thing if you applied them to everything else on the list. John Piper may be toxic in your view, but nobody would say he’s toxic just like Pornhub is toxic. The New York Times may be, according to you, a toxic institution, but it cannot be toxic for the same reasons that YouTube or my church are toxic. So that leaves us with the impression that toxic just really means bad.
So…why is toxic so much better/cooler/woker to say than “bad”? Where are the essays about bad masculinity? What does “toxic” reveal that bad doesn’t?
A couple theories:
1) We seem to be at a point, at least in online discourse, where the more imprecise a moral judgment is, the better. The obvious example is how loaded conversations about identity are with words like “oppress” or “bigot” or “right side of history.” If you say something like, “Bigots are on the wrong side of history,” everyone knows what you’re saying is true, even if you decline to define the words “bigot,” “wrong side,” or “history.” The word toxic is a nice shorthand because it carries with it the necessary negative connotation but does not contain in itself the object of moral scorn. If you say that such-and-such pastor is misogynistic, that’s an equally loaded term, but now you’ve advanced a claim that can be evaluated based on the meaning of words. But if you say that such-and-such pastor is toxic, you can mean that the pastor is misogynistic (and the right audience will know this) while not risking a potentially defeating response from someone who evaluates your claim.
This benefits the speaker, obviously. But it also benefits the audience by allowing feelings of disgust and icky outgroup-ness to be shared among people who may not have any idea why they’re supposed to feel this way. “Trust me, this person is toxic” is very freeing to hear to folks with particular kinds of ambition and tribal sensibilities.
2) The word “toxic” does not technically describe anything’s nature. It describes an effect. Polluted air is toxic if you breathe it. Rat poison is toxic if you ingest it. This leads me to wonder if a lot of people describe something as toxic as a way of signaling how it makes them feel, or how they believe it makes other people feel. Obviously very few people see the word toxic and make this instant connection, so the word is used as though it does describe something’s nature—e.g., something that’s immoral, prejudicial, oppressive, etc.
Thus, you get think pieces like, “Let’s Talk About Netflix’s Toxic New Show,” or, “The Oscars Have Hired an Unbelievably Toxic Host.” More substantively, you might get something like, “Conservative Evangelicals Embrace Toxic Theology.” In each example the upshot of the article is clear from the headline: Netflix needs to dump the show, the Oscars need a new host, and conservative evangelicals need to believe something different. But if these things are toxic, why does anyone support them, either a Netflix producer or the Oscars or evangelical theologians? Clicking through to the article will likely explain that toxic things are done by toxic people, and that the reason one needs to be sure to keep up with all the new emerging toxicity is so you can avoid toxic people at all costs. Kick them out of your life before they intoxicate you.
You’ve probably heard someone say they got out of a “toxic relationship.” In many cases what they mean is that the other person was mean, rude, selfish, possibly abusive. I’m not sure why describing a relationship as “toxic” is actually better than saying the reasons for it. It seems to me that if someone is truly cruel or manipulative, that moral character is worth describing truthfully, and calling them “toxic” is letting them off the hook. Perhaps the flip side is true too: perhaps some people say “toxic” when they really mean, “I didn’t enjoy this and it wasn’t what I wanted.” In that instance it’s pretty clear that describing another person as toxic lets you off the hook.
Imprecise moral judgments are valuable because they cast a wide net. Precise moral judgments can be pushed back upon by people who would seem qualified to do so. For example, if you accuse a person or group of being racist, a member of a different race could theoretically complicate your accusation by disagreeing with you. The way around this is to ascribe a moral but fluid negative characteristic to the group, so that people who are inclined to agree with you can do so and those not inclined are in danger of walking into your description by failing a standard they don’t know.
“Toxic” then seems to be the perfect word to describe the sin of not being the Right Kind of Person. It’s a conversation ender, a debate finisher, a slammed door. The only way to not be toxic is to not be toxic. The racist could repent, the misogynist could change, the slanderer could make a U-turn. But a toxic person cannot de-toxify. They don’t even know where to start.
A resolution for 2021: Don’t say “toxic” when you mean something else. Say what you mean, so that what you mean will be worth saying.
I’ve seen this kind of zero-sum mentality before in seminary. One thing that all seminarians agree on, regardless of denomination, is that “Jesus unites, theology divides” is a terrible thing to say. And, of course, they’re right. Theology matters immensely, and as countless others have pointed out, dismissing theology is actually a form of doing theology. In the sense that theology is what we believe about God, everyone does theology. Everyone is a theologian. The only question is whether you’re doing it well or poorly.
But sometimes seminarians will smuggle something into the statement “everyone’s a theologian” that doesn’t really belong there. Sometimes, when they say that everyone does theology, what they actually mean is that everyone should think and talk about theology the way that they do. This is very different from saying that what people believe about God is theology. In this sense, “everyone’s a theologian” is actually quite misleading, because it suggests that “theologian” is simply a mindset that everyone can turn on and off at any moment, rather than a focused occupation that requires someone to take years away from something else and give it to the study of biblical and dogmatic content.
Yes, everybody does theology in a sense. But not everybody does theology in the sense that seminarians think theology ought to be done.
Everything I just said can be reverse engineered to apply to the tweet above. If you’re tracking with the politics-as-new-religion argument that I’ve been making for a while now, then think of social media activism as the modern political seminary. The lady who tweeted this wants to shame people who aren’t as politically engaged as she is, and she wants to shame them by drawing an equivalence between lack of activism and lack of concern for other people. She likely believes that everyone is political, in the sense that everyone is either campaigning for the status quo or something new. The idea that some people may not think about politics in the same way that she does is either totally foreign to her, or else she thinks it’s a bald faced lie.
Yes, everyone does politics in the sense that everyone participates in a civic system. Yes, everyone is political in the sense that everyone makes decisions and lives under laws that affect them and their neighbors. But everyone is not political and everyone does not do politics in the same way that activists believe people ought to be and do. Not everyone has an opinion on issues that you feel are urgently important. Not everyone is going to vote. Not everyone feels that things are as good or bad as you do—just like not everyone who has beliefs about God will actually read the theology books and have the theology conversations you might think they ought to have.
Not to mention the fact that one problem with logging onto social media to shame people for being “apolitical” is that your social media post is of less political consequence than when those “apolitical” people pay their taxes and chat at McDonald’s. Not only are today’s evangelists for the new political religion wrong about their message, they are not that good at evangelizing.
Admiration that is misdirected is still better than a callous on the soul.
It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”
Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.
Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.
Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.
Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?
It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.
That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.
It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.
The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.
What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”
There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”
In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:
“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.
Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.
What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.
A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)
Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:
Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring.
The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.
The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.
My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.
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.
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 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.
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.
This can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up.
For a while I’ve been coming around to the belief that there will be a massive exodus from existing social media platforms in the next 5-10 years. Stories like this one are why. They’re almost not even newsworthy anymore because they’re so common: Person A is discovered by a group of users to believe Idea X, which immediately triggers demands for Person A either to be “canceled” (i.e, be shamed and protested until their presence on this particular social media channel is no longer emotionally or financially advisable) or forced to recant Idea X.
Nathan Pyle’s case is a particularly egregious example of how social media mobs are willing to go through enormous hoops in order to find something to cancel you over. Look at the sheer amount of investigation and fact-finding this kind of shaming campaign requires:
[I]t was discovered that Nathan Pyle, a popular cartoonist whose ‘Strange Planet’ illustrations are all over Instagram, had espoused support for the anti-abortion March for Life two years ago. Pyle, more specifically, had tweeted support for a woman he identified as his girlfriend and who had posted a Facebook message about her own support for the March for Life. But scroll through the fresh replies to that tweet and you’ll encounter erstwhile Pyle fans acting like they were personally wronged and are owed an apology.
This afternoon Pyle posted a brief statement on his Twitter that reads disturbingly like an ideological tax, a price of social media citizenship:
The reason why this omnipresent, increasingly vicious trend bodes ill for the future of places like Twitter and Facebook is that the infrastructure of social media makes a proper response almost impossible. Let’s say you object to the way Pyle was treated but you are also pro-choice. Your options are to i) Voice support for Pyle, and then risk your bona fides (knowing your own social media history can and will probably be mined for Cancellation ammo), or ii) Say nothing at all, refusing to contribute to the pile on but not risking poking the hive, and just go along your day on Twitter hoping you never have the bad luck to be friends with anyone with the wrong views. That’s it; those are your only two options. The only alternative is to say, “Online culture is ephemeral and unreal, and I reject it,” and then leave.
The reason people who reject the moral dilemma above still stay on social media is, well, where else are we gonna go? How else are we going to know What Everyone’s Saying?
But this can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up. They’re scared of waking up one morning or getting off a plane and discovering their life has been eviscerated. They’re exhausted by the mental and emotional attention that online minutia demands. They’re annoyed with how the most insignificant trends and conversations have become important sorters to separate good people from bad people. Eventually all this anxiety and weariness and frustration is going to overcome a handful of influential people, and the house of cards is going to fold, slowly but surely. Social media is structured around needing to know what other people are saying. If those “other people” call it quits—as they did with blogging, as they did with Myspace, as they’re doing with “live video” and a hundred other innovations we couldn’t live without two minutes before we completely abandoned them—it’ll all be over.
Of course, this all presumes that people like me have consciousness of our mental and spiritual health, and a willpower to do what’s best for both. I guess the trick in the end is that every time I get close to realizing how tired and anxious I am, I just hit “refresh” and check those notifications, even with one eye closed.