I have a guest post over on the Davenant Institute’s blog, the first of a multi-part series on the character of justice discourse in the Internet Age.
As we become increasingly absorbed in the virtual and abstract world of social media, our discourse can be compared to a two-way mirror. A two-way mirror works by a very thin layer of metal applied to a pane of glass between two rooms, one room very dark and the other very light. Much of the light of the bright room is reflected back, but much passes through, enabling those on the other side to see into it. However, as there is so little light on the dark side of the two-way mirror, those in the bright room only see their reflections. As the light of concrete reality is dimmed and the lights of a virtual social realm are turned up, as our attention becomes focused upon its spectacle, conversations that once provided a window onto reality now increasingly function as a mirror in which we self-consciously observe and even preen ourselves.
This is related to what some—typically on the right—clumsily identify as ‘virtue-signaling’. However, it is a much more general and less intentional practice: no party has a monopoly on this practice. It is what naturally happens to discourse when our speech acts occur in the increasingly self-referential realm of an abstract yet dense social environment in which every pronouncement is almost unavoidably an illocutionary act of self-branding and self-alignment. The reflexivity of our discourse is radically heightened, as our social discourse becomes a spectacle in which we regard ourselves. Our concern when speaking can increasingly—even if only subconsciously—be less about the proper relationship between our speech and a wider external reality than with the image of ourselves that we will be projecting within the social spectacle by speaking.
In the continual process of brand positioning, every action or apparent lack of action can be imbued with significance, pushing us in the direction of paranoia. If you don’t speak up on some issue, you risk people thinking that you don’t care about it or take it seriously. If you do speak up, you risk giving some people the impression that you are doing so to align yourself with some greater cause or fit in with some crowd. And, since that is increasingly something that we are doing in our pronouncements, these suspicions aren’t ungrounded. The treadmill of opinionating online is largely driven by our need to position ourselves on so many live issues and cases, on most of which we have no right to an opinion.
Read the whole thing here.
Glad you are tackling this. I hope that you can offer some wisdom and strategies for Christians that are truly new.
I had my first encounter with the philosophy you describe about 30 years ago, and to be honest it feels like I’ve been living in that environment ever since. At this point, just hearing the word “justice” leaves me, as they say, triggered.
If there is a way to even talk about issues in this environment, I haven’t found it. It’s very frustrating. As you point out, any attempt to even define terms is taken as a declaration of loyalty to Tyrannical System A, B, or C.
I imagine that there is no way to counter this kind of thinking on its own ground. Probably the solution is going to come down to good old-fashioned virtues like humility (not trying to defend ourselves against slander) and self-control (limiting online reading and posting).
Yes, knowing the ground that we are on really is important, as it is mostly futile to struggle against these dynamics in contexts whose very nature facilitates and encourages them.
Thanks again for another wonderful article, Alastair. Unlike Hollywood products, I look forward to your sequels in this vital area. If I had to focus on one point, it is this:
“If you don’t speak up on some issue, you risk people thinking that you don’t care about it or take it seriously.”
Well, yes, call me a hard hearted SOB, but that’s how I feel about 99% of Big Issues and Good Causes. There are perhaps 160,000 registered charities in the UK alone. Maybe 10,000 have any significant effect on anything. I couldn’t be aware of anything this 10,000 do or take any notice of any political lobby they are pushing. When I support a cause, it is the purely random result of an appeal by someone I know and trust.
I am thinking about a volcanic row in my parish 3 years ago when I refused to go along with the Hysteria of the Week – the refugee crisis, in that case. My interlocutors plainly knew even less about the issues than I did, but it did not halt their venomous denunciation. And that was in a face to face discussion.
The triumph of passion over reason is far more obvious in on line conversations, where there is no face to observe and I am one of the few who actually use my real name. My fellow debaters do not even have the courage to use their real names, as the authors on just about every reputable website do without question. So they are free to spout false accusations and imputations of bad faith. I can’t see this situation improving even in “Christian” arenas without some agreement to observe basic civilities.
Thanks for commenting, Bill. Civility will only take us so far in media that encourage incivility and the raising of tempers, unfortunately.