Truth and Action in the Digital Age

For a few weeks this spring, it seemed as if there was only one thing to talk about: the pandemic and its consequences. It is striking, in retrospect, that the arrival of a health crisis that has thus far claimed over 100,000 American lives, now seems to have offered us a reprieve of sorts from our ordinary cultural disorders.

The intense focus on the coronavirus and its consequences pushed other concerns, however significant, to the margins. The lockdowns also effected a kind of artificial peace. There was, early on, even a certain sense of solidarity as, by and large, we committed to do our part to slow the spread of the disease, in many cases well ahead of official government directives. Needless to say, this season has passed. It now seems as if the weeks of relative calm on these fronts were more akin to slow a simmering that has suddenly boiled over.

While the health crisis appears to be subsiding for the time being, social strife intensifies and crisis looms abroad. Multiple flashpoints suddenly demand our attention once again and call forth our response, although it is increasingly difficult to know just what to think, much less what to do.

What sociologist James Hunter famously termed the culture wars are clearly alive and well, even if the battle lines are shifting and the alliances morphing. It is also increasingly clear that the advent of social media has expanded the conflict. It is perhaps useful to compare the effects of social media on the culture wars to those of industrial technology on conventional war. In each case, new technologies amplified the scale and scope of the conflict. Mechanization and automation both drastically intensified the damage combatants could inflict on one another and on the fabric of society. And, in both cases again, the technology effected a dehumanizing distance that made it all the easier to inflict damage on the other side.

Wading through the morass can be disheartening. What does it mean to speak and act responsibly in these times? How does one love one’s neighbor on a social media platform? How does one work for the good without appearing to make things worse? These questions may not necessarily have obvious answers. To answer them well, we require patience, thought, and wisdom.

While there is much that could be said, here are at least three things to consider.

First, truth is vital, especially when it is hard to come by. In his Nobel Lecture, the late Russian novelist and dissident, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, said that “the simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies.” This much, he thought, we could all do. Our credo should be: “Let the lie come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.” Let us work diligently and patiently to assure that the lie does, whatever that lie happens to be, does pass through us. One of the wonders of modern technology is that it has made the process of spreading information incredibly easy and, as they say in the industry, frictionless. But this also means that, as Jonathan Swift put it long ago, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” Let us take care that we not let the ease of digital communication lull us into thoughtless complicity with the spread of lies.

Second, silence can be powerful. We live in an age of network effects in which the old rules of communication based on the pre-digital “marketplace of ideas” don’t always apply. Consider that not letting the lie come into the world through you may simply mean saying nothing at all. One of the frustrating aspects of the attention economy that dominates social media is that even in refuting or challenging misinformation one is also amplifying and perpetuating its spread. It can be hard to know when to speak and when to keep silent, but at least consider that silence, in certain contexts, is power.

Third, while we are assailed by news from far and wide, we should remember that the most obvious context for faithful work is within the spheres that are closest to us: our families, our circles of friends, our neighborhoods, our churches. We should not despise the power of persistent, faithful labor in the places to which we have been called, however ordinary or seemingly insignificant. This is not to say that we should be untroubled by the injustices that happen far from us. But it can be easy to overlook the good we can do around us when we focus exclusively on the many undoubtedly serious problems farther removed from us and over which we have little control.

Much more needs to be said, but we trust these reflections are helpful.


Study Center Resources

Pascal’s remains open for both online ordering and dine-in service. It’s been good to see some of you come through. Please do feel free to spread the word that we are open and ready to serve.

In this week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 9-11 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at mike@christianstudycenter.org.


Recommended Reading

— Nicholas Carr reflects on the relationship among work, the body, and  technology in an adapted excerpt from his 2014 book, The Glass Cage:

“One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a challenge, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but, as Frost saw, it’s the work—the means—that makes us who we are. Automation severs ends from means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing. As we transform ourselves into creatures of the screen, we face an existential question: Does our essence still lie in what we know, or are we now content to be defined by what we want?

— From a terrific introduction to the life and work of Simone Weil:

“If we hesitate to emulate, or even to approve of, Weil’s path and her ideas in their entirety, still her intensity in the pursuit of the truth should fill us with gratitude. She discovered, much to her surprise, that her pursuit of truth was, finally, the pursuit of Christ. In this, she points a way toward Christ for those who struggle with institutional religion, showing that Christ makes himself known not through dogma or obedience to religious authorities, but to those who follow the deepest desire of their hearts.”