More Than A Feeling
There are probably better things to think about than the toxic polarizing hostilities of our cultural discourse while riding a motorcycle through the Rocky Mountains on a glorious fall Monday. I could have simply exulted in the beauty all around me or opened myself up to mid-life epiphany of some sort or another. And to be fair, I did do a fair bit of the former—the Rockies in autumn are simply spectacular (no epiphanies to speak of, alas). But I had just listened to a podcast… and just finished a book… and read a few articles about the corrosive effects of social media on democracy and the world more generally. There were some things I just couldn’t get out of my mind. And you have to fill six hours alone with your thoughts inside a helmet somehow, right?
There was very little new terrain covered in my listening and reading last week (and motorcycle pondering yesterday). Most of us are at least dimly aware that in the year 2020 there are massive corporate and technological incentives in place to keep us angry toward and anxious about our (real or perceived) ideological enemies. Social media is algorithmically engineered to keep us tethered to our devices and its platforms by constantly serving up content that either reinforces our own views or inflames us with the obvious wickedness and stupidity of others. Indeed, Jaron Lanier argues—irrefutably, in my view—that social media is in fact nothing less than an industrial-sized persuasion and attention economy that is more about behaviour modification for profit than anything to do with “connection.” Angry, anxious, self-righteous people are, as it happens, incredibly good for the bottom line of corporations like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And social media has proven remarkably adept at creating precisely the sorts of customers that keep it profitable.
Andrew Sullivan describes with devastating accuracy how this all works in his article, “We Are All Algorithms Now”:
For Facebook and Google and Instagram and Twitter, the business goal quickly became maximizing and monetizing human attention via addictive dopamine hits. Attention, they meticulously found, is correlated with emotional intensity, outrage, shock and provocation. Give artificial intelligence this simple knowledge about what distracts and compels humans, let the algorithms do their work, and the profits snowball. The cumulative effect — and it’s always in the same incendiary direction — is mass detachment from reality, and immersion in tribal fever.
So, yes, we are all being manipulated and provoked and agitated constantly and we cheerily sign up for and perpetuate it all because we like to see pictures of our friends and get the occasional invitation to a party. I finished Lanier’s book and I thought, “There is literally no good reason to do precisely what he says and delete all of my social media accounts right now.” But I didn’t. Because I’m weak. And I am, evidently, prepared to outsource my attention to massive corporations for the mess of pottage represented by a bit of heartwarming content and occasional superficial connection.
The question that surrounds all of this dispiriting analysis of our state of digital affairs is a simple one: What is to be done? Given that this is the world we live in, given that these are the tools we work with, given the powerful interests and incentives that are actively conspiring against reaching across divisions, what on earth are we to do? I could (and should) delete all my social media accounts this morning. That would probably help, a little. But not many will do this (at least not yet). Is there any hope that we can recover some sanity and humanity in how we look at our neighbours? Or will we always and only see red/blue, black/white, in/out, ally/enemy and our life together as ideological and/or political warfare?
Just over two years ago, I sat in a conference room in a hotel outside Bethlehem listening to a unobtrusive, diminutive, eminently gracious speaker named Yohanna Katanacho. He is a Palestinian Christian, a pastor, and an instructor in Biblical Studies at the nearby Bethlehem Bible College. He introduced a word into my lexicon that I have been thinking about off and on ever since. The word is orthopathos. People fight endlessly about orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action). Katanacho sees the same things in his context which is dominated by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. These two familiar approaches tend not to get very far, he said. They usually just end up screaming “You’re stupid/wrong” or “you’re unethical” at one another. This is rocket fuel for Facebook and Twitter, but not particularly useful for anything resembling meaningful progress.
What is needed not instead of these two approaches but perhaps underneath or antecedent to them is a commitment to orthopathos. Ortho = right; Pathos = feeling. So, put together, orthopathos means something like to be rightly oriented emotionally or affectively toward one’s neighbours and one’s enemies. It means a determined effort to try to understand the fears, hopes, and anxieties underneath even the most odious political views. It means being genuinely curious about the various influences and factors that might have shaped an enemy’s perspectives. It means being aware of one’s own limitations and biases and being suspicious of one’s own obvious rightness.
I wonder if our moment demands taking a step or two back from ceaselessly going to war over orthodoxies and orthopraxies in all their iterations, and spending a bit of energy on orthopathos. Surely what is needed, here and now, in the face of all the forces and incentives in our world that profit from keeping us angry and aggravated with one another, is a decision to be rightly oriented emotionally toward our fellow human beings. We are more than our politics, thanks be to God. We are human beings animated by many of the same kinds of fears and hopes and uncertainties and apprehensions. Perhaps if we started with a bit of pathos we might find that progress is a bit easier on the other stuff down the road.