Social media reinforces clean divisions, but reality is messy.
“What is received,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “is received according to the mode of the receiver.” Perhaps that is obvious, but if not, what Aquinas is saying is that what we see and how we see it depend, in large part, on where we are standing. This has always been true of human beings. Creatures, as opposed to the creator, necessarily suffer from a certain epistemological myopia.
There is a lot that we do not know, and this causes us not a little anxiety. To manage that anxiety, we make use of concepts, ideas that form a kind of internal map of reality. When we encounter new terrain—the data of experience—we then survey that terrain using our internal map.
All of that is good and necessary. The challenge comes when we human beings mistake the concept of a thing for the thing; when we confuse our map, a symbol of the terrain, for the terrain itself. Ironically, this then closes us off to reality and limits our intellectual horizons. It makes the world smaller, which, in turn, winds up making us more anxious. We then manage that anxiety by insisting on the primacy of our concepts. Human beings do this all the time, until something occurs that breaks the cycle, some event that disrupts the mode of the receiver. Believers often refer to this disruption as grace, and Peter Lucier eloquently describes a moment like this in this issue (Page 36).
All of this is part and parcel of being human and has been with us from the first moment of our consciousness. The challenge for us today is that the way we receive information and the sheer volume of that information have expanded exponentially, which, in turn, has exacerbated the challenge of interpreting that information, dramatically increased our anxiety and revealed anew the deficiencies of our traditional means of coping with it. One result is the ideological partisanship we see in our secular politics.
As I have previously noted in this column, the use of social media as a news source has reinforced our worst habits. According to a Princeton University study, while it is virtually impossible to avoid encountering some contrary ideological views in social media, “those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right”—that is, those most active in public discourse—“have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views—and very distinct from each other.”
Social media, in other words, often deepens existing ideological and partisan divisions by reinforcing only those viewpoints with which we are already most inclined to agree.
In order to manage the anxiety caused by the epistemological onslaught of social media and cable news, we fall back on the false security of our concepts, our ideologies, those ideas that we equate strictly with reality. This, as I just wrote, is a natural human tendency; but left unchecked and taken to its extremes, this tendency becomes a destructive force.
As the late political theorist Kenneth Minogue once observed, “although ideology must take on political trappings in order to transform the world, its real character is entirely antithetical to the practice of politics. Ideology is to reality...as the reports of battles are to the concrete experience of individuals in the field. In ideological moods, we think we see in social and political life those clear lines from the history books depicting the battle order of the antagonists in massed array. They have neat, clear names like bourgeois and proletarian, colonialist and national, city-dweller and producer, in a word, oppressor and oppressed. The actual reality, however, is messy.”
Indeed it is. Messy, that is. But don’t misunderstand me. I am a Thomist. I believe that the world is intelligible and that I am a knowing subject. But I also know that there is a difference between knowing that the world is understandable and then growing in that understanding and, on the other hand, believing that I understand the world in some absolute and final way. The former is a necessary presupposition for democracy, while the latter is a justification for authoritarianisms of one sort or another.
The solution to this problem is not obvious. But for Christians, at least, grace is an indispensable component. Grace has a way of scandalizing our ideologies, our cherished myths. It tends to break down in order to build up.
As the editors conclude in this issue’s editorial, “People acting in good faith will arrive at different answers. But for Christians, love, not fear, should guide the path forward.” Love, in other words, is our map of reality.