5/17/2020

The internet and public discourse


Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death really illuminates what has happened to public discourse in America. He wrote primarily about the influence of television, but everything he says is applicable to the internet - the trends he describes have only worsened since the book was written in 1985. In many places it sounds like a book that was written for today and not for 35 years ago, down to the finest details ("As I write, our president is a Hollywood actor" and “political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude” and “[critics have observed] the dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the art of show business”). The basic thesis is that a medium of communication is not impartial; inherent in it are biases that inevitably shape the content that is and can be expressed through that medium. As Postman says, “You cannot do political philosophy on television”. Of course you could use the technology of television to portray an extended, subtle and nuanced argument. But such a thing would be boring and so no one would watch it - which is precisely the point.

All of this applies even more so to the internet. The internet is for entertainment. Even when it is ostensibly doing other things like conveying important information, it does so in a way that must satisfy our need to be entertained and our intolerance of boredom. I know there is lots of content on the internet that seems to violate this idea. But who cares? tl;dr.

Because the internet is a tool for entertainment, everything on it (that is, everything that anyone actually reads or views) must be stripped down to its simplest form and must convey some emotion. This is not a form that is conducive to communicating truth or to rational argument. Truths can be communicated this way, but it is a dangerous medium for doing so because the truth of a proposition is unrelated to its ability to be given a brief, emotionally forceful presentation that is suitable for going viral.

And so here we are. If you peruse the political right on facebook or twitter, you’ll find some memes, some short pithy sayings that explain one’s self-evident rightness or ridicule the other tribe, links to short articles with inflammatory titles that spark outraged comment threads filled with people who only read the headline. If you peruse the political left, you find… exactly the same thing. If you dig a little deeper there are a bunch of justifications that reduce to “our trite political entertainment is better than the other tribe’s, because ours is actually true” but since all of this is being communicated through a medium that is indifferent to truth, they only serve the purpose of alienating or being self-congratulatory depending on the prior beliefs of the reader. In one of Postman’s more biting paragraphs he remarks on the state of TV journalism:
In the absence of context, what possible interest could there be in what the President says now, and what he says then [regarding contradictory statements]? It is merely a rehash of old news. The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public's indifference. There's an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.
To be fair, the right has been more aggressive in exploiting the fact that our communication mediums have totally divorced persuasive power from rational discourse. In the past, either there was a tacit agreement among those in power not to exploit it too egregiously or else no one prior to Donald Trump truly realized the degree to which they could be divorced.

It really matters that our mediums of communication be suitable for rational discourse. For that to happen they have to accommodate detailed exposition and examination, with room for nuance that does not neatly fall into one of two buckets. You may wonder if it has ever been any different, people being what they are. But different mediums have different inherent biases, and the biases of print communication lean into the requirements for rational discourse, while the biases of electronic communication (instant, short, visual, context-free) lean away. Postman has this to say:
It takes time to write a book, and to read one; time to discuss its contents and to make judgement about their merit. A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its contents.
And if the telegraph, how much more so the tweet or Facebook post? Also, audiences of the past (within the American tradition) had much more patience for such things. As Postman notes, the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates were structured to give the first speaker an hour, the second a rebuttal of 90 minutes, and then the first closing arguments of 30 minutes. It is hard to imagine an audience of today putting up with three hours of oratory. Compare to a modern debate where response times are measured in seconds, not hours, and the difference between winning and losing could be about looking composed and getting off a good one-liner. The sentence structure of Lincoln and Douglas was also much more complex and obviously steeped in the print tradition.

But if all that is so, what to do about it? The internet is obviously not going anywhere, nor should it - I’ve been focussed on its negative aspects here but there are quite obviously a great many positive ones. One benefit that the internet has over TV is that, while airtime is expensive, internet hosting is cheap. So there is an enormous amount of content on the internet that absolutely meets the bar for rational discourse - even though it will never trend on twitter. I’m also encouraged by podcasts, which have no arbitrary time constraints and are often investigative or educational in nature. I miss the heyday of blogs in the early internet. Social media, though, has been a net negative for society. The ability to connect with people across space and time is really powerful and really good. I’m a member of a private Facebook group that has been incredibly rewarding to me. But its ability to stoke rage is also unparalleled. I’ve seen relationships destroyed in Facebook comment threads and I don’t think it is all that uncommon of an occurrence. You could know someone for 10 years and get along great with them but then find yourself unable to tolerate them because of the way they act on Facebook. I’ve unfollowed some people who I really like just because I want to keep liking them.

I don’t really have an answer, just an exhortation: extract yourself from the endorphin mill of images and headlines and autonomic response. Making an argument, or evaluating an argument, is difficult work and it calls for nuance and time. No one wants to take or give time, they want to judge and move on. Instead have fewer, better opinions.

4/12/2020

Easter Glory

I’ve been talking recently with my son about God and the existence of pain and evil. The problem is not theoretical for a child with chronic illness, and it doesn’t need a detached philosophical answer but ways of thinking about where God is and what He might be doing.

The events of Good Friday and Easter highlight what God is up to. As much as we might like a God who saves us from pain, we have one who does not but who treats it with deadly seriousness in another way: by entering into it and suffering alongside us. His final vindication came not in being saved from death but in being raised after he had died. It is in some sense encouraging, and in another sense not encouraging at all! It requires us to look at the final meaning of our lives and of human history from an external, cumulative perspective and see a final victory of God that subsumes and incorporates all the pain and loss without minimizing or negating any of its effects on us here, now. Easter is a promise that everything will be well. Not that it is well now, but that it will be well in the end.

This deferral can be a hard thing to accept. It requires us to step outside of the very thing most present to us: our own suffering. But this move is at the core of Christian spirituality. Listen to how the apostle Paul describes it:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
He had described these “light momentary” afflictions a few verses earlier:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 4:8-10)
If you read this passage properly, Paul’s description of his suffering as “light and momentary” should take your breath away. It is only from the perspective of the final victory of God over sin and death that the crushing weight of our own pain could be such a thing. Do you believe that there could ever be a state of affairs so joyous that your own suffering is light and momentary by comparison? It seems incredible, but Paul’s statements have a straightforward logic: the eternal is infinitely weightier than the temporal, and we are eternal beings.

6/11/2019

Old Friends

Everyone should have a few books that are like old friends. I’m reading through Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy for (I think?) the fourth time since college. I’ve been through a lot since then, and changed a lot - partly thanks to the book!

Its cover is worn and stained. The pages are starting to separate from the spine in one place. It is signed by the author: “For Gabe - Josh 1:8-9, Dallas” because I ran back to my dorm room to get it when I realized he was speaking at a Biola chapel. Somehow the signature means more to me now that he’s passed on from this life. It is marked up all over, in blue and black and green ink. I even used a highlighter in one place (I never use highlighters). Some of the underlining is sloppy or wavy - I read those sections in a car or bus and was unwilling to wait for it to stop to get a neat line. Some of the margin comments from an earlier me make present me cringe a little. Or a lot.

Reading it now, for probably the first time in 10 years, brings a sense of familiarity along with the newness of remembering what I’d forgotten. In a funny way I see myself in parts of it - “oh yeah, this is where I got that idea.” And there’s also some comfort in finding a thread of continuity in my life that stretches so far back. Like I said I’ve changed a lot, and not always in ways I wanted to. I’ve seen a lot that I thought was good turn out to be bad, or at least to be so mixed up with bad that it’s hard to believe in the good. But Willard’s teaching on discipleship to Jesus is something that I’m sure about the goodness of.

4/27/2019

On debate and persuasion

The other day I listened to an old debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris on the topic "Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?" In some ways it wasn't a very good debate - the format didn't allow them to interact directly with each other; they each had their own angle on the question and mostly stuck to it so that to a great degree they spent 2 hours talking past each other.

From a technical perspective I think that Crag "won" the debate - he stuck closely to the actual question of how to ground morality. It was actually an almost comical contrast - Crag is parsing the question in a systematic way, making a positive case for a theistic grounding and a negative case for a naturalistic grounding; discussing both moral values and duties; making careful distinctions between (for example) moral ontology and moral epistemology, and refusing to be drawn away from the topic of the debate. Harris on the other hand is arguing that Yahweh is a moral monster, giving a (quite eloquent btw) description of the problem of evil, and saying that grounding morality in God is similar to psychopathy (really). Harris' only contribution to the actual topic of the debate was to say that if you take moral goodness to be identical to the wellbeing of conscious creatures, then you can develop an objective science of morality; but he seemed to think the identification was self-evident so he didn't give any reasons for it or respond to Crag's reasons for doubting it. He didn't give any negative reasons for thinking that theism couldn't ground morality (although he was clear that he's unimpressed with Yahweh). And he didn't give any defense whatsoever of the existence of moral duties in his framework.

If you parse their claims closely, you will find that they don't even disagree about the central question of the debate. Crag admitted in his opening remarks that he doesn't dispute that science can tell us about the well-being of conscious creatures. And Harris admitted that his moral framework starts with an axiom (the worst evil is the suffering of conscious creatures, and good is whatever is farthest from that) for which you can give no evidence, any more than you can argue for the law of non-contradiction or that 1+1=2 (of course, it is theism rather than atheism that gives us reason to associate our most basic intuitions with truth).

Nevertheless, if you pay attention to applause volume, the occasional laughter, and the tenor of the Q&A it is clear that the audience resonated with Harris. Crag's careful distinctions between different kinds of moral philosophy came across as cerebral and disconnected. Harris' axiom doesn't sound all that objectionable; so it doesn't matter to normal people if there are philosophical problems with his strict identification of good with well-being, or if he can't motivate duty (in fact that might even make his view more popular!). And Harris is an eloquent defender of his brand of anti-religious scientism, and a better speaker with a better voice.

So Craig won a technical argument that most people don't actually care about, but Harris presented his worldview in a more compelling way. This particularly struck me because our society is increasingly secular and I really enjoy thinking about technical arguments for theism based on the origins of life, the universe, and consciousness. But it's a sisyphean endeavor if you win and no one cares. Persuasion matters and that entails more than making fine philosophical distinctions.


2/25/2019

Phantastes

I just finished reading Phantastes, by George MacDonald. I was seriously amazed at how vivid and richly imaginative it was. I know what C.S. Lewis meant about it baptising his imagination, although I wouldn't describe its effect on me like that.

I would describe the book as trying to show you a way of looking at the world as a place of wonder and possibility, of meaning and deep moral sentiment, of being shot through with a spiritual life and reality which is foreign to the mechanistic/scientific way of seeing. It tries to recreate a sense of the child's wonder at the world which we lose as we grow up, but at the same time the good and evil are not childish and silly but deep and compelling and sometimes scary.

One of the things that struck me the most was its portrayal of women, which is from a very different age than the one we live in. They are given a place of high chivalric honor and there is a strong treatment of their embodiment of ideas of goodness, purity, and otherness that merited respect. Most importantly, it's an honor and respect that is totally separate from sensual attraction and which is explicitly treated as far superior to such attraction. I'm sure that this idea is somehow "toxic" but I find it refreshing and so very preferable to the schizophrenic spirit of our own age that presents women in a objectified/pornified way, that glorifies sexual experience free of any constraints save consent only, and which then expects to build a culture of mutual equality and respect on that foundation.

One warning: the book is very episodic and has little in the way of an overarching plot. Also you have to get over the childish, sappy theme-park connotations (which MacDonald will quickly disabuse you of) that "fairy land" has in modern usage. But it's a work of deep imaginative depth and wonder which I highly recommend.

11/12/2018

Deliverance

I don’t think you can understand Christianity without seeing in it a cry for deliverance. The cry of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, the cry of the righteous servant of God in the Psalms, the cry of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. And the cry of every heart in response to the cruelty of the world they find themselves in.

There’s a kind of popular piety that minimizes our suffering and sees in Jesus a kind of final deliverance that places those cries in the past, and views Christianity properly lived as a post-deliverance life of rejoicing and victory. But that doesn’t ring true to me. I am still crying out for deliverance, every day. From the wasting of sickness and disease, from despair, from the harm I do to myself and others and from the harm done to me by others. Jesus has, in a final sense offered forgiveness for all of these and removed the curse. But I feel the consequences of them every day, I need salvation not just from a final judgement but right here, right now.

You might reasonably think that you could avoid some of this by immersing yourself in a church community. But the church has really let me down in the past, in ways that I didn’t at the time think possible. And the hurt came directly from people I respected and saw as committed to holiness. It’s tempting to try to maintain my trust in Christianity’s transforming power by just redrawing my mental us/them lines and placing those people outside, as less committed than I thought they were. But the reality is much more terrifying. Good people, even abnormally good people, are capable of evil that seems totally incongruent with the good in them. All that is required for it to come out is to be prodded in a certain way or placed in a situation that activates their blind spots and they seem like totally different people.

And - more terrifying still - it’s not just the people who run churches that are like this. You are like this. The deliverance that you need, from sin, goes deeper than you know. And the safety you’re looking for can’t be bought by just finding the right community of safe individuals. Safety doesn’t come from a community, it comes from God.

It is still a comfort that God will subsume all of the crap done to us and by us into his perfect goodness, and that even now he is working in it for good. That is a cause for joy and genuine rejoicing. But right alongside it we cry, from the depths of our heart, for God to deliver us from the pain and oppression and hurt that come along with living in such a world as this.