Our public discourse is increasingly unhinged. In a recent article for WPI, Christina M. Sorrentino advises us to “think twice and tweet once.” She quotes an address Pope Francis gave to the 2022 World Congress of SIGNIS, in which he warns against the dangers of social media and calls for careful discernment on the part of communicators. Sorrentino goes on to write:

How many of us on #CatholicTwitter will see a certain tweet, and then respond with our emotions, not with our heads? Thoughts are racing through our minds and before we can really hash them out we have already clicked the “tweet” button…I simply do not feel that Twitter is the appropriate environment to have a serious and heartfelt conversation about what and why we believe what we do as Catholics.

I certainly agree with her assessment; social media platforms in general are not suitable for serious conversations about the Faith, or about anything else, for that matter. Why has social media become such a destructive force? Why does it seem to bring out the worst in us? And why is it so difficult to pursue authentic dialogue and discussion online?

There are many ways in which the social media platforms work against a healthy discourse; the character limit of Twitter, the rapidly-scrolling timelines, the unchecked proliferation of extreme views, the image-based nature of many media platforms, the development of ideological echo chambers, and the constant temptations to narcissism. But all these problems are merely symptomatic of a more fundamental issue.

Simply put, social media companies aren’t operating their platforms out of an altruistic desire to promote social interaction! They are trying to make a profit. To do this, they have to sell advertising. Or more accurately, they are trying to sell us; they are in the business of selling a captive audience to their advertisers. To succeed, they need to capture as much of our attention as possible. And as every advertiser knows, fear captivates an audience like nothing else. Fear sharpens and concentrates our attention; we are always alert to the threat of danger. Social media companies stoke this fear by creating a polarized discourse, working on the deeply-seated human fear of the “other.”

This is why extreme views proliferate on social media; they drive the most traffic and attract the most attention. Ideological extremists work to create fear in their followers; they demonize the opposition, painting a dark picture of looming threats. At the same time, extremists justify and solidify the fears of their opponents.

This mentality of fear warps our perception of reality in many ways. In particular, it leads to the politicization of everything. Every event is analyzed through an adversarial lens. How many Catholics, I wonder, started counting the days till the last consistory, hoping or fearing that Pope Francis would live long enough to appoint another 16 voting cardinals? How many of us waste our time by calculating the age of various bishops or cardinals, wondering how long they will remain in office and who will get a vote in the next conclave? We can never know “what would have happened,” however. Since this is the case, we can never be sure whether a given event will actually “serve our cause.” More importantly, we can’t know how any particular event or outcome fits into God’s providential plan, no matter whether it is “good” or “bad” from our point of view.

Pope Francis has frequently warned us against such political calculations; they are inimical to the spirit of the Gospel. We say that we trust in God—but if we really trusted him, would we really have such a calculating outlook on events? Do we really believe that he is in control and that he permits evil only so that he can bring good out of it? In the light of faith, we can confidently trust in God to protect the Church. Adam Stengel recently wrote an excellent article on how the confidence given by such faith allows us to exercise charity toward others.

Just as politicization warps our view of events, it also warps our view of the intellectual landscape. We start dividing ideas into ideological camps that mirror our fluctuating political divisions. Every question becomes a skirmish in the endless battle between “progressives” and “reactionaries.” By contrast, the Gospel calls us to be like little children, without cynicism or guile. I know people who seem to be genuinely excited both about the Pope’s vision for the Church and about the USCCB’s call for a Eucharistic renewal. Such a stance is refreshing; unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly rare in the online discourse.

As an attitude of politicization and fear becomes more and more prevalent, our very language becomes corrupt. A key strategy of ideological parties is the use of “loaded” language. The trick here is to find a set of words that nobody could disagree with, and then “load” them with a giant pile of ideological freight. When opponents naturally object to the obvious baggage, the loaders are able to react with shock and horror. And beyond the obvious “loading” of political slogans, politicization leads to a general erosion of shared meaning. The use of words as weapons batters them out of shape, so that they no longer fit into their accustomed niches.

Politicization not only warps our perceptions and our language; it inevitably corrupts our souls. Fear leads to hate; we naturally wish to destroy that which we find threatening. From hating ideologies, we gradually slip into hating people. The first step is the development of ideological echo chambers and a focus on policing the ideological purity of our own little tribes. Such echo chambers can make us forget or ignore how confusing our current world really is, and this in turn makes it harder to sympathize with opponents. We become unable to imagine how anyone could honestly disagree with our views. The realization that good, intelligent people hold opinions other than ours is deeply uncomfortable. It can shake our certainties and challenge our self-righteousness. And so we are tempted to push this realization away by judging our opponents harshly. We start psychologizing them; “He only thinks this because he wanted a red hat and didn’t get one. He only thinks that because he wants the freedom to go on sinning”—and so on.

The Gospel strictly forbids the passing of such judgments and yet it proves well-nigh irresistible. Paradoxically, a more charitable view is too painful, and so we harden our hearts against it. We paint the world in ugly colors, preferring to see ourselves surrounded by conniving monsters rather than fellow human beings.

Self-styled realists will point out that there actually are evil people out there, people who are motivated by self-interest and hatred. Deciding who is evil and who is merely confused is not our job, however. We’re not supposed to root up the cockles from among the wheat, because they look too similar; in our hurry to dismiss ideological opponents as cockles, we might get rid of a lot of wheat.

In particular, I think this is true of the rank-and-file in any movement or party. Power is extremely corrupting; ideological leaders may indeed be self-seeking and full of hate. We are not likely to meet such leaders, however, while walking down the street or chatting with fellow parishioners after Mass. In general, we’ll be meeting people much like ourselves; people who are motivated by the same mix of good and bad motives, people who are confused and uncertain in the face of conflicting information, and people who are looking for guidance and leadership. It isn’t necessarily their fault if they find this leadership in the wrong places.

From seeing evil everywhere, it is a short step to actively wishing for evil. We will start to wish for bad things to happen to our opponents “to minimize their influence.” Of course, we should want the influence of evil or erroneous ideologies to be minimized. But instead of wishing for the downfall of our opponents, why not pray for their conversion? If we feel that their downfall would serve our cause better than their conversion, some reflection might be in order. Is our cause really God’s cause?

Even worse, we can end up wanting our opponents to be evil. We want our own evil judgments to be vindicated. We want them to “be exposed for what they really are.” This is a very dangerous state of mind, the same one which led the Pharisees to oppose Christ. It makes us partners with Satan, the accuser, the one who finds or invents faults in everything. By contrast, God is goodness, and his first and primary statement on the world is that it is good.

Such a desire for evil is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Christ’s opponents preferred to attribute his works to demonic possession; in a certain sense, they had come to prefer the triumph of evil to the coming of the kingdom. (cf Matthew 12) By contrast, the Holy Spirit desires only the good. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of love, and perfect love casts out fear. Love is the opposite of hate; St. John tells us that those who hate their brothers and sisters do not have the Spirit of God within them. The one who opposes the Spirit of God is the antichrist; by adopting a spirit of hate and a desire for evil, we become little antichrists, those who oppose Christ’s reign of love and peace.

Such a description might seem exaggerated, but it is important to realize that our words have power. They can call into existence the hate and evil that we desire. What begins as demagogic hyperbole quickly becomes an accurate depiction of reality. Real human faces start to resemble the monstrous caricatures drawn by opponents. As society becomes locked into politicized conflict, each group becomes what the other group thinks they are. “I won’t dialogue with such evil people,” we say—and they become what we make them, as we all slide into an abyss of hatred and irrationality.

This power goes both ways, however. If the Word of God speaks in us, we have far more power than the words of the antichrist. We need to speak in the spirit of God’s Word; to do so, we need to reclaim places in which love can take root, away from the marketplace of fear that dominates the online discourse.

In doing so, we have to be realistic. A pollyannaish dismissal of the evil in the world won’t do. We currently live in a polarized, hate-filled world. We are indeed opposing a whole range of dangerous ideologies, both progressive and reactionary, that are warping the truth of the Gospel. The language we must use has been weaponized and loaded. And we can’t ignore that fact, any more than we could ignore a loaded gun. We really do have enemies, those who wish us ill. Christ did not deny it. Rather, he recognized the fact—and called us to love these enemies, to see them as human beings and children of God. We’re called to separate these human beings from their enmity if they will let us do so.

To effectively resist the antichrist’s spirit of enmity and politicization, we need to resist the logic of fear that dominates the public discourse. We should strive to write the full truth regardless of whether it is fashionable with our group or camp. In fact, we should try to avoid belonging to any ideological group or party, whether on the “left” or on the “right.” We should carefully consider any criticism that we receive, and we should take the time to fully understand opposing points of view. In particular, we should avoid rage-reading, the addictive search for increasingly extreme examples of an opinion with which we disagree. Instead, we should search for moderate and balanced presentations; this will help us to grow in understanding and charity.

All of this is a good start, but I think that it is insufficient. To fully counter the dysfunction of the public discourse, I think we need to cultivate a certain kind of private, personal discourse. We need to meet those we disagree with, one on one or in small groups, in person or online. Away from the glare of the public eye, away from the necessity of upholding our own cause, we can try to meet in friendship. There will be disagreements, of course, but we don’t have to let disagreements end in division; rather, we can go on talking through them. Bit by bit, we can unload the loaded questions. We can clarify and distinguish our positions. We can peel back the ugly and simplistic ideologies that mask the beautiful complexity of individual human beings. We can forget the threatening danger posed by our ideological opponents as a group, and focus on the relatively harmless reality of another person. Instead of adopting a proselytizing or combative outlook, we can treat such conversations as a shared search for the truth.

This kind of encounter is difficult, of course. It can be unsettling and heartbreaking, and it requires at least a certain minimum of goodwill on both sides. If this goodwill is not present, it might be necessary to take a different approach. Rather than engaging in polemic battles with a combative adversary, it might be better to pray for such a person and move on. It isn’t worth losing our peace over having the last word. At the same time, we shouldn’t be quick to adopt this strategy without having given dialogue a chance; we should always assume goodwill and try to salvage the situation before giving up. This is particularly true of real-life interactions, where a refusal to discuss fraught topics is generally tantamount to ending a relationship. In such cases, a temporary break from a particular topic could be enough to allow the participants to regain their equilibrium and resume a productive and respectful dialogue. Even if our efforts seem “wasted” from a human point of view, we can be sure that any attempt to foster loving dialogue with those around us will not be lost from God’s point of view.

Pope Francis is calling for the Church to engage in this sort of personal encounter. He isn’t interested in political procedures and tallied votes that will only lead to more division and hatred. Rather, he is calling for genuine encounter. In doing so, he is calling us to follow the way of Christ. Jesus didn’t join any of the “political parties” of his day, but he expressed a personal love for each person that he encountered. As God, he is able to extend this personal love to each and every person who has ever lived. Beneath all the labels and categories, he knows each of us as unique individuals. We can’t love categories or ideologies; they are fundamentally unlovable. But we can love each and every individual person with the love of Christ. From a human perspective, such love is impossible in the face of hate and division. But we don’t have to rely on our own feeble strength; Jesus himself said that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in their midst.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Samuel B.

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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