I don’t think it’s very shocking to acknowledge that we live in a cynical1I don’t mean “cynical” in the classical philosophical sense, but in the contemporary, popular understanding of “predisposed to assume the worst in others.” world.
We have learned, especially over the last fifty years, to take pretty much everything our political and cultural leaders say with a hefty grain of salt. In the 1960s, it was fashionable for young people to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Of course, those same young people — if they lived long enough — soon were over thirty themselves! So perhaps an entire generation learned that trust simply wasn’t a value worth cultivating.
Meanwhile, in the academic world you find the idea of “the hermeneutics of suspicion” along with the concept of “deconstruction.” These are two examples of philosophical approaches to human knowledge that emphasize an attitude of skepticism that characterizes the quest for human knowing. Every text, every book, every philosophy or meaning system, are suspect: they can contain encoded ideas that are racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise harmful to some segments of the human population. Don’t get me wrong: I applaud efforts to understand our cultural blind spots and to learn to identify ways in which human beings exclude and oppress one another.
But my point is this: in our quest to be more “suspicious” of our cultural blind spots and to “deconstruct” our unconscious systems of privilege, have we actually created an entirely new way of thinking that is based so totally on skepticism and mistrust that we have unwittingly become slaves to cynicism?
I think we have. In fact, I believe we have become so cynical, so negative in our habitual way of thinking, that many of us have forgotten that it is possible to relate to others in a spirit of trust and goodwill.
The Spirit of Suspicion in Social Media
Recently this was brought home to me when I read a fascinating article on foreign attempts to influence our society through social media disinformation. The article, found by Darren Linvill & Patrick Warren, has the attention-grabbing title “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It.” If you haven’t read it, please click on this link and do so.
Linvill & Warren are professors at Clemson who study the behavior of Russian and other foreign “trolls” who work to spread harmful ideas through Twitter and other social media outlets. They point out that the masters of disinformation work very subtly and target Americans of all political and social identities. They are too clever to just harangue us with blatant political dog-whistles. No, the expert disinformation-mongers work hard to earn our trust by posting “nice” or inspiring tweets, but eventually they begin to circulate tweets that have subtle negative messages. For example, one such account, which aimed its tweets at liberal urban Americans, circulated the following statement:
“My cousin is studying sociology in university. Last week she and her classmates polled over 1,000 conservative Christians. ‘What would you do if you discovered that your child was a homo sapiens?’ 55% said they would disown them and force them to leave their home.”
Linvill and Warren note that the statement points to an old urban legend, with no basis in fact. But since the tweet was aimed at people who are already disposed to think that conservative Christians are bigoted and uneducated, it had the effect of confirming their cynical views. The authors go on to say,
This tweet, which suggested conservative Christians are not only homophobic but also ignorant, was subtle enough to not feel overtly hateful, but was also aimed directly at multiple cultural stress points, driving a wedge at the point where religiosity and ideology meet. The tweet was also wildly successful, receiving more than 90,000 retweets and nearly 300,000 likes.
If you’re a conservative, don’t get smug here. The Russian trolls send out plenty of tweets aimed at you: tweets that are designed to make you feel more cynically superior to all those dumb liberal snowflakes.
Linvill and Warren point out that the cumulative result of these cynical tweets is to encourage Americans to mistrust one another — and to mistrust our public institutions. In other words, the trolls are simply trying to undermine the very fabric of democratic society — from within.
And we are letting them — because we are so enamored of our cynical rejection of one another.
A Contemplative Response
It is a mark of human intelligence that we learn to question the motives of others, especially those who we have good reason not to trust. “Let the buyer beware” is a rock-solid piece of good common sense. In politics, in foreign policy, in business (especially high-stakes or competitive fields), it is necessary that we carefully examine any ideas or opinions that we do not know for a fact is reliable.
But as Linvill and Warren point out, we are not always very good at smelling a rat. Have we learned to question everything except for the voice that tells us we should question everything?
Linvill and Warren end their article by calling for “digital civility” — they don’t define this term, but I think that we can fill in the gaps ourselves.
Digital civility, it seems to me, should begin with these principles:
- Only post, or share, statements that serve to build up our community and society, rather than to tear it down. Think about Thumper: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But even more than “nice,” let’s emphasize sharing ideas that bring us together, rather than divides us.
- Before you accept a statement that criticizes another group of people, verify that it is more than just hearsay (no more “My cousin is…” — look for references to real news outlets or real researchers who can be independently verified).
- Be mindful of how the material you read online makes you feel. If a statement makes you angry or frightened or fills you with disgust, it’s worth double checking. Yes, we need to be aware of the bad news that really happens. But we also need to protect ourselves against negative disinformation.
Why do I call this a “contemplative” response? Because I believe that a contemplative approach to life is one that listens first, discerns carefully, accepts ambiguity, takes time before acting or reacting, and seeks the common good before just promoting its own viewpoint.
Perhaps part of the reason why disinformation tweets (like the one quoted above) get tens of thousands of retweets is because, in our rush toward a more cynical way of seeing things, we have forgotten how to listen and how to discern. Learning a more contemplative approach to life can help us to restore these essential skills.
Unfortunately, the people who want to harm our society are delighted by how polarized we have become and how much animosity we hold toward one another. We have got to find a way to restore a basic willingness to affirm the humanity of our neighbors and fellow citizens, even when we strongly disagree about things. If our society continues to erode, the likelihood of civil unrest will only increase. This is a scenario none of us want. So we all have to work together to create a more humane, civil, and — I believe — contemplative future.