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Fingers are being pointed at social media: its disinhibiting effect, its exploitation of our moral emotions, and its incessant, algorithmic desire to expose us to stories that enrage, rather than conciliate.
Via our platforms, we hear of wars and rumours of wars, with combat raging in the theatres of race, gender, sex, politics, and speech — words are "weapons"; "speech is violence".
In an interlude from his recent book, The Madness of Crowds, political commentator Douglas Murray remarks that our social media age has, "presented problems with which we have hardly started to grapple".
In Murray’s analysis, the biggest problem is that, "we have allowed ourselves no mechanisms for getting out of the situation technology has landed us in. It appears able to cause catastrophes but not to heal them; to wound but not to remedy."
This explains why opportunities for redemption and forgiveness don’t tend to go viral — the content doesn’t touch the emotions being provoked by social media. Furthermore, our age is proving that truth which Jacques Ellul notes in his book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes: "man is terribly malleable, uncertain of himself, ready to accept and to follow many suggestions, and is tossed about by all the winds of doctrine".
What’s particularly concerning, given the remarks of Murray and Ellul, is that the structure (social, cultural, and technological) of our present-day situation places us far too easily within the reach, and potential grip, of propaganda.
In recent years, there seems to have been an increase in radical, new social movements (NSMs): from Antifa to the Zeitgeist Movement and everything in between.
A common feature of social movements is their exploitation of people’s moral emotions, in order to provoke them to action.
There is evidence of this in the language of some NSMs that sit under the umbrella of environmentalism. We hear passionate speeches that demand immediate, reflexive action, call for civil disobedience and rebellion, and encourage panic and fear. According to Ellul, this is precisely the aim of modern propaganda, which seeks to "make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to lead to a choice, but to loosen the reflexes. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief".
It should not be surprising that our present day situation is sparking a return to the mythological.
The role of myth is to try to bring order to chaos and our age is certainly one of chaos. New social movements act as the cultic vehicles by which the myth can be actualised, so that order might be (re)established. But what is the "active and mythical belief" of our age? Composer Libby Larsen considers it the idea that "technology is communication".
This seems fitting, given the technological aura of our age.
However the belief being reinvigorated by our modern propaganda is much deeper. The central tenet of myth is that all things humanity, nature, and the divine are continuous with each other. This idea of continuity is the fundamental ordering principle for all worldviews, except that of the Bible.
From cover to cover, the bible stresses the necessity of grounding our view of the world, and importantly our view of humanity, in the reality of a transcendent, creator God.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon reminds us that, even in an age of new tech and new social movements, there is ultimately, "nothing new under the sun".
Continuity is an old and deeply ingrained belief that, when actualised, can have a profoundly dehumanising effect.
This is what makes our present day situation so troubling. Where you find the interrelated themes of conflict and dehumanisation, dovetailed with propaganda, you find the conditions necessary for ordinary people to do extraordinarily bad things.
At the tail-end of Ecclesiastes chapter nine, there is a story about how one man’s quiet words of wisdom, prevent the inhabitants of a small city from being consumed by conflict.
The chapter concludes with the proverb: "The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools."
This is the sort of advice we need for living in our present age.
We don’t need the megaphone of social media to have a voice, but we do need to speak.
Reconciliation can come from the communication of words that are good and true.
- Sam Mangai is a member of the Cornerstone International Bible Church, Dunedin.