The Loneliest Place in the World

September 01, 2019

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. Proverbs 26:4-5

Social media is the loneliest place in the world. Trawling through the hyperlinks you can find hordes of other people talking about people like you. People who are convinced that you are virtually subhuman, deserving of death, of no use whatsoever. You may, yourself, take no part in online debates. You may only look on from the sidelines, but still you will always hear the shrill voices, the voices of condemnation the most loud and piercing. Browsing the internet is like the news, or driving past a burning vehicle on the side of the interstate: we are attracted to fire, like moths. Our most perverse tendencies drive us to watch, to laugh at the downfall of others. Gleefully we castigate entire groups of people on the basis of one opinion which we believe to be wrong, or on the basis of one of their sins to which we are not ourselves tempted. Days of mental inactivity pass as we read the condemnations of others, or share a laugh at the expense of the stranger outside our parochial gates.

In the mirror of the internet, every person can see themselves as hated, oppressed, and as misunderstood as they choose. And we all choose, to one degree or another. I can’t even say we are wrong — social media makes our worst fears come true. The liberals really are destroying America. Christians really do hate women. Republicans are secret fascists. Who can deny it? It is right here, for everyone to see. Facts don’t care about your feelings? On the internet, the only facts are your feelings, and the feeling of social media is that of vast hordes of enemies bearing down upon you, hating you for everything you are — your religion, your race, your hopes and aspirations for your community, your country, your past, and your future.

In such a world, there can be no conversation. No union of belief is possible in the face of such absolute division. Only war can result.

Social media has failed. It is a platform created for division and the encouragement of hatred. No, I do not mean explicitly by its founders; I attribute no personal malice beyond greed for money and power to the decisions of the developers who have made our world what it is. I mean that in its very form, kindness is nearly impossible, in the same manner that it is nearly impossible to make a news organization financially viable by reporting only what is right in the world.

I propose an unpopular thesis: social media is beyond help. Promoting inclusivity online will not help; it will only increase hate (whether real or imagined). Promoting Christian “counter-culture” online will not help, except to those who are already believers. Social media empowers us to do more than cast our pearls before swine: it allows us the opportunity to actually become the swine. The internet is a wonderful place for communication, but do not answer fools in their folly. On social media, the time for conversation is over. Without outside intervention, the worst of humanity is cast into sharp relief through links, and upvotes, and likes, and endless words, the endless unfounded opinions of the masses pitted against one another. Without outside intervention, the cesspool can never clean itself.

In Christianity, as in all religions, redemption comes in some manner from the outside. Fundamental to the very concept of faith is that we are not, in ourselves, enough. Hope is here, but not in ourselves. Only in the radical rejection of ourselves, of our own wills, our own hopes, desires, and cares, is there a way forward. The internet, too, can be a place of peace, and hope, and kindness, but only if we take the second of the two proverbs regarding fools seriously.

What kind of environment is required to “answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own deceit?” A place, I would propose, that emphasizes genuine human connection over numbers, likes, or upvotes. A place that prioritizes our own volition in what we read and access. A place that allows us to expose ourselves to the ideas of others on our own terms, just as in physical communication between people. A place that is fundamentally local and limited, because we as humans are local and limited, dependent on a deep and long knowledge of context and personal relationships in order to be effective. A place that is fundamentally decentralized, and is moderated by the choices of the individual and the groups of which they are naturally a part, rather than the choices of ideology or government. There is hope, but only in outside intervention from life outside the internet, from faith outside the limits of our own experience.

Without this hope and faith, there is no need for kindness. We are only and ever rats spending our time between the walls of dark eternity pushing electrons to and fro, seething with hatred at people we will never know.

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Michael Helvey

Just want to talk? Feel free to tweet @helvetici.