Every man is his own pope and philosopher-king on the Internet, where our semi-formed and semi-informed opinions are cast as absolutes. Convinced of our perfect knowledge and infallible righteousness, we denounce and demean in harsh, uncharitable terms the arguments of others, and even their very persons.
The advent of the Internet brought with it high hopes for the creation of a great “online community,” where everyone would be given an equal voice, and where informed political, religious, and cultural discourse would take place in a spirit of patient civility, careful consideration, and shared learning. Here at last the democratic dream would be realized, as elites—magazine editors, television presidents, newspaper reporters—who had heretofore filtered and controlled public conversation would be circumvented, and the opinions of Everyman would rule.
What we have gotten instead of a people’s paradise is largely a plague of online trollishness, a nightmare of cacophonous incivility, and a mobocracy beyond the worst fears of the highest Federalists among our Founding Fathers.
One needs only to read the comments section on nearly any web journal, or on social media, to lose hope—at least in democracy, and perhaps even in one’s fellow man altogether. Suddenly on the Internet, every man is his own pope, his own political savant, his own environmental scientist, his own philosopher-king. Our, at best, semi-formed and semi-informed opinions are cast as absolutes, and we feel uninhibited in declaring to all mankind from our technological perch that: requiring the wearing of face masks during the coronavirus pandemic is part of an authoritarian, Leftist plot; that global warming is an unassailable truth; that the Shroud of Turin was really the burial cloth of Christ; that Russia obviously colluded to help Donald Trump win the presidency; that the South was right… or whatever our view of the moment on the topic at hand may be. Convinced of our perfect knowledge and infallible righteousness, we feel entitled to deem others not only “wrong,” but “insane” or “evil.” We have convinced ourselves that in addition to being experts on every issue, we are perfect judges of the souls of people whom we have never met but whom we have merely seen on TV or read about on the web. The truth is that it is difficult to know in a real way even our own family members, friends, and co-workers… perhaps ourselves. And yet we don’t hesitate to pass judgments, negative and positive, on a politician, sports figure, or Hollywood celebrity: as a “liar,” a “real jerk,” a “good guy,” or “a brother in Christ.”
It’s not just that opinions are expressed unreservedly. They are very often expressed in harsh, uncharitable terms. Though I am blessed to be the editor of a journal that has a predominantly thoughtful, intelligent, and civil readership, even here we receive the occasional mean-spirited comment, denigrating not only the argument made by an author by sometimes attacking the author himself. (Among the nastiest, most condescending comments we have received have mocked us for the occasional and inevitable typographical or grammatical error!) It’s likely that such boorish character traits always existed in the soul of those we now call “trolls,” and thus in public discourse from time immemorial, but the mobocracy of the Internet has brought out the worst angels of our natures.
Indeed, social media has become a place where one tends to voice any random, transient thought… to express an unconsidered, categorical opinion instantly to a faceless mass of Facebook “friends” or Twitter “followers,” unfiltered by those things that tend to cool our passing passions: the time it takes to write a letter, the editorial scalpel of a good editor, the staring eyes of the audience we are addressing. We are sure that we can convince that adherent of a different Christian denomination, that member of another political party, that intransigent boob who doesn’t believe in global warming, with just this one more piece of evidence—which we ourselves perhaps just found on the Internet—to see the light. Yes, it’s we who can accomplish this, not 500 years of great religious texts authored by theologians of every stripe, not the work of eminent historians and political philosophers, not the accumulated research of renowned scientists. No, it is I, the equal of such men and women, who is fit to pronounce authoritatively on any and all topics… as long as I have a few minutes to do some Google research.
The truth is that our opinions on people, events, and ideas generally tell our readers/listeners more about ourselves than they do the subject at hand. And the less we know about the subject, the truer this observation is. So, unless I am an economist, accountant, or tax expert, my opinion on the current tax bill before Congress means little; unless I am a presidential historian, or a biographer of John F. Kennedy, my view about what really happened during the Kennedy assassination holds very little weight. And even if I am well-versed on a certain issue or subject or area of history, my interpretation, which differs from others similarly well-versed, may shed more light on my soul than it does on the heart of the matter in question. Thus, my hatred of “big government” may well reveal more about my ingrained authority issues (perhaps my mother ruled our home like a tyrant) than it does about the current state of the American political system.
Worse, our own fairly worthless opinions become themselves the subject of news stories—at least if we have a certain level of Internet celebrity. Consider how many “news” stories today are simply accounts of what one political, sports, or entertainment figure has said about another public figure on his or her Twitter account. The news cycle is dominated by these he-said, she-said, he-retorted stories. People, and the president, rightly complain about “fake news”; but we also have far too much “fluff news.” We have too much information and too many opinions from people whose opinions, frankly, simply don’t matter.
The result of this deterioration of our public discourse is that manners have broken down, and with them, one of the pillars of civilization itself.
What is the solution? We need to embrace Saint Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians that “we now we see through a glass, darkly.” We need to imitate Socrates, who knew that the beginning of wisdom was to acknowledge that he knew nothing. It would behoove us all, when expressing an opinion, to preface statements with “it seems that,” “from what I can glean,” or “perhaps it is the case that.” We need to be humble enough to recognize that we don’t know everything and that others may know more than we do on a given subject—indeed to possess the self-awareness that on the vast majority of topics, you or I are likely among the most unqualified people to make a judgment.
But what is ultimately called for in modern public discourse is not mere humility, but magnanimity, which literally means having a “large spirit,” or a “great soul.” The fortunate among us have known at least one such person with a great soul—that person who never gossips, who appears not to see faults in others, overlooking, or at least silently tolerating such failings, and seeming to notice only the good qualities of his fellow man. “All we can do is to make the best of our friends,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter. “Love and cherish what is good in them, and keep out of the way of what is bad: but no more think of rejecting them for it than of throwing away a piece of music for a flat passage or two.” We should apply this broadmindedness not only to our family and friends, but also to strangers, and to their arguments as well. Rather than mimicking the troll’s craven need to denounce and demean, we ought to seek to commend and to compliment. Instead of pointing to what is supposedly mistaken in someone’s argument, we should focus on what is meet and right. “What can this text or person teach me?” should be our guiding question in all types of conversations.
All this is not to say we should not express qualified opinions and cannot reasonably disagree with the views of others, despite our imperfect intellects and limited knowledge. However, we ought to strive in our public discourse to be, not haughty trolls, bent on tearing others down so as to build ourselves up, but humble pilgrims dedicated to seeking the true, good, and beautiful wherever we may find it, and in whatever measure, as we journey in this world.
A return to magnanimity… from what I can glean… is indeed the only balm for our brutalized public discourse.
This essay originally appeared here in December 2017.
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The featured image is “The Palm Leaf” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.