Resisting the modern tendency to comment on every issue without rigorous forethought
Over the course of the last year, I have been particularly disturbed by the vitriol that has marked many political conversations. The number of issues, even those apolitical, which people can discuss without disagreeing bitterly seems to be shrinking rapidly. Often finding myself in the ideological minority in high school, I admit that I did not always converse with my classmates charitably and would have been better off had I done so.
Recent examples of incivility and uncharitable hostility to dialogue can be seen on campus. The Twitter mob here at Notre Dame recently came after Notre Dame Right to Life’s (NDRTL) “You are Loved Week” posters. New tweets seem to pop up by the minute and I will spare some of the worst, but will highlight a few here.
A tweet from a Notre Dame student that has gained over 200 likes targeted the fact that two white males are debating abortion on the Thursday of “You are Loved Week.” One person went so far as to allege that this was “a f*****g insidious strategy” designed to “keep it at the level of ‘intellectual debate’ as so [sic] obfuscate the cruelty of your position.” A similar tweet, with 300 likes, shared a poster advertising the debate and stated “notre dame’s abortion debate during pro life week or whatever is between two white guys. is this a joke lol.”
Nevermind the problematic idea that people should be excluded from a conversation as important as the right to life due to their race or gender. Apparently, these outraged individuals on Twitter assumed that NDRTL, which has long had a majority female Executive Board, was intentionally excluding women of other races. In doing so, people expressed outrage without taking the time to do research that would have undermined their implied premise of unjust discrimination.
As it turns out, NDRTL “did not have any pro-choice female students complete the application process.” The application was sent to I4RH, FeministND, College Democrats, and Women in Politics.
These people, like everyone, might benefit from heeding Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s advice to refuse to “cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather [one’s] own nest, to achieve success in [one’s] work… if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.”
NDRTL also shared an invitation for “female students to sign up for our many dialogue events” in which female students are “given the opportunity to share opinions through respectful conversation.” One student questioned whether the “exclusionary” nature of NDRTL might be to blame for the lack of female applications, while another quoted the NDRTL tweet and speculated that “maybe it’s bc you are so s****y that no one wants to even publicly humiliate you bc it would mean spending time with you.”
A person who responded to the invitation for respectful conversation has “acab” in her bio and a pinned tweet stating “this is not a Republican friendly page if ur a Republican please block me ugly.” Sadly, not everyone agrees on the merits of respectful, charitable conversation. Another student even suggested that if no females wanted to debate, “the event shouldn’t be held.”
Calls on social media ask everyone to opine about everything all the time. This trend manifests itself in the popular social media idea that “silence is violence.” This concept invites hasty judgment before all of the facts are gathered and relevant issues are thought through (hence the reaction to NRTL and widespread groupthink on cultural issues).
While I dare not question the motivations behind calls to action, as many are surely well-intentioned cries to address pressing issues, the effect of such echo-chamber thinking without room for nuance is a chilling resemblance of the “goodthink” of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This also leads to a toxic “cancel culture,” which is almost entirely antithetical to civil dialogue. Such a culture sculpts a monolithic acceptable social opinion from which even reasonable deviations are not tolerated.
Twitter allows people to engage in groupthink more easily, by selectively following those they agree with and lazily hopping onto bandwagons without giving much thought to that which they are bashing. This idea resonates with Arthur Brooks, who decries “ideological siloing,” which occurs when “we stop interacting entirely with those who hold opposing views.”
As Brooks writes in his 2019 book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from Our Culture of Contempt, “contempt is driving us apart and making us miserable. It is holding us hostage.” He also writes that “American is addicted to political contempt,” and likens it to a deeply harmful drug.
Interestingly, Brooks notes, Pew Research Center data indicates that “more than 70 percent of Americans believe that the country will be greatly hurt if opposing parties don’t work together,” which “defies the idea that America is split between two big groups of hyperpartisans intent on vanquishing the other side.” Twitter actively fosters contempt by facilitating intense ideological siloing and creating the false impression that most Americans are irreconcilably opposed and nefarious. In doing so, the platform contributes to a noxious “pseudo-polarization.”
If you are like me, it is far easier to think and act charitably when talking to someone face-to-face than when reading a spiteful tweet based on flawed assumptions. I have come to realize that often, the people with whom I disagree have very nuanced views and are frequently operating on good-faith. Twitter eliminates this human interaction and with it a calming effect that serves as an antidote to the poisonously hostile incivility that marks so many virtual conversations today.
I write not to discourage well-meaning and motivated political activism—quite the opposite. If we remember Socrates’ supposed utterance that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” perhaps we will be moved to deep thought and reflection that leads to meaningful cultural and political discussions rather than the vitriolic diatribes to which many of us have regrettably grown accustomed online.
Abandoning incivility in favor of charity does not mean losing passion; rather, it fosters authenticity, rigorous thought, and relationships built on seeking the Good. For as Aristotle realized, “man is by nature a political animal,” and our Catholic Church encourages participation in “the very noble art of politics.” But while doing so, in order to fulfill our end and share in God’s divinity eternally, we must reject contempt and incivility. We must embrace our fellow man and take up this noble art, working for the common good with charity.
John Hale is a senior studying political science and Italian with a minor in theology. His favorite intramural athletic event is broomball and he enjoys plane spotting at Detroit Metro Airport. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.