Can Public Life Survive the Internet?

Mary Doak

Daily life for most Americans has been dramatically transformed. We are mesmerized by the possibilities of online life. Pedestrians walk with heads down, scrolling or texting. Friends gather at restaurants looking at their phones rather than each other. Everyone seems to be “talking” to everyone else – elsewhere – all the time.

We ought to consider how the internet’s unlimited perspectives and overwhelming pluralism are affecting our public life. Can we still hope to achieve a consensus about our common goals and purposes – or are we are condemned to a cacophony of siloed voices?

Truth Exceeds Our Grasp

A few decades ago, discussions of pluralism and relativism were the focus of much attention in the academy. The more nuanced thinkers argued that, although the dream (or, to many, the nightmare) of absolute certainty was over, we were not forced to accept a radical relativism that allowed no way to judge between competing perspectives. Recognizing that the truth exceeds our grasp, scholars like theologian David Tracy (my mentor) maintained that dialogue among competing perspectives might lead us to more adequate interpretations and closer approximations to the truth, as we encounter and learn from each other.

But we might well ask whether this ideal is still relevant in a world dominated by social media and the expanding universe of online perspectives competing for our attention. Is there any good evidence that this new pluralism will enrich rather than fracture our public life?

On the one hand, it may be that this explosion of online communication and social media is cause for celebration. After all, David Tracy argued that one of the requirements of a productive conversation is to be open to difference, to other views we have not yet considered. Clearly, the internet’s unfathomable variety of voices allows us to extend the conversation far beyond the usual confines of geography or print.

But – on the other hand – Tracy’s ideal conversation also includes some other “hard rules.” Those involved in the conversation must respect each other, say what they mean, weigh evidence proffered, offer support for their own claims, and, when appropriate, change their minds. Tracy envisioned thoughtful dialogue that gives considerable attention to the pros and cons of the different perspectives.

Competing Facts

This is not the kind of interaction universally prized in online communication. If social media is known for anything, it is speed, brevity, and brashness. Consider how difficult it is to weigh evidence when online sources proclaim alternative “facts” repeatedly so that a great deal of nonsense quickly becomes common wisdom. Who will take the time to reason thoughtfully when 140-character tweets get more attention and applause?

Further disrupting Tracy’s conversational ideal is the anonymity and even fictitious identity permitted by social media: The sincerity of the other is exactly what cannot be assumed.

The anonymity of the internet – the posturing and extremism it invites – frequently stirs mob psychology: Cyberbullying is not limited to school children. People risk barrages of hate mail and even threats of violence for taking an unpopular position or for making a thoughtless comment. The internet can be a very unsafe place, with no legal process or authority to protect the vulnerable.

Perhaps most devastating to the ideal of a pluralistic conversation is the tendency of internet users to gravitate toward like-minded people. It is easier to listen to those who shore up our settled views than to allow our most cherished positions to be called into question by someone’s anonymous musings. Online communication is sought more often to confirm than to interrupt tribal mentalities – at a time when we live, work, play, and rub shoulders increasingly with people similar to us.

Is it any wonder that public life is sharply polarized, and that insults replace debate in the latest presidential campaign? We’ve come to expect political conversations dominated not by policy debates but by threats, put-downs, and attack slogans.

Offline Connection

Some hold out hope that the internet itself will be part of the solution to a healthier common life, connecting us all in unprecedented ways. That may be. But I am convinced that the attitudes and values needed for public life – enabling us to experience difference as potentially enriching rather than as primarily threatening – are best cultivated offline, in the human interactions that form us most deeply.

It is instructive to recall that Abraham Lincoln, appalled by mob violence early in his career, argued for a culture of respect for the law. In his 1838 speech to the Young Man’s Lyceum in Springfield, IL., Lincoln insisted that, to restrain vigilante vengeance, a deep reverence for law had to be inculcated in children and reinforced by social institutions.

I would argue similarly: If the inherent pluralism of the internet is not to become a cosmos of thoroughgoing relativism that reinforces tribal divisions, we need to reconceive how we approach diverse perspectives, bringing with us an element of curiosity, patience, humility, and a sense that we are all in this together.

Churches and other communities of worship have much to contribute here. Of course, people who gather for worship are (more or less) united in religious belief, and too often are of the same race, ethnicity, and class as well. Yet religious communities remain institutions for transmitting fundamental values through face-to-face interactions. Churches should teach their members to value the human diversity through which we can learn more about the infinite God. Religious communities are in a position to sponsor public events on matters of common concern, bringing people together in respectful discussion.

There is an emerging consensus that the public purpose of the church is to work for greater human unity in (and not despite) our diversity. This concept of the church was articulated by the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, influenced by the Orthodox Churches, and is now found in documents of the World Council of Churches. This agreement that the church’s task is to work for public harmony explains Pope Francis’s emphasis on building bridges that unite rather than walls that reinforce our divisions.

Eclipsing Tribalism

Imagine if our churches were to take more seriously their own teachings on the importance of building community, beginning with people who are poor or who, for any reason, have little voice in society. What might happen if every church accepted Pope Francis’s challenge to sponsor a refugee family? All of society would be transformed if religious communities became places where tribalism is interrupted with respectful, even loving, openness.

Howard Thurman, the great 20th-century African American preacher and mystic, maintained that if churches truly exemplified the love of all, a love that accepts everyone – without exception – as precious brothers and sisters, people would flock to these churches to learn their secret of how to live together in peace.

We might also learn to be skeptical of the internet’s destructive side, and resist using social media as an echo chamber to reinforce rather than expand our limited perspectives.

Mary Doak is associate professor of theology at the University of San Diego. Her research interests include liberation and political theologies, theologies of democracy and religious freedom, and the goals of history from a Christian perspective. She is the author of Reclaiming Narrative for Public Theology (SUNY, 2004). She has an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School.