It’s a commonplace that Europeans, and people from several other parts of the world, see Americans as — if they’re inclined to be neutral — “childlike” or — if they’re inclined to be censorious — “children.” In his memoir Paris to the Moon Adam Gopnik quotes approvingly a French friend who comments that you can always spot the American tourists in France because they’re all dressed like six-year-olds. And indeed Americans have often embraced this description, though giving it a positive spin: for instance, in his seminal book No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, Jackson Lears explains how many intellectuals and artists embraced “antimodernism” in the form of medievalism precisely because they saw the Middle Ages as “childlike” in all the best senses of the term.
And then there’s A. O. Scott, writing in 2014 on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”:
A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.
Yesterday’s post on social media, politics, and emotion is a variation on this theme. I don’t think there’s any question that social media prompt us to respond to the world in childlike/childish ways, leading always with our strongest emotions and then coming up with comically inadequate post facto justifications of them, or assuming that the only just world is one which conforms itself to my felt needs and within which the only real violations are of my feelings.
Nous sommes tous Américains. In the current moment, most adults are emotionally six years old, most college students four, and the Republican Presidential nominee two. (Seriously: look at any professional description of the “terrible twos” and try to tell me that it doesn’t precisely describe Donald Trump, whose supporters act as indulgent parents and elder siblings.)
I can’t say that this is a good thing, but it’s the situation we’re in and it’s not going to change any time soon. So when we’re thinking about social media and political discourse, what if we stopped cursing the emotional darkness and instead lit a candle? And the first step in doing that is by accepting that most of the people we interact with on social media really are children.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote,
St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’
This, I think, should be the task of those who want to use social media wisely and well: not to try to reason with people — the code architecture of all social media, and especially Twitter, with its encouragement of instantaneous response and crude measures of approval or disapproval, militates against rational reflection — but to promote ordinate affection, and especially the love of the good wherever it may be found, even in people you have been taught to think of as your political opponents.
I say that because I believe hatred is the least selective of emotions, the most scattershot, the one that can most easily find its way into every human encounter if it is not restrained by strongly positive responses to the true, the good, and the beautiful. (The truth of this statement is confirmed on Twitter every hour.)
If we are going to begin to heal the wounds of our political culture that have been either created or exacerbated by social media, then we will need to train ourselves — and only then, we hope, others — in the practices of loving what is truly desirable. Rather than trying to wrench Twitter into a vehicle for rational debate, which it can never be, we need to turn its promotion of emotional intensity to good account. (We need jujitsu, not Mortal Kombat.) And then, perhaps, when at least some people have become habituated to more ordinate affections, and Reason at length comes to them, then, bred as they have been, they will hold out their hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity they bear to her.