War is a interesting phenomenon that has been inescapable since the beginning of time. Today we live in an American society that is increasingly at war with itself. On the other hand, the military is different. In combat, soldiers ignore differences of race, religion and politics within their platoon. They realize that in order to have the greatest chance of survival during war they need to do life together in cohesive unity. Throughout history the military has learned to focus on the things that unite themselves to one another rather than focusing on the differences.
In his book “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger says,
“The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying Her might be the United States Herself. Which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy may be to just leave the country alone. That way America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively – that should be encouraged – but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric against their rivals. This is what media figures do when they go beyond criticisms of their fellow citizens and openly revile them.”
With that in mind, something idiotically destructive that a military platoon can do during wartime is to openly revile one another. We must realize that we Americans are a single platoon ourselves rather we like it or not. But if it is currently hard to imagine us as one unified nation, then that may be because, in actuality, we are at a great divide in our country. Moreover, we play our part in this divisive war on social media. Every day we see people speaking with contempt about the rich, the poor, blacks, whites, republicans, democrats, conservatives, liberals, the President, the government, the religious, the irreligious, etc.
Do we really understand how this contempt is affecting us? Humanity is still learning the science of how people communicate. One thing we have found is that the less distance between people (ex. two people face to face) then the less likely either person will act in a hostile manner toward the other. When people are face to face there is innate sympathy that toward the other person that regulates one’s behavior. This pleasant orientation has played out during most of human history. Social media eliminates this pleasantry to a degree that we have never experienced and has done so in a short amount of time. This elimination occurred so quickly that we haven’t learned how to properly account for it in order to function correctly in our relationships nor can we comprehend its impact on our individual psyche/souls. We do, however, see it being played out in America in a negative manner. The constant criticism online that we have seen for years has now evolved into contempt of others.
Criticism and contempt are different. Criticism is a fundamental aspect of daily life for the flourishing of society as it brings out the merits and faults of something or someone. We criticize anything from food, to music, and parenting styles. For years I have gladly criticized Lebron James’ basketball skills in order to further my support for Kobe Brant. Unlike criticism, contempt is toxic because it puts someone morally beneath the speaker. Contempt is reserved for a wartime enemy or someone committing a great evil, but now it is regularly applied to our fellow citizens.
In marriage, contempt is one of four main behavioral predictors for divorce. Let’s say a married couple has been going to counseling and the counselor is able to find the source of where most of their verbal contempt for one another happens – in the car. Most likely the counselor will recommend the couple to realize that there may be something unique about the dynamics of the car that brings about the disunity…not necessarily something within the husband and wife themselves. The couple would be foolish not to change something with the car in order to save their marriage. Matthew 5:30 would recommend us to cut off any tumbling block.
People who show contempt for one another are unlikely to remain united for long. This is the danger we see our country in now. Conservatives and liberals have a hard time having any dialogue or finding middle ground. This doesn’t just remain in the political lens but it also spills over to social issues, religion, economics, culture, and other arenas. I have noticed churches having the same struggle of believers from the same church arguing online. By now we have all seen people who love the Lord forsake one another online. There have been multi-year friends collapse due to differing opinions on social matters.
It is evident that the way we show our ideological allegiance is not by complementing our own side but by displaying our hate for the other side. This online contempt cripples relational growth. Typically, intimacy grows as people take turns speaking, laugh at each other’s jokes, and share surprising similarities (think of the famous Step Brothers movie quote – “Did we just become best friends?!). What happens on Facebook, though, when grandstands are erected along both sides and then filled with friends, acquaintances, rivals, and strangers, all passing judgment and offering commentary?
I have seen the same viral videos get shared by people on “differing sides” and each have a completely different take on the story but still yield the same amount of emotional outrage. Not too long ago we would look at two different video clips (of the same video) in order to get different reactions. Not anymore. We can just look at the exact same video and have completely opposite emotional responses. Part of the reason this is occurring is because our brains are becoming wired not to interpret truth but rather interpret information and uttering it in a manner that keeps our friends liking us, protects our reputations, and keeps our jobs. Sadly, this perpetuation further deceives ourselves and others.
How did social media get to this point? Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarizes an answer quite well. He relates the shift in social media confusion of the American public to the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In this story, the people of the world grew prideful. In their pride they attempted to build a gigantically tall tower in order to reach Heaven. The Lord, upset at their pride, punished them by scattering the people around the earth and confusing their language so that they may not understand one another. Dr. Haidt then relates this shift in Genesis to the shift in social media around 2015. From the time I joined Facebook to today Facebook has changed several times. Social media changed fundamentally between 2009 and 2012. Before 2009, Facebook was simply about posting your random thoughts. In 2009, Facebook and Twitter added the “Like” button. Later, both companies brought in algorithms (and advertisements) in order to optimize content to emotionally appeal to users in order to get them to react and therefore become addicted for even more engagement. Social Media today has become an outrage machine that changed the moral, political and social climate of the Western World.
Now…let us follow the bread crumbs to see how we are being affected. There are studies showing that the more time you spend on Facebook the more depressed you become. There are also studies that show that tribalism increases in times of stress (or perceived threat) and it decreases in times of peace and prosperity. With Covid-19, outrage over the George Floyd killing, quarantine and mass unemployment people are on social media drastically more than ever before. Could it be that this rise in social media usage is leading us more towards a subconsciously depressed mindset? This consequently increases stress and causes individuals to be drawn further into tribalism. The next sequential step is a negative mindset leading to hostility and contempt toward anyone outside your identified tribe.
Of course, social media has its merits. But at this point is it a zero-sum game or a negative-sum game? How can we turn the tables and come together as one unified platoon? Satan is busy and if we do not push back then our country will see much worse division than we see today. Thank God for the common grace He gives us in order for us to have psychological and sociological studies to guide us during this time.