Twitter, the Fifth Circle, and the Eighth Commandment

05-16-2021Weekly Reflection

In Dante’s depiction of Hell in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy, there is the Fifth Circle: In the swampy, stinking waters of the river Styx *– the Fifth Circle – the actively wrathful fight each other viciously on the surface of the slime, while the sullen (the passively wrathful) lie beneath the water, withdrawn, "into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe". (Note: In Greek mythology Styx was the goddess that controlled the river that divides this world from the underworld) Catholic philosopher Edward Feser reflects below on this in looking at the social-media phenomenon Twitter. Here is an excerpt:

Social media’s fifth circle

Marshall McLuhan’s famous remark that “the medium is the message” was never more true than in the case of Twitter. And the message is malign. I would not go so far as to claim that the platform is a malum in se, (evil in itself) but it is close. The reason is not because of its political biases, though that hardly helps. It’s because the medium of its nature tends positively to encourage activity contrary to what is good for us given our nature as rational social animals. Here’s what happens. You read or hear about something you disagree with. You make a snap judgment, and send out a tweet about it. Because it’s a snap judgment, there is a very strong chance of its being wrong or half-baked or otherwise defective. Because you’ve got relatively few words to make your point, you’re likely to oversimplify things, and because you want it to get attention – why write it, otherwise? – you’re likely to make it snarky, or even insulting toward whomever it is you’re disagreeing with.

Dozens, even hundreds or thousands of people, respond to what you say very quickly – also with snap judgments of their own that are often defective in just the ways yours is likely to be. If lots of them agree with you, you will tend to think you must have gotten things more or less right – especially given that they are likely to share whatever snarky and condescending attitude you evinced in your tweet. The self-congratulatory echo chamber artificially inflates everyone’s confidence in their shared judgments. On the other hand, if lots of people disagree with you, they are also likely to do so in a nasty and condescending way that will make you defensive and disinclined to consider that you might be wrong. Either way, you are going to be hardened in your position, however ill-considered it actually is.

Moreover, since you soon find that you are playing to this mob, you are likely to tailor your thoughts to please, or at least not offend, whatever part of it is more or less friendly to you. And you are likely to try to save face with the part of it that is hostile to you, which requires doubling down rather than backing down. This dynamic plays out over and over again week after week, month after month, year after year. The result is a dulling of critical faculties and human sympathy on the part of the individual, and militant, intolerant groupthink on the part of the masses of users. The point is not that snark or an aggressive tone are always and inherently wrong. They are not. But they should only ever be resorted to when necessary, only after reflection, and only ever as a supplement to a reasoned case that can stand on its own. They are like strong seasoning that is appropriate only to some dishes, and only when applied with moderation.

Now, the book or article format of its very nature encourages the making of a more careful case, and the second-guessing of a biting quip that may sound less wise or called for after one has “slept on it.” Having an editor helps too, obviously. Naturally, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an enormous amount of garbage published in those formats. All the same, of their nature, they at least do not allow for the instantaneous public expression of snap judgments and emotional overreactions. The trouble with platforms like Twitter is that of their very nature, they not only allow for but positively encourage these things, and on a massive scale. Facebook is only somewhat better. These “social media” are deeply anti-social, encouraging polarization and making sober and dispassionate discourse increasingly difficult…. (END)

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:26-27

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Eighth Commandment:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

  • of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
  • of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
  • of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one's neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

2480 Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another's vices or grave sins. Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech. Adulation is a venial sin when it only seeks to be agreeable, to avoid evil, to meet a need, or to obtain legitimate advantages.

2481 Boasting or bragging is an offense against truth. So is irony aimed at disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior.

2482 " A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving." The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: "You are of your father the devil, . . .there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man's relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.

2487 Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven. When it is impossible publicly to make reparation for a wrong, it must be made secretly. If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another's reputation. This reparation, moral and sometimes material, must be evaluated in terms of the extent of the damage inflicted. It obliges in conscience.