In a time of pandemic and cultural disgust, I find myself returning (repenting) amidst current dialogues by looking to old books for a sense of self, and a sense of God. One of the books that I have returned to is Dante’s Inferno. The reason I have decided to read this particular work is because of Dante’s profound ability to raise a sense of moral consciousness; the images employed cause the reader to look at the ravaging effects of sin upon men, and the beauty that fills the mind when one contemplates the grace of God intensified by its ugliest contrast. Dante gives the reader a sense that the existential implications of people’s conduct far outweighs the situations of their lives. The phrase inscribed on the gate of Hell lays heavily upon the reader as virtue is looked for, but not found, in much of current dialogue. Those who engage in social media discourse would do well to hear these words: “abandon every hope, all you who enter” (Inferno, pg. 14).
The threshold of Hell is a place called “Nowhere.” Virgil takes us on a journey to a place that is full of people who have never made a decision to be faithful to God. These people are people who have lived for entirely for themselves, without being characterized by “no blame and with no praise” (Inferno, pg. 15). They are people who have preserved their lives through indecision. In Hell they are doomed to march around a banner that never stops ever leading them on through eternity while being painfully stung by insects to their eternal hurt.
This is Medieval imagery. It is stark and highly punitive. It can, however, delineate a phenomenological reality that often occurs in social media discussions.
Social media has come to be a place where people are defined by their opinions. It is a discarnate technological medium that unites people through what they write and images they use. It is a platform for individual self-expression. This is an effort at unity which often seems to unavoidably separate folks and polarize the people who engage in any sort of political discussion (paradoxically a collective discourse serves to further polarization among the collective). People are more rash, statements are more impatient, and the atmosphere among those who disagree can be characterized by an intense hatred of anything or anyone who is different. Ideology and political affiliation separate us in reality, and social media discourse furthers that separation because our opinions are held out so unaccountably from our lives. Part of this is because so much of conversation is based on a person’s tone of voice, or facial expression which is never a contributing factor in extremely tense and difficult conversations. In this way, a discarnate social media presence seems to be more susceptible to greater emotion and less charitable thought because charity necessarily involves bodily reality with all of its risks, discomforts, and rewards.
What am I talking about?
I am talking particularly about the constant barrage of dissent regarding racial issues and police violence (I do not want to expound on any particular issue now because it is likely to become forgotten among future outbreaks, and because it is important to reflect on the framing of an issue as well as the issue itself); I am talking about an incendiary conversation where patience and love for those who are different from you is obscured by unaccountable emotions of anger and outrage.
As someone who has been aware of social media since its inception, and subsequently aware of the collective outrage regarding social injustice, I have acutely noticed how social media is used to generate collective feelings of rage. What I have also noticed is how those feelings of rage subside and are cyclically rekindled when another social crisis occurs generating a congealed narrative, often resolving nothing. The movement takes priority over the incident and the wrong. People quickly forget what the past injustice was, and eagerly jump at the new opportunity they have to express their outrage. It is an dialogue that is “momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose” (The Present Age, pg. 3). Hence, the collective forgetfulness of those who use social media for political discord is just as important to notice as its collective outrage when considering this phenomenon objectively. The crisis serves a movement, and the crisis itself is not resolved, but enables a movement to undo the foundations of society without precise direction, or positive terminus.
Rage is generated, and rage is preserved, but memory is not. This is the degeneration of social consciousness.
Because of this I am arguing that it is plausible to compare Dante’s threshold of hell to social media dialogues about racial inequality and police brutality. People march on to define themselves not by virtue, but by opinion. Opinion alone is something that is deceptively unable to grip with reality. Decisions must be made. Virtue can never be something displayed apart from actual interaction between physical people, and it is the quality of our lives displayed by what we do. Furthermore, the banner that marches us on and on is every injustice, real or perceived, generated by a soundbite or clip. All that is required of us is to passionately agree with what is being said with no specific bearing on our actual day to day lives. Through our participation in this void we have become a people with many opinions, few values, and even fewer virtues because we have ceased to speak and act in reality. No change is required of us when passionate opinion on social media serves as the dehumanized form of cultural currency.
The domain of social media is the “Nowhere.” It is a place where people can talk with little to no consequence for their words. It is a place without deeds. The “feed” marches us on with every new bit of information motivating us by a satisfying release of dopamine when we tell someone off, or get approval for what we post. This is truly an exploitation of the human experience. Jean Baudrillard speaks of “hyperreality” as a phenomenon which replaces the real (Disneyland); what I would call hyperunreality replaces not only the real through a substitution of the real with something purely simulative; through a disembodied experience of that simulation. Quality conversations, thoughts, and self-denial are things that have truly ceased to occur regular interaction because they do not regularly happen at dinner tables, or in living rooms with people we love, but on a digital platform with people that we may know, or may have no relation to at all. The platform has become as infinite as the masses using it. Therefore, the truth is lost in a flurry of voices that have no bearing upon life because the conversation is removed from bodily experience with the ironic goal of self-expression. Interactions like these that separate the mind’s voice bodily, interpersonal expression leave us with unfortunate stings of conscience and conflicting opinions within ourselves, or voiced by others. It is a journey without singular vision, and without beatitude.
What is to be done?
Throughout the Inferno Dante is patiently guided by Virgil. In many instances Dante loses his strength before the sights of horror that he witnesses; often he needs the words and prompting of his guide to cause him to see and understand greater and more terrible things. While painfully witnessing the godlessness of society we are called, like Dante, to leave cowardice and distrust aside in order to see the necessity of good through its most immanent opposite. We are called to seek God with all that we are. People today need guides who can speak to them in the stark reality of life encouraging them to be better fathers, neighbors, and friends. I turn to old books for guidance, to works of literature that have the ability to raise my mind above depersonalized mass movements, and social media contempt. I also turn to my friends who have been my instructors and source of life amidst the chaos of what is happening today and the grief that accompanies it. People need to actually develop a sense of virtue through the instruction of those who have actually pursued it in their lives and implement it in their respective spheres of life.
The vision of Dante requires us to pay profound attention to the end of human experience in order to comprehend its value and meaning in pursuit of the truth. I submit to you that this can only be done through what has long been known by human experience as friendship. Something that existed before the term was redefined in 2004 by social media promulgators and tycoons. Before Dante, there was a Roman statesman and philosopher who in many ways had a profound impact on Dante. The man’s name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero pointed out in his book, On Friendship, that society is held together by the bonds of friendship — friendship, Cicero noted, is not possible without virtue. A modern follow up to this would be that virtue is not possible in on a platform that stirs people’s passions because the discourse is too shortsighted for sustained conversation, or resolution. Virtue is not discarnate, it is deeply human because it requires bodily experience to enrich all of society. Friendship cannot be a reduction of human experience, or it is not friendship, but something far less. I hope that we can pause, learn, interpret, and decide upon how to live, instead of passively accepting an ever and ongoing sense of the present devoid of both respect for the past, or hope for the future.