If you are anything like me, at least once a day I find myself shaking my head and thinking, “How in the world did we get here?” As many have written about recently, incivility appears to be the order of the day. Our socio-political climate is in a ditch and rather than grabbing a rope and climbing out, we instead grab shovels and dig deeper. It’s as if we are incapable of saving ourselves. If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma, a documentary on the power and influence of social media rooted in artificial intelligence (AI), it’s evident that the cards are stacked against us. I highly recommend it’s viewing. Here are a few claims from the tech insiders who produced the film.
Social media (Facebook, Google, Twitter…) is free for a reason. It’s because we are the product. The customers are the advertisers. The AI algorithms associated with these platforms are efficiently designed to harvest our online footprint to keep us online and feed us content and connections meant to produce “gradual, slight imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception.” We’re being programmed.
Fake news works. AI cannot discriminate between the truth and fake news. However, studies have shown that false information spreads at a rate six times faster than the truth. Since AI is built around expediently reaching the endgame, it biases toward fake news.
Everyone operates with their own set of “facts”. Everyone’s feeds are completely different, optimized around each individual’s online tendencies. Not only can simple Google searches produce vastly different results, the AI algorithms intentionally push tangential information to our feeds to help shape the narratives of advertisers. This goes beyond simple confirmation bias to manipulation - surveillance capitalism.
No wonder it’s so difficult for us to get along. But economist and writer Arthur Brooks (see his book or talk) points out that we’re not just angry with each other, we have contempt for one another. Most often, we genuinely care about the people with whom we are angry but are critical of choices they are making. With contempt, we believe that we are being motivated by love while our adversaries are being motivated by hatred. When motives are in question, trust cannot be established. In the absence of trust, dialogue is impossible.
Even if we can’t exactly name the problem, reasonable adults recognize that there is one. Experience tells us that something has changed and not in a good way. What scares me more is that young people have grown up having known nothing different. Note that I am not damning technology as the root of all evil. Rather, there are certain pervasive aspects of the social dynamic of the digital world that have extraordinary influence when left unchecked, and there are few among us who understand it well enough to hold guard.
So how do we pivot? Arthur Brooks suggests that to move from a culture of contempt to an orientation of love, we need to recognize that love is not a feeling, but an act and a commitment to “will the good of the other.” This is what makes loving your enemy possible. This doesn’t mean that we temper our stand on big issues, quite the contrary. Rather, it’s modeling consistent behaviors to resist showing contempt, demanding the same from others, and refusing to reward contemptuous behavior. This won’t necessarily change the minds of those with whom we most ardently disagree, but it will likely change their hearts in a manner that keeps people in relationship and civil society operating.
This is where Catholic education at all levels can and should provide leadership. Our shared mission is to form young women and men of competence, conscience, and compassion. This necessarily means an oft-counter-cultural resolve to animate love, truth, and justice in their many forms - both conservative and progressive - and to humbly dialogue with those who disagree so as to come to a deeper understanding of the human condition in order to serve more fully.
This begins with what we teach, but more importantly it’s about helping students understand how to think. At AVLI, we point our students to a core set of learner skills (see page 3) that we hope they improve through practice in our coursework. Key among them are the partner skills of self-reflection and self-transcendence. Both are critical to combatting the sirens of social media and crowd psychology on the one hand, and complacency on the other. Self-reflection calls us to critically direct our learning inward while self-transcendence encourages an outward focus. The result is a form of discernment, and it is at this intersection where we find ourselves most alive, grounded, and capable of responding to a world in need.
I used the word “combatting” above which connotes conflict. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius employs a meditation on the Two Standards, a standard being a flag around which troops would rally before battle. One standard represents standing with Jesus while the other represents standing with Satan. It seems like a pretty easy choice, but is it in today’s complex, divisive world? This is why it is so important at this time for our schools to embrace their Catholic identity, modeling care and compassion while continuing our search for Truth. We can be a light in the darkness.
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman is the Founder & President of Arrupe Virtual
vol 3 issue 1