Sanity amid cynicism

I’ve been practicing a bit of modest renunciation since November 8. Mostly media related. Since election night, I’ve given up on cable news, and more recently I’ve absconded from Twitter entirely. I know this doesn’t even approach a give-away-all-your-possessions-and-follow-me kind of renunciation, but in a culture as media-saturated as ours, it feels a little world-altering, at least.

It’s hard to talk about giving something up without sounding sanctimonious, and know I’m running that risk here. But I can’t help it: my sisters and brothers, I have seen the light! And it is not one that glows off an LED screen.

Giving up cable news was easy. It is self-evidently awful and soul-deadening, and I don’t need to say more about that. Twitter wasn’t so easy. It’s not that I had curated a prestigious group of followers to await my witty and wise tweets, though I’m sure that’s a temptation for some. Indeed, I barely tweeted, and a good deal of my followers seemed to be spambots hawking protein shakes and other specious muscle-building powders.

More the issue for me was the worry of how I’d stay informed. Keeping its users informed, in terms of news and commentary, is the very thing Twitter excels at. And because it does it so well, I’d begun to wonder how I’d ever stayed informed before. Strange that I’d perceived myself to be so dependent on an info-conveyance that I’d only been part of for a few years. But that’s part of the genius of the platform, I guess. It offers instant information gratification, and nothing else can compare; not even cable news, and certainly not the old newspaper on the doorstep in the morning.

Instant info-gratification has its own perils, but when current events take a dark turn, watch out. In the wake of the election, my Twitter feed became a dark place. Snark turned to cynicism. Debate turned shouty and insulting. Trolls abounded.

The opposite of grace
I began to feel like I couldn’t even pull up the app on my phone without getting into an argument in my head with someone. Not that I don’t fancy an argument now and then; but being in a constantly defensive posture, being constantly accosted by an aggressively articulated point of view is exhausting. (Not that any of it was deliberately aimed at me, but the blunderbuss nature of Twitter makes it feel like every shot fired is hurtling your way).

Criticism became endless; there was always some new system of oppression to expose, some tyranny to decry. And that makes sense; that’s Total Depravity, right? Things are warped through and through. But our hyper-critical and argumentative culture is in a weird spot, metaphysically: we’ve held on to the old doctrine of Total Depravity, while largely rejecting the economy of grace and mercy that makes the thought of that old doctrine tolerable in the first place. So critique begets critique, all the way down. If there’s ever been fertile ground for cynicism, that’s it right there. I got no sense from Twitter that someday all things will be made new.

So I left. And now I’m wondering if I’ve forsaken some civic duty to stay informed, especially in a politically fraught time.

Inward peace
But then this week I was reminded of how Augustine, 10 days before his death, gave up writing altogether. The great saint, so famous for his arguments – with Pelagius, with Julian – gave it all up to go spend time with God. Meanwhile, the Vandals were at the gates of the city.

Maybe that sounds like some sort of pious quiescence or a weary resignation. Maybe that’s what it was. Or maybe the source of Augustine’s inturned peace was something deeper. Maybe he realized that, yes, the arguments matter, but that the commonwealth ultimately depends on love. Indeed, on Love with a capital L. And so he could rest, though the barbarians were attacking the city, because he knew the city, and all subsequent cities and societies of our devising, were in the hands of the king.

I don’t know for sure. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, now that my mind is uncluttered by Twitter’s endless arguments.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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