We are in the middle of another cycle. They seem to be coming ever more frequently. The cycle commences with a man-made disaster. An airplane crash or a mass shooting is sure to start one. Sometimes, natural disasters are attributed to human causation; a hurricane or winter storm will start the cycle.
What they all have in common is that the disaster itself is commonly and universally seen as an evil about which we should do something. The most recent cycle was set off by a pair of mass-murders in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
According to pattern, the incident was exploited with pre-planned talking points designed to advance an agenda. In this case, at least two of the 2020 presidential hopefuls launched a salvo against the Second Amendment while the scene in El Paso was still active.
Phase three of the cycle involves politicians. Driven by focus groups, or perhaps behind-the-scenes signals from a major donor, they float measures designed to split the difference between opposing sides. These don’t generally ask principled questions of right and wrong, constitutional vs. unconstitutional. They calculate, instead, which position in the mushy middle can gain the most votes from one side while losing the fewest from the other.
Phase four is marked by the entrance of lobbying groups that are not as well-organized and heavily funded as the pro- and anti-gun lobbies. During this phase you will see psychologists and counselors using the incident to draw attention to mental illness. Anti-pharmaceutical groups correlate the murders with psych drugs. Law-enforcement unions might use the opportunity to advocate for armed guards at key locations. Pro-family groups point out the high correlation between mass-murder and fatherlessness.
These lobbying groups all have valid statistics and reasoning behind their claims. Nevertheless, they will be drowned out by the overarching narrative of gun-control vs. Second Amendment rights. So, their concerns are mostly ignored and marginalized. Instead, they get pigeonholed into one of the two dominating narratives.
Typically, the groups talking about mental illness and pharmaceuticals are thrown in with the gun-control advocates to include those issues in background checks. Family groups and law-enforcement, on the other hand, are often dismissed as providing cover for the pro-gun crowd.
This cycle will conclude either with the defeat of the latest gun-control proposals or with their adoption. If they are defeated, the anti-gun lobby will check the polls to see how far the needle has been moved in their direction. If the measures are adopted, talking points will be prepared for the next cycle to move the next compromise position a little further in their direction than the last.
Seasoned readers of this column will know that my sympathies lie with the pro-family groups. But that is beside the point. No matter where your sympathies lie on the particulars of the cycle du jour, it’s the cycle itself that we need to talk about.
Too easily we are caught up in it. Focused on our own special interests, we fail to see the bigger picture. When this happens, we are no longer participants but pawns. Sociologists and psychoanalysts, aided by computer data analysis, have learned how to use buzzwords and triangulation to play various constituencies like pawns.
The social-media giants employ sophisticated behavioral science in order to manipulate your behavior. The dopamine that is released by getting a “like” on your post is a powerful — if cynical — device to keep you coming back for more. Sophisticated algorithms are not designed to inform and challenge your better angels. They are designed to stroke your ego and give you positive feedback.
The goal is not to further the public conversation, but to make money. This is true whether we are talking about Facebook, Google, Twitter or the mainstream media outlets that hawk their wares on these platforms.
In some cases, the goal is not money, but political power. Either way, it is always wrong to use other people. Whether it is a manipulative boyfriend or a manipulative corporation, the immorality is the same.
Cynical and unscrupulous people desire to objectify you as a means toward an end. They exploit your time, energy and relationships for their own gain, without regard to your well-being. This is always dehumanizing. It should make us recoil in disgust.
The societal harms that come from this cycle are many and they are serious. The first, and most obvious, is that it tramples on a nuanced and thoughtful conversation. Serious consideration of complex relationships is not possible. They must, instead, be crammed into one of two artificial categories. Leisurely contemplation of sublime truths is short-circuited by an Orwellian judgement: “Four legs, good. Two legs, bad.”
The false dichotomies that stifle thoughtful conversation lead to an ever-increasing polarization of our world. One by one, formerly independent thought is sucked into the vortex of the cycle du jour. As more and more independent issues are co-opted by the central narrative, the stakes are raised ever higher. As a hurricane grows in intensity by enveloping ever more area, so, also, a thousand policy positions are fused into a single, totalitarian storm.
For instance, once upon a time we could have a meaningful conversation about the evils of fatherlessness and how we could work together to mitigate the problem. But if discussion of this problem threatens to divert attention from the agenda driving the cycle, it must be dismissed as a diversionary tactic from the pro-gun side. After that, those genuinely tackling the problem of fatherlessness are dismissed as shills of the pro-gun lobby.
This, in turn, leads to an escalation of rhetoric and personal animosity. Totalitarianism destroys personal relationships. It is designed to do so. This is the greatest evil of them all.
As an observer of our cultural wars, I concluded long ago that the destruction of personal relationships is the real goal. I know that sounds conspiratorial, so let me explain.
I do not think that it is the goal of the people who are at each other’s throats. I don’t even think it is the goal of the central planners who are using technology to manipulate the conversation. The one who wishes to destroy personal relationships and stir up hate is none other than the devil himself.
When you recognize this fact, tactics change. Winning the argument must become less important than affirming the humanity of your neighbor. Loving your neighbor becomes more important than proving your point.
When we recognize the awesome power of social- and news-media to manipulate the collective mind, we will become ever more wary of the motives behind their product. Simultaneously, we must become ever humbler in our opinion that we have all the needed facts.
This, in turn, will make us more open to the knowledge that our ideological opponent might give us. Conversation is about giving and receiving. That is the very heart of relationship. When we receive truth from our neighbor in humility and thanksgiving, pride and thanklessness are driven away. This is the very thing that is needed to rebuild a broken world.
So how can you break the cycle instead of becoming a part of it? Vice President Pence answers, “No. 1 is spend more time on your knees than on the internet.” I couldn’t agree more.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.