The Negative World is the Internet image

The Negative World is the Internet

Aaron Renn's concept of the "negative world" has never sat right with me, although that may just be because I'm not American. If you're new to it, the idea is that there have been three stages in secularisation: the positive world (up to 1994), where society at large has a positive view of Christianity; the neutral world (1994-2014), where Christianity is neither privileged nor disfavoured; and the negative world (2014-present), where being a Christian is a clear social negative, especially among elites. No doubt some of my scepticism comes from my own experience, in which Christianity was definitely not positively (or even neutrally) treated in my teenage years; given that Renn is talking about America, this is neither here nor there. But I don't think that's all of it. Would that framing sound plausible if you lived in New York or San Francisco in the early nineties? If you were African American? If you were on a university campus during the Iraq war? I can't be sure, but I have my doubts.

That may be why I found Alastair Roberts’s recent article on it so interesting. His response is very different from mine, and much more interesting. The Negative World, he argues, is basically the Internet - and it is negative for everybody, not just Christians. Take your time:

There is one huge missing piece in Renn’s account, its absence both glaring and baffling. While he rightly mentions the importance of digitization, which concentrates great power in a few online companies, he simply does not adequately wrestle with the impact of the Internet. Without considering the Internet, I do not believe that much of what Renn terms ‘negative world’ will truly make sense. Indeed, key inflection points in the wider adoption of the Internet coincide with some of the shifts that Renn identifies: global Internet use took off in the mid-90s and it was in the mid-2010s that the age of the mobile Internet arrived and social media reached its dominance.

The shifts to neutral and negative world are certainly not monocausal, but I believe that the Internet is by far the more powerfully explanatory factor. The following is a rough sketch of some of the relevant ways in which I believe that its impact has played out:

The early Internet radically changed the form of public discourse. Whereas broader cultural discourse had formerly been the preserve of a few, a realm protected by gatekeepers within elite institutions, publishing, media, and politics, the Internet started to open the conversation up further. As a growing realm of discourse, the Internet reduced the control of legacy media, the political and party establishments, academic institutions, and other such agencies, and the power of old liberal elites at their heart.

Within the former cultural ecology, liberal elites were less threatened by hostile and unwelcome voices, which could more safely be siloed outside of mainstream discursive contexts or policed within them. The obscurity that people could enjoy outside of such mainstream discursive contexts was also a source of safety for them. To become a public voice, you would need to pass through credentialing and other gate-keeping institutions and agencies and demonstrate some degree of loyalty to the norms of the liberal establishment that they constituted. In many ways, this allowed for a more generous Overton Window. Liberalism’s confident culture of good faith and respectful disagreement was easier to maintain in a context where participation in public discourse was more reserved to those who had undergone extensive formation in its institutions, belonged to its elites, and honoured its norms, while more fringe or plebian voices lacked the same access to publicity and could safely be ignored.

While people might have strong differences, they shared institutions and a broader liberal culture in common and were less likely to be seeking to destroy each other or burn it all down. In such a setting, despite political, religious, and ideological differences in society, there were still effective consensus-forming mechanisms and institutions, elite control over the dominant means of publication, and a confidence in a culture of persuasion.

Legacy media, with its gatekeeping and credentialing, could restrict participation in the public to persons with formation in liberal discursive values, but the Internet changed this. Whereas positions might formerly have been represented in public by more erudite and polished advocates, the Internet opened realms of conversation in which differences could be discussed by the average Joe. Now people could talk more directly with people of different viewpoints.

The earlier Internet was dominated by more intellectual, creative, and technologically literate males, who developed their own fora and typically male-coded cultures of argument. The liberal dream of a culture of persuasion began to sour in this context, however, especially as less intellectual persons started to go online ... People who had hoped for thoughtful and friendly debate encountered flamers, trolls, and fools. Instead of interacting with thoughtful exponents of different positions, you might unwittingly find yourself arguing with some anonymous obnoxious fourteen-year-old. Some of us might have been that fourteen-year-old.

The world prior to the Internet was one in which people of different contexts were far less visible to each other. People could live within their own bubbles, with much less exposure to people and ideas outside of them. The Internet, however, started to pierce a lot of these bubbles, enabling people to look beyond their social worlds and to be formed in ideas and values and engage with people from outside of them. This weakened the power of those worlds to maintain internal norms and consensus; it also made it easier for dissidents to arrange movements within and against them. It also started to make formerly obscure bubbles easier for outsiders to look into. Among other things, these shifts increased the felt need for apologetics, for both outsiders and insiders. It also intensified the perceived threat that different bubbles could pose to each other.

It was in such a context that a strong atheist movement started to emerge. More young people from Christian contexts were rejecting the bubbles in which they had grown up. And, especially following 9/11, more secular atheists were starting to look at the religious worlds of many of their compatriots as a threat. The belligerent New Atheist movement was a product of the earlier Internet culture, strongly male-coded and debate-driven. Alexander suggests that a loss of confidence in the power of persuasion led people to look for a ‘hamartiology’, an account of sin. The New Atheists came to believe that religion was at the root of people’s blindness and resistance to reality. They were strongly committed to the hard sciences and to a world of facts and reality. While very aggressive, they still tended to uphold liberal values of open discourse: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It seems to me that the rapid passing of New Atheism as a movement might be a difficult thing to explain within Renn’s three world framework. In the early 2010s, atheism discourse was everywhere online and then suddenly the movement failed and many of its leaders fell into disfavour. What happened? Alexander suggests that the New Atheist movement ‘seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement’, the hamartiology of the latter replacing that of the former. I think that Alexander is right that New Atheism largely shifted into social justice. However, I do not think that he adequately accounts for the mechanisms by which this happened: I think that the evolution of the Internet provides a far better explanation.

The key shifts occurred around the time that Renn locates the movement into negative world. The earlier Internet had chiefly been a realm of words and ideas. Although there were intense circles of feminine-coded online activity, more masculine forms and cultures of discourse generally tended to be more defining of the Internet as it related to the ‘public’ realm (the ‘there are no girls on the Internet’ meme belongs to this era). The rise of social media radically changed the culture of the Internet. While the former Internet had been more anonymous and detached from offline identities and relationships, in the new social media age everyone was increasingly putting themselves online. Whereas the Internet had been a weird place with lots of anonymous strangers onto which you could go, now your real-life identity and relationships were online. It was no longer a Wild West into which you could wander or a secret friend to whom you could confide, but a virtual village in which you resided.

The earlier Internet was also decentralized and unmapped, filled with obscure corners where you could find groups of strangers who shared some interest. Or you could set up your own online homestead with a blog, perhaps joining some friendly circle of fellow bloggers. The social media Internet completely changed this. In place of subscribing to RSS feeds, on the social Internet things were disseminated socially. ‘Virality’, ‘memes’, social media ‘mobs’, and other such concepts tried to wrestle with the novel results and forms of the emerging dynamics of the social Internet, where ideas spread along more tribal, reactive, and emotional trajectories.

The social Internet made formerly obscure parts of the Internet visible to each other, collapsing formerly detached spaces into vast common planes of discourse, within which we were all potentially visible to everyone. In the social media Internet—which would be intensified by the mobile Internet—the distinctions between public and private, and those between political and personal started to fail.

Before the advent of the social Internet, there were also strong feminine-coded worlds online. In particular, the worlds of fandom and fan fiction. The Internet gave a powerful voice to fan communities, who obsessively talked about, speculated concerning, created artwork relating to, and spun off their own fantasies from their favourite properties. Especially for young women, such contexts were realms within which they could theorize their identities, relationships, and worlds. The intimacy of the things that a young woman could confide of herself in such realms also gave them a social intensity and fierce protectiveness and sensitivity. Katherine Dee (Default Friend) has argued that it is impossible to understand the cultural shift to so-called ‘wokeness’, or what Wesley Yang has called the ‘successor ideology’, without appreciating the role that Tumblr in particular played. Tumblr was a step away from the more obscure worlds of earlier fandoms into a more visible and open world.

I think Dee, perhaps the most perceptive commentator on such Internet subcultures, rightly appreciates the importance of Tumblr. However, it seems to me that the mainstreaming of Tumblr culture required larger social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which brought masculine and feminine forms of the Internet into more direct contact and collision with each other and led to the dynamics of the latter prevailing over the former.

The immense popular user base of Facebook and the widespread use of Twitter among the commentariat, academics, and other public figures gave them immense power to shift the tone of the broader cultural conversation as platforms. And their social character meant that there was a concern for personal identity, relationships, and communal dynamics within them that one would not encounter to the same degree in former public realms. The intense self-reflexivity and theorization of identity and society encouraged by Tumblr and other such contexts could break out into the broader culture because Facebook and Twitter created flattened contexts of discourse, disrupting the oppositions between public and private and political and personal that would formerly have limited the spread of its discourses.

As social media increasingly swallowed public discourse, it led to a growing preoccupation with the fragilized and bespoke identities of those who came of age online. Whereas the old context of liberal discourse was gatekept and bounded, distinguished from more social spaces, and operating according to more masculine-coded norms, the new discourse, occurring in social places, became preoccupied with feminine-coded sensitivities about identities, victimhood, and etiquette. The structurally egalitarian character of the new social media also made it very easy for authorities to be challenged and unsettled through group pressure. It made it a lot easier for marginal groups to organize across contexts, to make themselves visible to themselves and others, and to exert pressure upon majorities. The intense fandom culture also encouraged the rise of a fixation upon media representation of various groups and identities in various properties and powerful lobbies to press for them.

Without the advent of social media, the shift to social justice and its more feminine-coded politics would probably not have occurred in the same way. In the New Atheist movement this shift initially played out in controversies such as that surrounding ‘Elevatorgate’ and in a migration of focus from discourse focused upon scientific and philosophical realities to its own internal dynamics and to issues of ‘social justice’: feminism, antiracism and racial justice, and the various concerns of the LGBTQ+ movement. The concerns of this politics were concerns that were more natural to an age dominated by Spectacle, where appearance and representation have increasingly taken the place of ‘everything that was directly lived’, and the personal and political are elided.

In this context, the old confident liberalism has failed. The once bounded public square is bounded no longer. The participants in society’s discourses—at all levels—increasingly appear as victims and vulnerable persons requiring protection. A public square to which people are more directly exposed and in which they can more directly operate (perhaps to be followed by its evaporation) has set the stage for the passing of a culture of robust exchange of differing viewpoints, confident in a common reality.

Much of the old liberal establishment has withered and lost its former confidence. The legacy media has shrunk and its authority diminished. Academics are more precarious in their employment and more conformist; there has been a rapid diminishment of political diversity in academia. Academic institutions are increasingly driven by the interests of administration and business. The old realms of the public square have been weakened and what has taken their place operates very differently, a small number of corporations exerting considerable power over it. More restrictive managerial oversight of societies without consensus reality but with repeated alienating and polarizing interactions is taking the place of the more open liberal societies of the past. Power has shifted to large corporate agencies, untrustworthy custodians of liberal values. The Overton Window is no longer the more expansive one of the old liberalism, but one that serves the interests of a new managerial elite, brokers of a social order for their dependent and biddable clients, whose constant petitioning of them in the hyper-politicized symbolic causes of their personal lives is rather less threatening than traditional politics might be. In many respects, it could be regarded as a depoliticization of people, so that the market can proceed unobstructed: ‘neoliberalism is social justice’.

In the deluge of data characteristic of the Internet Age, the fact has died and, in its place, we have multiple competing narratives, with little allegiance to a grounding reality. The politics of such an age of spectacle and social media will tend to be ‘scissor’-politics, repeated narrative-driven polarization (Floyd, COVID, and Gaza are examples of such stories). In such a context, disdain, anger, resentment, and cruelty will tend to proliferate. Its reactivity will also encourage competing extremisms. Trump was a symptom and accelerant of such politics, among other things designed to attack the dignity that liberals might see in the office of the presidency.

There is a great deal more that could be said about the impact of the Internet. However, I want to consider how it might relate to Renn’s negative world thesis. The development I have described weakened an old liberalism, reordered societal discourse, transformed the public square, elevated more feminine-coded values, fragilized communities and identities by making them more porous and exposed, thrust more of societal life into a collective Spectacle, and strengthened managerialist neoliberalism. It was not targeted against Christianity, though.

In many respects, we all live in a negative world now. The loss of consensus reality, the failure of effective consensus-forming institutions, the extreme polarization of our politics, and the fragilization of our communities and identities leave everyone feeling exposed and vulnerable in new ways. No one thinks that they are winning. In other respects, the development has fallen especially hard upon particular groups. In America the place that Jews once enjoyed in the old liberal establishment, for instance, is rapidly shrinking and rising open antisemitism and less certain government policies concerning the state of Israel are signs of a loss of their cultural power.

In such a context, it is easy for people to confuse some of the ways that the emerging order seems to threaten their groups with some ‘negative world’ hostility to the Christian faith. Responding to such a sense, it is easy for identitarian victimhood politics to elide Christian identity with fragilized cultural identities—with ‘white masculinity’, for instance—and to pursue sectarian politics in Christ’s name. As such politics impact the Church, they will tend to be both highly divisive, resistant to the Church’s concrete catholicity, and to compromise the moral integrity of the Church and the primacy of its bonds for the sake of effective political coalitions. Accentuating political tribalism offers a sort of security for anxious Christians, but at the cost of Christian faithfulness in preserving the peaceful bond of the Spirit in the Church.

A key reservation I have about Renn’s thesis is that it might lead us to focus our attention upon ourselves and upon American society’s reduced hospitality to Christians and their faith. This is not without importance, but, in many respects what we are experiencing may be a particularly pronounced form of a more general societal malaise, much of it brought about or accelerated by the Internet. Recognizing this might equip us to think better about the manner of our response. For instance, we might think more carefully about how to guard our own lives, contexts, communities, and organizations from some of the more damaging dynamics of the Internet. We might also consider how the Church might function as an Ark for others, protecting them from the collapse of the former order and the threats of its successor.

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