I am a writer. It’s how I pay for things like food. And when I hear about an accusation of sexual assault against a Supreme Court candidate, my ears perk, my stomach growls, and I begin casting about for a hot take, some opinion, some theory from which to react. “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather,” Jesus said — and wherever there is a scandal, hungry journalists do the same.
This is nothing new — what’s new is the form in which most writers write. Most writing is online-writing, so most writing is monitored. Employers now know how many times a writer’s article is viewed, shared, and mentioned. They have the ability to quantify the merit of a particular piece. Increasingly, they pay their employees per view rather than per piece, risking nothing, assuring a return.
One might imagine that per-view writing inspires writers to be bold, seizing an audience by daring to say what no one else will say. It doesn’t. Economically speaking, whatever position they pick needs to garner enough views to give them a decent wage. Political writing becomes a product like any other. Whatever controversy he engages or battle-cry he emits, the per-view writer needs the assurance of some pre-existing demand for his writing. Inevitably, internet-writing tends to pander to some ideological population’s already-determined stance. The writer begins to write in imitation of his employer — by guaranteeing himself a return.
Readers, for their part, are online-readers. And online-readers are not just readers — they are sharers. The readable work confronts the reader as a recipient. It takes him as a relatively intelligent subject who will be able to digest the information, follow the argument and even enjoy the style of the written work. The shareable work confronts the reader as the bearer of a social media page, that is, as a person who regularly publishes pieces of his life and thought to a select public. The difficulty of the per-view writer is to craft an argument, not only so that it will convince, but so that it will motivate a social-media user to claim it as part of his identity, using it alongside the selfies and status-updates by which he displays a crafted self.
The contentiousness of contemporary articles is not the result of our “divided country.” The growing tendency of the essayist to spill his guts, rant, rave, curse, and flout the basic laws of grammar is not the result of a radical political landscape. Internet writing is crafted for people to share, express, and defend themselves. The article is ammo, not in the sense that it pierces, but because it is weaponized against enemies and borne like a coat of arms. The sharing of the article is only partly about what it says — typically, we share articles because of what they say about us. They express our identity, our ideology, our set of enemies and our friends. The writer, motivated by pageviews, produces arguments and stories for the use of a population who already agrees with them (his market), who use them against a disagreeing population. Writers help readers stake out a solid identity within a fragile, depersonalized, social-media world.
The resultant war of words might look like a lively print-culture, with ideas being volleyed back and forth, but our warfare is trench warfare, stalemate — a carefully balanced maintenance of the status quo. Texts are not used to convince or change the hearts and minds of others — they are used to confirm and express some already-convinced “sharer” in their convictions and to attack the unconvinced without the length, language, or argument required to actually change their minds. Articles without contention or negativity cannot be weaponized against an enemy in the constant digital age quest of forming an identity and violently expressing it — so they fall to the bottom. Thus, despite high hopes for a new diversification of media agendas, studies have pointed out that there is still “a significant correlation between the Traditional News Agenda and the Facebook News Agenda.” The status quo remains.
The results are as predictable as they are sad. America is increasingly partisan, divisive, and sundered into binaries of liberal/conservative that seem destined to repeat their arguments in endless cycle. The one thing we can all agree on is that we are more disagreeable than ever. No one can stop the process because, as America grows increasingly divisive, divisive essays cull increasingly more pageviews, and make more money. Readers are always on display — and so they always need to display a take, to share identity-affirming writing. Writing becomes predictable because the economics of supply and demand are predictable, and online life has made writing into a product and readers into its peddlers.
After the drama of the last few weeks, the thesis has been shuffled around that America is growing more radical. But radical, from radix, root, indicates an interest in getting to the root of the matter, of uprooting a poisonous political system and planting something good. The age of display and monitored existence does not produce radical politics. The internet-age produces foliar politics, from folium, leaf. We focus on public scandals, stereotypes and externals, because these provide us with the opportunity to make pageviews and pick sides. The roots of our political culture remain the same. In fact, were I more of a conspiracy theorist I would hazard to guess that the rulers of this earth invented our online mode of doing politics for precisely this reason — an entire nation can believe that it is becoming radical because it argues online, and meanwhile the same few people continue to gather up most of the world’s useful property, ability, and wealth. Since I am not so conspiratorial, I’ll simply say that I imagine our elite are quite happy with the fact that we spend our political will on reaffirming the status quo to our online friends and enemies.
The Church has made it abundantly clear that lay Catholics are supposed to be about the business of reconstructing the social order and sanctifying our economic and political systems. This kind of work requires a massive amount of labor from us. It is vital, therefore, that we do not spend all of our political energy in the way that the world would have us spend it — scapegoating others, carving out our identities, and assuring ourselves of a monetary return on our political thought. For Catholics who want to leave foliar politics for radical action, I recommend fasting from posting, and whenever the urge to affirm our identity by “sharing” wells up within us, performing some concrete action that helps others. It’s a small step: You read a post about how Trump’s last tweet was offensive to this or that identity group and, instead of registering your disapproval, you bake a loaf of bread for a member of that identity group. You read about the latest accusation of sexual assault, and instead of picking your side, you pray for the administration of justice. This kind of fast helps to change the basic orientation of our online existence, away from the defense of our person before a crowd and towards the rational use of online information to build up a better society. Deprived of our “outlet” for political activity, we are left with a small but significant energy that we can spend on action. Fasting returns a potency to the human soul, a power that can be spent on organizing; on concrete, local action; on works of mercy; on the establishment of new forms of political and economic activity and on the discernment of the real principalities and powers behind the appearances of public discourse.