I watched a Youtube video this morning of piranhas in a home aquarium. The owner feeds them by putting a chub into the water. For five minutes the piranha take turns calmly nipping at the fish. On minute six, sensing the chub is wounded, the piranhas attack in mass. Thirty seconds later all that is left of the chub, head and backbone, gills still grotesquely trying to breathe, settles to the bottom of the tank as the piranhas go back to peacefully flitting about. I couldn’t help but think of our current culture. It took about three weeks of lockdown last summer before we began feeding on one another – hyper-networked, political, quasi-religious, self-righteous piranhas in frenzy each time a new hot button issue appears in the water.
The price for acceptance by the social media powered activist piranhas is the wholesale adoption of their particular hashtag agenda. People administer purity tests with the fury of a Spanish inquisitor: did you vote for the right candidate? Whose “lives” matter to you? Did you surround your profile pic with the correct virtue signal? Both the Right and the Left engage in this. All dissent is “canceled” with a religious fervor. Be aware: if you dare not conform to the standard there is no redemption, there is no atonement, there is no path for forgiveness. There is only the swarming of the school as the voices of vitriol catechize us to despise the non-endorsers.
Australian pastor and social observer, Mark Sayers recently discussed (Rebuilders podcast) that while we were once polarized Right vs Left, increasingly we are divided into a plethora of competing hashtag virtue camps. We measure ourselves by the number of “friends” on our impersonal social networks and seek the validation of their “likes” – trapped in the online equivalent of Sally Fields 1985 Oscar speech, “You like me!”
As Peggy Noonan reminded us in the Wall Street Journal last week, the boundaries are being redrawn in real time around dozens of single issues. Yet the results are remarkably consistent across those issues: We are measured by the correctness of our superior beliefs and the irredeemable evil of all outside our digital tribes. And the outsiders must be eaten. As not-woke enough progressive Andrew Sullivan wrote on July 9, “you are either fighting this and ‘on the right side of history,’ or you are against it and abetting evil. There is no neutrality. No space for skepticism. No room for debate. No space even for staying silent. (Silence, remember, is violence — perhaps the most profoundly anti-liberal slogan ever invented.)” When confronted by a non-conforming view we school, swarm and consume.
The interesting thing, though, is that while we may hold divergent positions, when we look at the way people actually live: they way they use their time, money, and sexuality…behind the ideological bumper stickers, the life-scripts are nearly identical: hyper-individualism lived out on Instagram, TikTok, and dating apps.
Few notice that, despite how politically varied our Facebook activism might be, it produces eerily similar people: needing external affirmation to find meaning; dismissing anyone outside their network…living life at the depth of carefully curated and shared social media memes.
This is no recipe for a lasting culture. It is a recipe for anxiety and depression. Look at the rise in prescription medication and therapeutic relationships for those with health insurance, and the self-medication of addiction for those without. The bones falling to the bottom of the tank are our own.
Postscript: In this feeding frenzy we are told there are only two positions: predator and prey. If there really are only two positions, I will gladly be fish food.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32