On the Spiritual Danger of Virtual Communities

Over the past months I have had some interesting conversations, both in person and via email, concerning some of the problems with electronic communities, and in particular the problem they pose to Latter-day Saints.

With the emergence of the first officially-sponsored electronic community of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wanted to get some of these ideas out there for others to consider.

I have been involved with electronic forums and communities for many years now. Back in early 1990s’, before the emergence of the Internet on a widespread scale, I was very involved in the local electronic Bulletin Board System (BBS) community in Utah Valley. Using pseudonyms, one of my best friends, a cousin, and I hosted a BBS out of his bedroom that gained some minor popularity in the area. Since then I have participated in and administered many different kinds of online communities including listservs, forums, and loosely affiliated blogging communities and I have participated anonymously, pseudonymously, and onymously.

One of my major concerns about electronic communities revolves around concepts related to what I call “Voluntary” versus “Involuntary” associations. To set the stage for my concern, I am first going provide a lengthy excerpt from the book Heretics by G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton’s style is brilliant, but often meandering. I have tried to excerpt the parts from a much longer section that are most relevant to this topic. His thoughts, I think, are in a very real way, more applicable now in the digital age than when he wrote them in 1905. Says he:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan.

But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.

…If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.

…He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive.

…He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals—of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering.

…The complaint we commonly have to make of our neighbours is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business. We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business. If our neighbours did not mind their own business they would be asked abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbours. What we really mean when we say that they cannot mind their own business is something much deeper. We do not dislike them because they have so little force and fire that they cannot be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well. What we dread about our neighbours, in short, is not the narrowness of their horizon, but their superb tendency to broaden it. And all aversions to ordinary humanity have this general character. They are not aversions to its feebleness (as is pretended), but to its energy. The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.

Of course, this shrinking from the brutal vivacity and brutal variety of common men is a perfectly reasonable and excusable thing as long as it does not pretend to any point of superiority. It is when it calls itself aristocracy or aestheticism or a superiority to the bourgeoisie that its inherent weakness has in justice to be pointed out.

…Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell.

…We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting.

The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

Doubtless men flee from small environments into lands that are very deadly. But this is natural enough; for they are not fleeing from death. They are fleeing from life. And this principle applies to ring within ring of the social system of humanity. It is perfectly reasonable that men should seek for some particular variety of the human type, so long as they are seeking for that variety of the human type, and not for mere human variety.

…But if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid. It is quite reasonable that the village genius should come up to conquer London if what he wants is to conquer London. But if he wants to conquer something fundamentally and symbolically hostile and also very strong, he had much better remain where he is and have a row with the rector.

…So long as you have groups of men chosen rationally, you have some special or sectarian atmosphere. It is when you have groups of men chosen irrationally that you have men.

Chesterton’s ideas about loving our neighbors apply well in various contexts of Involuntary association, such as LDS congregations, which are assigned by mere geographic proximity, or LDS church callings or missionary companions, which are handed down rather than volunteered for, or even workplace interactions where you did not choose your co-workers. Such involuntary associations require us to work with and love our neighbors (those most terrible of beasts).

On the other hand, many electronic communities exhibit the same spiritual disease that Chesterton describes. They are an escape from the real neighbor, an escape from the common in favor of the clique. Now, some participants in these communities are sure to contend that the electronic communities in which they participate expose them to more diverse ideas and view points and lead them to be more tollerant. But what they are forgetting is that their electronic associations are voluntary, even if they are interacting with those with whom they strongly disagree. As Chesterton said, your voluntary associations represent a kind of a hobby that is based upon a personal choice or affinity (even if that affinity is for arguing with those with whom you disagree). And because it is voluntary, there is no real danger in the association because, realistically, it can be ended at any time. The tolerance of voluntary association is vastly spiritually inferior to Charity developed within involuntary associations.

Take the LDS blogging communities as an example. Admittedly, I have been formally disassociated from the LDS blogging community for over a year and a half now, so perhaps things have changed, but in my experience it was extremely common for participants to express the idea that the electronic LDS community was attractive to them because they were bored by the dullness of their own generic congregation; by the banality of Sunday School, Relief Society, or Priesthood lessons, and the common, uninformed members of their congregations. Disdain for the common, unintellectual, supposedly “blindly-obedient” membership with which they are forced to associate in their wards because of geographical proximity was a nearly universal subtext of community participation. In other words, the LDS blogging community often represented exactly the kind of flight from the common man by misanthropic elitists that Chesterton describes. And the fundamental axiom of that subtext, that the members are inferior masses, is as absolutely false as it is uncharitable.

Now, this shouldn’t be taken as a specific attack on LDS Blogging (I’ve done enough of that in the past) because the same critique can be made, to some extent or another, of all of the Internet-based communities I have ever participated in. Nearly all electronic communities are voluntary and so they naturally fall into this kind of misanthropic spiritual disease.

Now here I should qualify my point a little before it undermines itself by being to general. Clearly not all voluntary associations are spiritually damaging! On the contrary, voluntary associations can bring a lot of joy and enjoyment. Chesterton himself makes an important qualification: “Of course, this shrinking from the brutal vivacity and brutal variety of common men is a perfectly reasonable and excusable thing as long as it does not pretend to any point of superiority.”

Perhaps a good measure of the relative spiritual benefit or detriment of an electronic community is whether participation inspires members of that community to approach and engage their real-world neighbors anew with increased Charity and genuine interest. If it leads them to “pretend to any point of superiority” and become more aloof from their true, involuntarily selected neighbors, more disdainful of the weaknesses of their brothers and sisters, more ready to grouse about the commonness of the samples of humanity that have actually been given them, then perhaps it should be abandoned.

Dialogue between individuals with differing view points can be a valuable exercise. But in my experience, the dynamics (and benefit) of dialogue are changed when the dialogue takes place between members of a voluntary association versus an involuntary one. In an involuntary association, the conversation is placed into a context where the outcome of the conversation has real, immediate, and often long-lasting results, whether positive or negative. Because the association is involuntary, you are going to have to interact with one another regardless of the outcome of your dialogue.

In my experience in voluntary associations such as electronic communities, however, dialogue doesn’t bring understanding, tolerance, or unity, but rather increased polarization. More often than not, through dialogue we find that the views of those with whom we disagree really are, to some extent, incompatible with our own. And because the association is voluntary, and our dialogue is a dissipation or amusement rather than a necessity, no real compromise is required.

Perhaps more importantly, the process of articulating our own views solidifies within us ideas that may have been previously vague and more fluid. In other words, dialogue within voluntary associations is likely to lead us to commit to one position or another, and often that new-found allegiance is founded in reaction to the conversation rather than in a circumspect consideration of the issue at hand. Once we have verbally committed to a point of view, pride comes into play untempered by the Charity encouraged by involuntary association.

In my experience with electronic communities, the same conversations have been repeated over and over for years now. My observation is that, for the most part, long-time participants have become more sophisticated in arguing their own views as their understanding of the counter arguments increases. But previous conversations, while remembered by those who participated, are often forgotten on a collective level and pass into the ether, as it were. Reconciliation or conversion to another view is relatively infrequent. Rather, participants experience topic fatigue more than anything else. Seeking the company of the like-minded while at the same time proclaiming the virtues of dialogue is often more the rule than the exception in voluntary associations.

The progress of technology has made it easier than ever to substitute voluntary communities for real communities. We should take care that we do not fall into the spiritual traps that are offered by electronic communities.

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