In a recent article in The New Yorker about the social media platform Reddit, “Antisocial Media,” Andrew Marantz confronts his readers with a number of questions central to the much-politicized presence of social media platforms in our daily lives:

“Is it possible to facilitate a space for open dialogue without also facilitating hoaxes, harassment, and threats of violence? Where is the line between authenticity and toxicity? What if, after technology allows us to reveal our inner voices, what we learn is that many of us are authentically toxic?”

What IF, indeed? Misanthropes may guffaw, stipulating, like Samuel Johnson, that “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.” According to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, we wear “suits of armor lined with thorns,” or, if you want to side with comedian Bill Hicks, consider yourself “a virus with shoes.” These observations, all shared in a pre-high-tech, pre-digital era, when humans still encountered each other in person, via snail mail or on monodirectional media like TV or radio, speak to humanity’s innate features of vice, biblical or otherwise. We come good and bad and all shades in between, no matter our engagement with media and technology. Why should we all of a sudden be free of toxicity when harassment and threats have functioned quite effectively as reliable characteristics of human dialogue? There’s a reason we have a plethora of concepts for envy or hate, and then there is the always delightful Schadenfreude. Or: roaring silence. Take the following scene from Daniel M. Gross’s new book, Uncomfortable Situations. Emotions between Science and the Humanities (2017), which is entirely tech-free but no less toxic:

“You’re at a dinner party with friends. A debate about a contentious issue arises that gets everyone at the table talking. You alone bravely defend the unpopular view. Your comments are met with sudden uncomfortable silence. Your friends are looking down at their plates, avoiding eye contact with you. You feel your chest tighten.” (1)

Discomfort ensues. On everyone’s part. Harassment or threats may be next. And one person’s authenticity, one person’s bravery, becomes someone else’s toxicity, impeding dialogue, even among friends, or making it blatantly impossible. The psychologist Linda Skitka, a leading scholar of moral conviction, pursues the janus-faced features of conviction in “Moral Convictions and Moral Courage: Common Denominators of Good and Evil” (The Social Psychology of Morality, 2012, 349-365) where she tests “accepted wisdom” that “strong situations” eventually force people to fall in line, conforming to social norms; and where she argues that “good and evil sometimes become less clear when acts of moral courage are related to actors’ political, social or cultural beliefs.” (350) Studies on obedience and conformity are pitched against “authority independence,” for example, to show that “heroism” and “terrorism” may be two sides of one coin and dependent on one’s perspective or value system: “it is […] important not to let our values about what counts as good and evil blind us to the possibility that others have an opposing but equally ‘moral’ (by their standards) view.” (361) While I don’t want to suggest that authenticity and toxicity are smoothly aligned with conviction – their connection requires separate analysis down the road – the conundrum inherent to conviction seems to be precisely its oscillatory qualities, akin to finding that line between being true to yourself and voicing beliefs that are deemed vile.  As Skitka points out in her summary:

“Given that strong moral convictions are associated with accepting any means to achieve preferred ends, gaining more insight into the psychology of how and why moral convictions promote constructive, but potentially also quite destructive, forms of moral courage is a critical agenda for continued scientific investigation.” (363)

Whether we engage via social media or in face-to-face social settings, drawing the “line between authenticity and toxicity,” becomes a matter of opinion, cultural and situational context, and, sometimes, one’s emotional disposition. Where do we find ourselves within a certain debate, on a particular issue, amongst a particular group? How do we identify, examine, and trace our innermost beliefs when so much of what we try to communicate is context-driven and context-determined?

This is the first in a series of blog entries – call them micro-chapters – that explores the meaning of conviction, personal, moral, cultural. While I will discuss the literature on conviction from philosophy, psychology, and communication studies (the fields that have yielded the most debate so far), my aim is to investigate the origins, formations and expressions of conviction with a focus on a personal patterning that is tied to cultural value systems, affect dispositions within social contexts – self-chosen or endemic – and current (digital) media practices. Questions I will pursue include: how are convictions important to us? Are we always aware of our convictions, or are there “blind spots” we are not compelled to reflect? In which (social) circumstances are convictions habitual, tacit knowledge, when are they apparent as recognizable elements of one’s X (cultural, gender, religious, etc.) identity? How do we learn to talk about our convictions? What modes of expression do we utilize to share them? What are workable ways to negotiate that line between authenticity and toxicity? And are there cultural variations of being friend and foe, rendering contentious dinner conversations a matter of perspective, not necessarily discomfort?

My go-to research areas of support to begin looking for answers are intercultural communication (especially value systems, identity formation, stereotypes, and tolerance for ambiguity), affect studies (esp. affective resonance, empathy, and the politics of emotion) and media studies (esp. media authorship, networks, interactivity, and multimodal communication). Ultimately – with the help of basic research methods and soliciting different types of media – I hope to offer some answers to the above and to what conviction is; or how we can begin to frame it; or how we engage in the reflection of while communicating its authenticity as a human feature all its own.

For now, I asked google, copying Marantz’s experiment with Reddit. These are the top auto-completions, as of on April 10, 2018:

Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 4.33.16 PM

 

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