We’re continuing our series of posts considering the Covid-19 pandemic from the perspective of the various ‘aspects’ proposed by reformational philosophy. We’ve already considered perspectives of economics, aesthetics, religion, ethics and history; this week I want to consider the lingual aspect of the pandemic – the way in which our response to the virus has been shaped by (and in turn shaped) the spread of information about it through the various channels available to us as 21st-century global citizens. For Dooyeweerd, the lingual aspect of reality is concerned with the systems of ‘symbolic signification’ that serve to externalise meaning – to separate ideas from the person who is thinking them – and thus to enable them to be shared, to persist, and to create broader networks of signification within culture; for more on this aspect, you can look at Andrew Basden’s helpful introductory article.
There’s no doubt that this aspect of reality has been particularly contested throughout the pandemic: as has often been observed, there is a kind of conceptual symmetry between the contagion of the virus itself and the ‘infodemic’ of rumour, speculation and downright falsehood that has circled the world in its wake. From competing narratives about the origins of the virus (themselves parasitic on existing tensions between China and the West, particularly the United States), through fierce debates about the efficacy of masks and other control measures, to vaccine hesitancy and the morass of conspiracy theories that intersect with it, every imaginable ‘truth’ about the virus has come under question in the public sphere at some point, and many remain the subject of ongoing controversy. This is most obvious in the way that a rapidly evolving body of scientific data and interpretation has been drawn into the service of widely varying governmental positions (always with the rhetorical flourish that the state is ‘following the science’), whilst at the same time competing against the more informal, less accountable, and infinitely more agile world of social media – where claims can spread widely based on anecdotal or even fabricated evidence, and processes of peer review or fact-checking are very difficult to enforce.
The basic principles of social media have itself contributed to this problem: as commentators such as Jaron Lanier have been pointing out for some time, the core business model of sites such as Facebook and Twitter – predicated on catching and holding user attention so that it can be monetised – results in a tendency to prefer provocative statements (‘clickbait’) to informative ones, boil down complexities to meme-worthy mantras, and prioritise personal connection over expertise, since these are all features that the all-powerful algorithms deem likely to increase the clicks and responses generated by a post. In that sense, we are now reaping a whirlwind of disinformation that we sowed some years ago.
It’s also tempting to draw connections to the broader intellectual milieu within which the founders of these companies came of age. Among the grander proclamations of late-twentieth-century postmodernism was the idea that overarching metanarratives about the universe have been replaced by private truths drawn from personal experience, and that the limitations of language ultimately stymie any attempts to share these between individual subjects. And if that’s the case, a business model based around foregrounding some of those private truths above others is quite understandable, a pragmatic response to an already established ‘post-truth’ worldview. I don’t mean to be dismissive of a postmodern viewpoint here, simply to observe one of its implications; as I’ve written elsewhere, postmodernism also has much of value to offer us as Christians. And in fact (with thanks to Michael Wagenman for reminding me of this), postmodernism can also help supply us with a critique of this ‘post-truth’ culture, by noting the power dynamics that lie behind internet media’s stranglehold on information – the reality that those who control these social media networks have their own vested interests for doing so, and may not be seeking purely financial gain but also other kinds of social power. Behind all of this, of course, the coronavirus rumbles on; it continues to spread whether or not we believe the various competing truth claims about it.
What is our role in all of this, as Christians and academics? I have a few concrete suggestions:
- Reach beyond your own echo chamber. In the present situation, I find it very comforting to stick to the company of people who think like I do – where I know each of my statements about the pandemic will be greeted with nods of agreement. Social media makes it extremely easy to stay in this environment. But views will only change when we take the risk and engage with people with whom we disagree profoundly, and learn ways of communicating graciously without compromising on the truth. (Conveniently, Michael Wagenman has recently written a blog on exactly this issue!)
- Ask God to help us see others as He does. It’s easy to demonise those who spread misinformation, but we don’t know what is going on in people’s hearts. Conspiracy theories are often motivated by a search for coherence amid a confusing world, the same animating urge that gives the Gospel much of its attraction for us as Christians; instead of dismissing those who appear to be misinformed as ignorant or selfish, we need to understand the circumstances that make such narratives plausible, and reflect on how we might bring healing to those who have been ensnared by lies.
- Recognise the limits of the linguistic. One benefit of seeing linguistic communication through a Dooyeweerdian lens, as one aspect of a good (but flawed) creation, is that we are empowered to recognise its problems; one of these is what Andrew Basden calls ‘media distortion’, the tendency for stories to draw more intrigue and attention when they are unpleasant or shocking. In these circumstances, fighting fire with fire is counterproductive: a response based around non-linguistic displays of concern or kindness may well have a greater long-term impact than a point-by-point refutation of a series of false claims.
What are your thoughts on this aspect of the pandemic? Do you have experience you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!