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Exponential Satanism: Girard and Digital Technology

Christianity invented the concept of defending the victim. In pre-Christian societies, collective violence against innocent scapegoats was commonplace. With the revelation that humans would kill God himself if given the chance, Christianity reveals the dignity of the victim (Girard 2001).

Though religious faith is not necessary to grasp the long-term social value of assigning dignity to victims, faith is necessary to respect potential victims in contexts where rationality dictates the abuse of victims. In the context of modern individualism, abusing victims is often a rational decision, especially if refusal to abuse a victim increases the probability of becoming a victim. The dignity of victims is an essentially extra-rational and extra-logical concept, philosophically and historically rooted in the tradition of Christian revelation.

Western civilization is inconceivable without this dignity assigned to victims. Over time, a pro-victim posture becomes a necessary condition for public claims to gain moral legibility at all, let alone sympathy or support.

The overarching gambit of modern secular progressivism is that one can do away with the revelation of God, while remaining invested in the defense of victims. The result is pre-Christian dynamics of collective violence—sublimated with keyboards—fueled with a missionary zeal and moral confidence that only two thousand years of Christianity could generate.

Modern, secular progressivism is therefore a kind of Satanism squared: The conscious drive to reject God, combined with the exploitation of the Christian inheritance for moral cover.

Our saving grace today is that, currently, dynamics of collective violence play out mostly over keyboards, in a kind of live-action role-playing of ancient collective murder. An open question is whether digital pacification is a sustainable sublimation or an unsustainable suppression.

It is possible that the current digitalization of mob violence leads to physical violence. Digital networks would then convert the once slow and clunky formations of physical violence into instantaneous, non-linear formations of physical violence. Remember the short-lived trend known as the “flash mob?” Imagine woke crusaders —or paranoid nativists—reviving the flash mob, leveraging fully encrypted messaging and anti-surveillance clothing. From there, it would only take one person throwing one stone for mob murders to rediscover their historical normalcy. I’m not saying this is imminent, I’m only pointing out that it’s surprisingly feasible technically and conceivable culturally: Apollonius of Tyana (3 BC - 97 AD), a widely admired sage often compared to Jesus, advised the Ephesians to stone a blind beggar in order to end a local plague (Girard 2001).

Adding insult to injury, the poor man’s natural reactions to the stoning were adduced as evidence against him:

“And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar... gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognised that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.” —Philostraus, Life of Apollonius

Before Christianity, this is what social justice looked like.

It’s also possible that digital technologies have so completely pacified modern man that pre-Christian collective violence is no longer possible in the West. In some way, this might be worse: If we want to kill each other but we don’t because we are too weak, we accumulate all the bile of murderous resentment without the pro-social consequences of collective physical violence. As Girard frequently reminds us, the temptation of murdering a scapegoat is that it works, at least in the short term, to alleviate social frustrations and restore harmony among the murderers.

Ken and Karen of St. Louis defending their home after a mob smashed one of their statues. They were later charged with felony weapons count, for their "eyes were full of fire."
Ken and Karen of St. Louis defending their home after a mob smashed one of their statues. They were later charged with felony weapons count, for their "eyes were full of fire."

There is a third option, a combination of the two above. Perhaps the digital sphere is like a rubber band, currently being stretched further and further, invisibly accumulating potential energy in the form of escalating paranoia and bloodlust. In this scenario, modern individuals in the West are indeed too weak to kill each other, until the bile reaches its boiling point. When released, such a rubber band would snap with unprecedented social force, revealing itself to be not a pacifying impediment but a grand incubator of collective violence.

I believe the third model is most likely, and yet my outlook is overwhelmingly optimistic. Why?

There are other players in the game.

The public mainstreaming of runaway social psychosis may turn out to be the greatest gift ever given to those who trust in the straight and narrow path.

In the long run, groups that coordinate on the truth always beat groups that coordinate on collective delusion.

Before the technological acceleration of Satanism, all the straight-and-narrow pathwalkers who would prefer to coordinate on the truth could live fairly well amidst those who preferred to coordinate on delusions. Maybe such people were unlikely to be best friends, but they could enjoy each other at the bowling club and share niceties about the nightly news. This made truth-seekers a little dumber and weaker, but it made the delusional smarter and stronger.

Now that the patients run the asylum, generous pathwalkers cannot even donate their wisdom to the delusional if they wish to. It's either prohibited as offensive or rejected as false. I am baffled by those who continue to burn precious cognition on crying about patently dumber people who insist they know best. One should be rather grateful to these lost souls who give others ethical license to leave them behind.

The divide between those who coordinate on truth and those who coordinate on delusion will inevitably pull the rest of society into its vortex. Most people do not care much whether they coordinate on truth or delusion, as long as it's easy and they are able to carry on with their lives. But now, if you don't have a missionary zeal to coordinate on increasingly implausible collective delusions that change by the week, you will be forced to coordinate on the truth. It's the only other Schelling point available.

The political situation could not better for those who believe that the truth is what sets one free.

PS: We’re launching an 8-week course on René Girard starting in mid-June. Download our beautiful 20-page study guide and we’ll send you an email when we open enrollment. GirardCourse.com.

There are no humans on the internet

The best way to build community and make friends on the internet is to treat all internet interlocutors as if they are real humans in a real-life, local village. If you do this, over time many people will like you and want to form an alliance with you. Because most internet behavior is so atrocious, if you abide by traditional inter-personal norms (reciprocity, manners, courtesy, etc.), you quickly become a strange attractor. You become a kind of weird avatar from another time and place. Of course, you will encounter many haters in the short-run. They will interpret your quaint earnestness as an ironic performance, or “soy boy” pusillanimousness, or some kind of 4-dimensional hyper-grift. But in the long-run, traditional interpersonal ethics are irresistibly attractive because they are, in fact, good and superior.

Now, of course, there is a reason why average internet behavior is so atrocious.

It is seemingly impossible to abide by small-village norms on the internet, simply because those norms evolved in contexts where villagers had no choice but to play iterated games and everyone could remember everyone else’s behaviors. On the internet, neither of these conditions hold: nobody is forced to remain in any grouping over time, and there are so many people that nobody can remember everyone else’s behavior. There are strong incentives to exploit others, and no obvious reason to invest much care into others. So if you treat every potential interlocutor with care, you’ll quickly waste all of your resources and be exploited into nothingness.

However, it is feasible to apply traditional ethics to everyone who enters your personal sphere for the first time, and then simply ignore them as soon as they fail to reciprocate. In game theory this strategy is called “tit for tat,” and in my contexts it is found to be the best possible strategy. Many people seem to follow a variant of this strategy, in their “blocking” behavior. On Twitter, many people will block someone at the first indication of their enemy status. But most of these people are not really playing traditional-ethics tit-for-tat reciprocity because usually they’re usually also lobbing hand-grenades into the enemy camp for fun and profit on a daily basis. I’m saying one should treat the entire universe of internet denizens on a courteous, tit-for-tat basis: If they’ve done me no wrong, then I won’t do them any wrong. If they come into my sphere, I will treat them as a real friend until evidence of bad behavior, in which case I will not retaliate but simply ignore them.

Anyone who abides by this strategy will be surprised by how quickly a meaningful community emerges around them. This might seem obvious, even trite, but what’s not is how to scale this strategy. Most people who operate this strategy find themselves in relatively tiny clusters. And almost inevitably, they form their own imaginary out-groups and all the pitfalls of group-psychological bias emerge. What I’m really interested in is how to make this strategy scale, without limit or cessation.

I think I have figured out why this strategy is so hard to scale. The solution is hidden behind a deeply counter-intuitive paradox. It’s so counter-intuitive that it’s too psychologically difficult for most people to execute. But in certain ways I think I have been learning to do it, which is how I’ve become conscious of it.

The paradox is that to treat internet denizens humanely at scale, one must cultivate a brutal coldness toward all of the internet’s pseudo-human cues, which are typically visual (face pictures and text) applied to your sense organs by corporations for profit. These pseudo-human cues are systematically arranged, timed, conditioned, and differentially hidden or revealed to you by absolutely non-human, artificial intelligence.

Your goal should be to hack this inhuman system of cues on your screen, with a brutal analytical coldness, in order to find and extract humans into potential relationships. One must stop seeing the internet as “a place to connect with others,” but rather see it as nearly the opposite: It is a machine that stands almost impenetrably between and against humans, systematically exploiting our desire for connection into an accelerating divergence and alienation from each other. It is only when one genuinely cultivates this mental model, over time, that it becomes psychologically possible to treat one’s computer for what it is: An utterly inhuman device for conducting operations on statistical aggregates, a device which only accidentally comes pre-packaged with an endless barrage of anthropomorphic visual metaphors.

Those are not people “behind” the avatars on your screen, those are functions in a machine. When we speak of “the algorithms,” we generally imagine them as code behind apps, but the difficult fact to admit is that “the algorithms” are primarily other people, or at least those names and face-pictures we “interact with.” The codebase of the Facebook app doesn’t really manipulate me, the code is not “gaming” me, because I have no biological machinery that allows complicated lines of technical language to trigger changes in my behaviors. It is ultimately the creative energy of other human beings, uploaded to the machine, that is the driving force of what is manipulating me; the codebase only provides a set of game-rules through which other human beings are incentivized to apply their creative effort.

The horror of big social network platforms is not to be found in “technology” or “capitalism,” it is to be found in what we have become. Capitalism is only the name of that which aggregates from the raw reality of what we really want, of what we really do. The solution is to desire differently. Desire is amenable to updating and collective organizing, at least to a degree, which cannot be said of advanced capitalism.

We must get to work, with icy discipline, creating systems to extract humans from the machine, which means to produce human relationships from what we do have in abundance: data. Human relationships are no longer given to anyone by default, so if you want them you must produce them through engineered systems, or else pay someone who can engineer them for you.

As an aside, “independent content creators” are somewhat misleadingly named; perhaps they are primarily community engineers. Truly independent creative effort, which successfully differentiates itself from the passively extracted “creative effort” of social media sheeple, is like a lightning rod that organizes around itself other like-minded humans looking for an exit from the machine. But of course, the independent community is its own machine, and successful “content creators” are essentially disciplined entrepreneurs running often rather sophisticated systems.

We should seek to build independent systems that are even more aggressively inhuman than big social network platforms — because they hack desire with even more precision — but they should output relationships and experiences that are far more authentically human than anything else currently available. And they should be able to do this at scale. More artificial intelligence, more automation, more precisely optimized processes, but engineered by individuals and small-groups against, rather than for, the pseudo-human web.

You can be neutral on a moving train

There's a popular idea that one can't avoid taking some political position because having no position is to support the status quo. In the words of Howard Zinn, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." For a while, I agreed with this, but I don't think I believe it anymore. The lack of a position on some political question only defaults to the status quo if you presume there's a meaningful choice between the status quo and some preferable alternative. This presumption of a choice, and some agency over effectuating one's choice, now appears to me wrong, with respect to many of the supposedly most important political questions.

The compulsion to take positions is arguably one of the more malignant aspects of the status quo, perhaps even a basis for its worst injustices. If you think choice and agency in political affairs is negligible, then deliberating and expressing one's choice has the same political valence as declining to do so — but declining saves a lot of time, energy, and mental health, all of which can be spent on the immanent politics of one's shared life with others. If most people stopped paying attention to politics, and had no opinions, overall social welfare would be improved relative to the status quo. A popular lament is that voters are not sufficiently informed, but as far as I can tell, huge masses of people are now irreconcilably passionate about too many problems, precisely because they have too much information and education relative to their processing power. Once upon a time, ignoring macro-politics was seen as immature, uneducated ignorance and passivity, but perhaps it will increasingly become a mark of educated sagacity and radical honesty.

Now, wars start themselves

Major wars have become less frequent, but a curious feature of the wars we still observe is that almost nobody starts them. When wars occur today, they appear to start themselves, or are started by some unknown entity. I learned this from a new article by Hathaway et al. Here are selections from the abstract:

This Article is the first to examine “war manifestos,” documents that set out the legal reasons sovereigns provided for going to war from the late fifteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. We have assembled the world’s largest collection of war manifestos—over 350—in languages as diverse as Classical Chinese, German, French, Latin, Serbo-Croatian, and Dutch...

Examining these previously ignored manifestos reveals that states exercised the right to wage war in ways that would be inconceivable today. In short, the right to intervene militarily could be asserted in any situation in which a legal right had been violated and all peaceful channels had been explored and exhausted. This Article begins by describing war manifestos. It then explores their history and evolution over the course of five centuries, explains the purposes they served for sovereigns, shows the many “just causes” they cited for war...

Hathaway, Oona A. and Holste, William and Shapiro, Scott J. and Van De Velde, Jacqueline and Lachowicz, Lisa, War Manifestos (September 15, 2017). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 85, 2018 Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 617. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3037538

Self-defense is the most popular justification for war throughout the period studied, but it's interesting that its prevalence steadily grew from the middle of the twentieth century. Most traditional justifications for warring have become obsolete. Religion was once a fairly common reason for going to war, but now explicitly religious wars among states are virtually extinct.

https://ssrn.com/abstract=3037538

Don't be fooled into thinking that interstate aggression has been humanized. Quite the contrary, these data only suggest that war is an increasingly algorithmic process, increasingly devoid of human agents: When every player in the game invokes "human rights" to blame it on some other guy, this is not evidence that human rights have been normalized; it is evidence that humanity has been evacuated from the underlying process, through the cold and calculated manipulation of human emotions for ulterior purposes. 

Durkheim Meltdown

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim believed that one defining feature of a profession is that the attitudes and behaviors that count as "professional" within it are of no interest to the general public. My recent experiences suggest that whatever Durkheim was referring to has changed a lot since the time of his writing. First, consider his description and explanation of professional morals in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals:

The distinctive feature of this kind of morals and what differentiates it from other branches of ethics, is the sort of unconcern with which the public consciousness regards it. There are no moral rules whose infringement, in general at least, is looked on with so much indulgence by public opinion. The transgressions which have only to do with the practice of the profession, come in merely for a rather vague censure outside the strictly professional field....

...a book-keeper who is complacent about the rules of scrupulous accounting, or an official who as a rule lacks energy in carrying out his duties, does not give the impression of a guilty person, although he is treated as such in the organization to which he belongs.

This feature of professional ethics can moreover easily be explained. They cannot be of deep concern to the common consciousness precisely because they are not common to all members of the society and because, to put it in another way, they are rather outside the common consciousness. It is exactly because they govern functions not performed
by everyone, that not everyone is able to have a sense of what these functions are, of what they ought to be, or of what special relations should exist between the individuals concerned with applying them. All this escapes public opinion in a greater or lesser degree...

It is this very fact which is a pointer to the fundamental condition without which no professional ethics can exist. A system of morals is always the affair of a group and can operate only if this group protects them by its authority...

Émile Durkheim in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals

Professionals today — if they are so cursed to have their professionalism called into question — may be surprised how many members of the general public have quite refined and passionate views on what should be counted as professional within a range of different professions! The reason why Durkheim's description of professional morals now rings false is because the professions are no longer "outside the common consciousness."

Through the collapse of distance that characterizes modernity, all of our increasingly concentrated social molecules heat up: professions that once enjoyed relative detachment and autonomy from the masses, increasingly find their edges melting down from the friction of everyone pressed up against the gates on the outside. In our epoch, pitchforks will never appear, the great estates will not be set aflame, the Winter Palace will not be stormed. The traditional negentropic structures will be melted down by the heat of cross-cutting social expectations, claims, and obligations from which they were relatively insulated during the period of their emergence. Capable and interested people have historically enforced different forms of order in different professions, for particular social purposes as well as for their own status and payment, before handing power on to the next generation of capable and interested agents, according to stringent professional criteria. As more and more people see, hear, judge, and gain leverage to make claims on the resources that circulate in and out of the professions, more and more people will "have their say" at the cost of these structures no longer providing their negentropic quotient. They will neither dissolve nor be revolutionized, they will simply be melted, like a standing steel building might be melted into a wide and shallow but equally impressive pool of boiling silver. The people will get what they ask for, but then it won't be what they wanted.

Catholicism as Nomad War Machine (Deleuze and Chesterton)

Chesterton:

Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life.

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.

Chesterton on smooth space:

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…

Chesterton on the refrain:

If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything.

A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out.

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