“The Online State of Nature” by Professor Alan Jacobs

I read a very interesting post on the Big Questions Online magazine written by Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College. This article was particularly informative in that it highlighted an aspect of modern American culture that I intuitively feel but have been unable to uncover and put words to.

He writes, “We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.”

Sometimes I spend more time reading comments on online articles or blogs than I do the actual article. Comments are extremely entertaining, and rarely informative. 

But, why clothe ourselves in justice? Why not humility? 

Jacobs states that “[l]ate modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice.” He cites for example the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, etc., as accomplishments, all political in nature, that have defined who we are as people. He continues, “we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues…. And so, as we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms.”

The substance of another person is often perceived to be a certain way dependent on where one sides on certain issues of justice, i.e. GLBT rights (an example given by Jacobs). When I recently moved across town to my new home, while I was getting to know the neighbors, one of them asked me who I voted for in the last presidential election, which I find to be an inappropriate question to ask someone when you first meet them. The question was really asked in order to find out who I was – as if my political persuasion reveals the essence of who I am as a person. Forget questions about my hobbies, or where I am from, or if I like coffee, or what’s my favorite movie — my whole being can be summed up in who I voted for. Let’s cut the “b.s.”, if I’m really gonna know who you are I want to know your politics. Whose side are you on, anyways?

This “state of nature” is enhanced online because people can express their thoughts anonymously (as I unfortunately am doing on this blog). Their is no accountability. But, the real problem with this way of being or defining ourselves is that it infects the most fundamental relationships. Jacobs quotes Wendell Berry:

 “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.”

I am guilty of this in my own marriage. When I think I am doing more at home, my natural reaction is to think that it’s not fair. I think that all the tasks at home should be divided equally among my wife and I. My natural approach is seldom aimed at how I can serve or love them better – instead of itemizing the minimum amount of stuff that I should be required to do. I want to think differently about this – and I feel there is progress being made within me – but culture’s strong arm of influence has conditioned me to fight for my rights even amongst those whom I love and care about the most.


About Mr. Ross

I am Christian. I must remain anonymous because I have a job that requires me to remain politically neutral. My thoughts may have political implications so I cannot tie my name to them. I understand that it may be a little pretentious of me to assume that (1) someone may actually read my thoughts; or (2) connect my thoughts to my professional life. But, I need to be safe about maintaining my employment. I am primarily interested in thinking about my Christian faith and how it interacts with what's happening around me. mr.ross79@gmail.com
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