Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages in a debate with his friends Glaucon and Adeimantus that strikes me as suddenly newly relevant to our age.
Bear with me.
Socrates, like all great moral teachers in history, proposes that one must strive for moral virtue, or “justice,” as he calls it. His companions offer a counterargument. They point out that, even if a person is just, if he or she is perceived as unjust, then that person will suffer all the negative consequences of being unjust anyway. Glaucon puts it in graphic terms:
Let me put them into the mouths of the eulogists of injustice: They will tell you that the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound — will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just.
The appearance of being good, according to Glaucon, is all that matters. Whether one is good beneath the surface is immaterial.
Today we live in Glaucon’s world. Not even Socrates and Plato could have foreseen Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and obviously there has never been a shortage in any age of those who cultivate reputation before character. But the social media of our time have made Glaucon’s argument seem all the more persuasive by vastly expanding the scope and importance of appearance at the expense of being.
One well-known phenomenon in this age is “virtue signaling.” On social media this means sanctimonious posts on the current issues of our day — always, of course, in favor of the positions considered orthodox in the political tribe to which we happen to belong — precisely in order to let our fellow tribespeople know that we’re with it and with them.
There is, obviously, nothing wrong with expressing genuinely felt sentiments, whether or not on social media, whether or not those sentiments happen to dovetail with orthodoxy. But it gives me pause when so many of us, now that social media have given each of us a mini-public persona and platform, make statements not out of genuine feeling. We do it to appear “just” according to the standards of orthodoxy. Or more specifically, we do it to appear “woke.”
It gives me pause that many are being hypocritical. Men wishing to appear woke on gender issues rail against the many recently reported instances of sexual misconduct, #MeToo, knowing full well that some of their own behavior would not pass muster under the standards that they say must be enforced. Feminists wishing to appear woke on the same issues denounce other women who happen to disagree with them, right after saying how important it is for women to support each other. White liberals wishing to appear woke on race publicly self-flagellate while enjoying their privileges.
It also gives me pause that this is a culture that seeks to bend people’s souls. Not only do we trip over ourselves rushing to signal our own virtue, we castigate others when they fail to do the same. In the case of #MeToo, complaints abounded that insufficient numbers of men were making social media statements in support of the movement or public confessions of hypothetical sins. It’s no longer enough that people don’t contradict us; we now insist on active proclamations of conformity. Or consider those formerly obscure academics, whose views in an age less preoccupied with image might have been merely amusingly contrarian, who are today suddenly famous/notorious. We make them famous by demanding that they abandon their views and display contrition, by acting scandalized to signal our own virtue when they refuse.
Even when we truly believe in our cause, we now voice our support for it in a kind of moral mimesis. I sensed it in myself when I posted a thing or two about Parkland and gun control: I could (and I did) say something in support of the Parkland kids, but why was I saying it? Was it because genuine conviction so moved me that I needed to, or was it that I felt at once socially obligated to declare my allegiance and also self-congratulatory about my own goodness and superiority? Maybe it was all of the above. Watch those “likes” — they’re signs that my friends think I am a good person!
When social media became a part of our lives not so long ago, we thought we gained a new voice, or a new way to make our voices heard. But it turns out that social media also endow everything we say with a performative aspect, with theatricality. Unwittingly we have grown more and more concerned not with what we do or who we are but how we are perceived. More and more we have become like Glaucon.
Let us, then, remember Socrates’s lesson: Sure, a person perceived poorly by peers may get “impaled,” as Glaucon puts it, though today only metaphorically speaking. But in the end it is far more important to be good, or just or woke, than it is to appear to be such. In the end, who we truly are, not the curated image we present to the outside world like a layer of makeup, is the only thing that matters. A difficult doctrine to adhere to, perhaps, in this Glauconian world of appearance. But that’s what makes it all the more important to remember.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."