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The internet and Satan’s game

By now the entire country has seen a video of a supposedly racist confrontation, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, between a grinning young high school student and a Native American elder, chanting and beating a drum.

The immediate and ferocious judgment of the internet community was that the boy was effectively taunting and belittling the elder, but subsequent videos from wider angles as well as the young man’s own testimony have cast considerable doubt on this original assessment. My purpose in this article is not to adjudicate the situation, which remains, at best, ambiguous, even in regard to the basic facts. It is to comment, rather, on the morally outrageous and deeply troubling nature of the response to this occurrence, one that I would characterize as, quite literally, satanic.

When the video in question first came to my attention, it already had millions of views on Facebook and had been commented upon over 50,000 times. Eager to find out what this was all about, I began to scroll through the comments. They were practically 100 percent against the young man, and they were marked, as is customary on social media, by stinging cruelty.

As I continued to survey the reactions, I began to come across dozens urging retribution against the boy, and then dozens more that provided the addresses and email contacts of his parents, his school and his diocese. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, do they realize what they’re doing? They’re effectively destroying, even threatening, this kid’s life.”

At this point, my mind turned, as it often does today, to René Girard. The great Franco-American philosopher and social commentator is best known for his speculations on what he called the scapegoating mechanism. Sadly, Girard maintained, most human communities, from the coffee klatch to the nation state, are predicated upon this dysfunctional and deeply destructive instinct.

Roughly speaking, it unfolds as follows. When tensions arise in a group (as they inevitably do), people commence to cast about for a scapegoat, for someone or some group to blame. Deeply attractive, even addictive, the scapegoating move rapidly attracts a crowd, which in short order becomes a mob. In their common hatred of the victim, the blamers feel an ersatz sense of togetherness. Filled with the excitement born of self-righteousness, the mob then endeavors to isolate and finally eliminate the scapegoat, convinced that this will restore order to their roiled society.

At the risk of succumbing to the reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy, nowhere is the Girardian principle more evident than in the Germany of the 1930s. Hitler ingeniously exploited the scapegoating mechanism to bring his country together – obviously in a profoundly wicked way.

Girard’s theory was grounded in his studies of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other literary figures, but his profoundest influence was the Bible, which not only identified the problem, but showed the way forward. Take a good, long look at the story of the woman caught in adultery in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel to see what Girard saw regarding both the sin and the solution. It is surely telling that one of the principal names for the devil in the New Testament is “ho Satanas,” which carries the sense of the accuser. And how significant, thought Girard, that it is precisely ho Satanas who offers all of the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, implying that all forms of human community are tainted, at least to a large degree, by the characteristically satanic game of accusation, blaming, scapegoating.

All of which brings me back to the incident in Washington and the nasty reaction to it on the internet. I have used the internet to great positive effect in my evangelical work for many years; so I certainly don’t agree with those who denounce it in an unnuanced way. However, there is something about social media comboxes that make them a particularly pernicious breeding ground for Girardian victimizing. Perhaps it’s the anonymity, or the ease with which comments can be made and published or the prospect of finding a large audience with little effort – but these forums are, increasingly, fever swamps in which hatred and accusation breed. When looking for evidence of the satanic in our culture, don’t waste your time on special effects made popular by all of the exorcism movies. Look no further than your computer and the twisted “communities” that it makes possible and the victims that it regularly casts out.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a piece on me and my work. The author referred to me as “the Bishop of the Internet,” a title which I find more than a little strange. But for the moment, I’m going to claim it, only so I can make a pastoral pronouncement to all those who use social media. When you’re about to make a comment, ask yourself a very simple question: “Am I doing this out of love, out of a sincere wish for the good of the person or persons I’m addressing?” If not, shut up. If it becomes clear that your comment is simply spleen-venting, scapegoating, or virtue-signaling, shut up. The internet can be a marvelous tool, and it can be a weapon used for satanic purposes. Applying the test of love can very effectively undermine the scapegoating mechanism and drive the devil out.

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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