Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Fantasy or Reality?

15 Jan 2021

In the wake of recent events in US politics, John Reader interrogates the role of social media in blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality.

One of the most interesting responses to the events at Capitol Hill on Wednesday 6th January was an article by Bruno Macaes in the City Journal the following day. His main argument is that what we witnessed as the event unfolded was actually roleplaying as much as a real coup, although this does not make this any less significant. Photos and selfies were shared across social media, such as that of a figure wearing a horned Viking helmet posing while his colleagues took the snap shots. He turned out to be a professional actor.

The full implications of this are still being played out, with President Trump now impeached for inciting insurrection at the Capitol building. But Macaes’ article goes on to suggest that this action took place in a kind of virtual reality and that our traditional way of relating to the world has increasingly collapsed. As Trump has attempted to realise any and every fantasy he cares to promote, and to turn his desires into reality, so the real world has become less and less real. We live not only surrounded by the internet, but inside it, and the institutionalised truth of the past has lost its hold. Hierarchical society, religion, the old elites, the natural limits of technology—all of these have now been swept away in the new America.

Macaes’ response to this is that all we can hope for are better fantasies. The best way to break the violence of this faction, he says, is to create a greater variety of interests and parties, presumably on the basis that the more there are to choose from the better chance that no one will gain a monopoly. He concludes that a political theory of virtualism still waits to be developed.

The recently departed philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler wrote much about the importance of dreams and intermittances—or opportunities for reflection—as the best antidote to the algorithmic governmentality that now pervades this postdigital age (The Age of Disruption, 2019). He does, though, also draw attention to the value of some religious practices which still respect and perpetuate the slow work of time, counteracting the speed at which digital technology functions.

But, is this enough? Are we to abandon talk of reality quite so readily?

My own view is that there would need to be some reference to an external reality to give this approach its validity. The suggestion that we have totally lost our bearings and have no means of discerning what is true or distinguishing between reality and fantasy surely needs to be countered. This is a matter of constructing both individual and public trust. It is the latter that appears to have been eroded by the deliberate deployment of social media by our politicians. If we cannot believe or trust anything we see or read any longer it does not matter what is said or that a statement one day can be contradicted the next. That is what we have now come to expect. There are no public standards of truth by which we hold our leaders accountable.

But this is to go too far. It is the harsh realities of our own daily lives that bring us back down to earth and prevent us escaping into someone else’s fantasy world. What is happening “out there” which appears to be external and disconnected from our local and inner worlds, does actually impinge upon our individual and family existences on a daily basis—especially so in the midst of the current pandemic. We are reminded that what each of us chooses to do in terms of social contact has a direct impact upon others and that we must minimise these contacts in order to protect others. We may be islands at the moment, isolated in our own bubbles, but this makes us even more aware of the extent to which we need those external contacts to offer us our identity and sense of self.

In theological terms this is surely about the importance of fellowship and community; our belonging to networks of relationships that ground us and enable us to critically assess those virtual realities or fantasies with which we are bombarded moment by moment. Rather than a proliferation of fantasies we need the more solid territory of trustworthy relationships to provide us with the bearings to navigate through the complexity and confusion. The crucial question is: who do we trust?

It has been instructive to read through the Psalms during the pandemic and to know how others have discovered their answers to this question. A shared resource from within the tradition that still speaks to our fears and hopes. But we can also still see visions and dream dreams as part of our communal activities.

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