How social media drove us mad

Without face-to-face, in-person interaction, we lose our humanity.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Science & Tech UK

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In The Sunday Times at the weekend, philosopher and writer Kathleen Stock lamented that ‘so much vitriol is expended at a distance on social media’.

Other well-known commentators have similarly noted the paucity of intelligent debate on social media. Last week, Matthew Parris of The Times wrote that he was leaving Twitter / X. And it seems that he meant it. He concluded:

‘I found I was reading others… to confirm my own opinions, or get myself steamed up about the opinions of others. I would rarely quit the site happier or better informed than when I’d accessed it. So let the Twitterstorm rage: I’ve left that planet.’

Earlier this month, with characteristic acerbity, Rod Liddle described X as a ‘rancid convocation of the demented, the obsessive and the deranged’.

This is something that many social-media users have long understood. Painful experience has taught us never to get into a political argument on any online platform. It’s an utter waste of time. No one changes his or her mind. It just ends in ceaseless, pointless rancorous bickering.

To understand why social media are so hostile to civilised debate and the exchange of ideas, we should turn to the French existentialists. Two of the key constants of existentialism are the denial of the Cartesian split between mind and body, and of a similar division between subject and object.

Instead, existentialism says that we are our bodies. It also places a great emphasis on the role our interactions with others play in making us human. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that it is our encounters with particular, concrete others that facilitate our self-consciousness and thus our sense of being. Being embodied among others is crucial to becoming oneself.

This is something our disembodied age of social media explicitly fails to recognise. We see the internet as simply a conduit for transmitting our thoughts, which we imagine as separate and autonomous from our bodies. But as humans, we are our bodies in the world.

Another existentialist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, compared physical human interaction to a dance in which two people tacitly try – intuitively, viscerally and in an improvised fashion – to synchronise and harmonise movements with each other in a shared situation. Body language is not merely important to social interaction, it is intrinsic to it.

Body language is also absent on social media, where without the physically embodied presence of others, it is near impossible to communicate in the non-verbal ways that normal life allows. We become less than human, mere detached conveyors of amorphous words and bald statements. As Greg Artus, lecturer in philosophy at Imperial College London, wrote of social-media commentary back in 2021, at the height of lockdown:

‘There is not even an expression to see, or a tone of voice to hear… Meanings are difficult to discern because so much of the meaning and style of a conversation is carried by the embodied relation between two speakers. In this sense, a proper social-media conversation is difficult, if not impossible to have.’

In Kathleen Stock’s Sunday Times column, she asked why it is so hard to persuade today’s youngsters to study philosophy. Reading a bit of existentialism in order to understand the travails of modern life would seem one good reason to me.

The luxury beliefs of the anti-Brexit brigade

One of the buzz phrases of recent months has been ‘luxury beliefs’, referring to tenets that are paraded ostentatiously, superficially or insincerely in order to display one’s moral superiority or flaunt one’s higher social or economic standing.

I wrote about the emergence of this phrase on spiked five years ago in relation to the trans debate. What I failed to realise back then was that to be an enthusiast for the European Union, and now a Rejoiner tilting at windmills, is one of the most obvious examples of a luxury belief. Intrinsic to this anti-Brexit outlook has been a lordly, conspicuous loathing of the lower orders for their supposed ignorance and unsophistication. The pro-EU elites, in contrast, love to boast about their alleged intelligence and moral superiority.

We have seen this once again in recent days, in reaction to a report in Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper. Apparently, due to recent post-Brexit immigration restrictions, Italians are no longer able to afford to come to London to become waiters in restaurants. X was predictably awash with those indignant about the loss of cheap, foreign labour. There was an especially cretinous tweet from the Rejoin EU Party, which suggested that ever since Brexit, it has been impossible to eat authentic Italian cuisine in the UK. Another Remainer said that, although Italian food had been in Britain since the 1950s, it was only since the UK’s accession to the EEC in 1973 that its quality had achieved acceptable levels.

It’s the same old story. You’ll never hear mention from the Remainers about the important matters raised by Brexit – such as sovereignty, democracy and freedom. Instead, we hear their same selfish, aloof and often made-up concerns. If you are worried that leaving the EU will spell the end of your risotto alla Milanese, then you clearly occupy a very different world to the rest of us.

The truth about ‘toxic’ masculinity

Danny Dyer’s two-part documentary series, How to Be a Man, which aired earlier this week on Channel 4, was an eclectic and surprisingly touching affair by our favourite Cockney thespian.

It began by asking: ‘Is there really a war on men? Is there really a war on masculinity?’ Dyer then obligingly dealt with the pressing matters at hand today: the poor performance of boys in schools, the high rates of suicide among men and, of course, the rise of ‘manosphere’ social-media influencers, as personified by Andrew Tate, or in this series, an odious specimen called Ed Matthews.

But these are all symptoms of a broader phenomenon, as is the problem of ‘toxic’ masculinity itself. Ever since society started becoming more feminised in the 1990s, placing greater emphasis on feelings, safety, non-judgmentalism and non-competitiveness, masculinity has, in turn, come to be demonised. As Conservative MP Ben Bradley told Dyer, it is the denigration of normal masculinity, the notion that typical male behaviour is inherently anti-social, that has given rise to the maladjusted, reactionary form of masculinity that we see today.

‘Toxic masculinity’ didn’t exist as a problem before. But it really does now. It’s a symptom of the war on masculinity itself.

Danny’s conclusion in the final episode? ‘Just let men be men.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Science & Tech UK


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