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Gender War, Technology, and De-Centering the Self
Genuine encounters with others shape us. So what happens when they don't happen?
It seems to me that the capacity to believe you could be wrong about something—in other words, the capacity to cultivate humility—is greatly strengthened by genuine encounters with other people, and is greatly weakened through the absence of such encounters. By “genuine encounters” I mean something both general and specific. A genuine encounter with another person is general in the sense that it is not and cannot be curated or calculated. On the other hand, a genuine encounter is specific enough to make that encounter mean something. If you walked into a crowded restaurant and everyone in that restaurant started mocking you for what you were wearing, you might be genuinely embarrassed (enough to leave), but a crowd of strangers at a particular location is easy to dismiss; you may just as well decide that particular restaurant is stuck up and not for you. A genuine encounter with another person, the kind of encounter that can challenge our sense of absolutism, is general that we can’t control it, but specific so that we can’t dismiss it.
This kind of encounter is precisely what fewer and fewer people experience in their lives. On the one hand, the Internet has generalized the world and given even the most homebound introvert something that certainly feels like a picture of what People Are Really Like. Without leaving your house you can become conversant in just about any cultural topic. You can know just about as much as anybody else on the things that make the news. From the view of the Internet the modern person becomes a measurable data set, discernible by sifting through layers of playlists and view counts and hashtags. This has been enormously profitable for corporations, of course. But it’s also been profitable for those with a certain kind of ambition: an ambition to, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “see through everything” and position themselves as a master narrator of all things in society.
On the other hand, our modern relationships are much more specific than in years past. By this I mean that we have an enormous amount of control over the people who get a say in our lives. Every membership is opt-in. Ours is the “trade-in society,” a marketplace where we can curate with precision the people we will live near, the groups we will do business with, the friends whose lives we will keep up with, the churches and institutions we will give some of our lives to. It is less likely today that a person in their 20s will have a meaningful encounter with someone than it was even a decade ago. That you can see a person’s profile onscreen before ever shaking their hand means you can decide before you ever touch them how long that handshake should last. As such, our relational circles are much smaller: we are selective because we can be, and this selectivity means we rarely, if ever, have to endure a genuine encounter with someone who is neither faceless nor curate-able.
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How could a lack of genuine encounters with others affect us? A few weeks ago I read about the phenomenon of the “single woke female.” To summarize, the marriage rate among women has plummeted from where it was a couple generations ago. Career, independence, and mobility have replaced creating families, and the result seems to be the emergence of a highly politically active demographic.
The rise of SWFs — a twist on the personal-ad abbreviation for single white female — is one of the great untold stories of American politics. Distinct from divorced women or widows, these largely Gen-Z and millennial voters share a sense of collective identity and progressive ideology that sets them apart from older women. More likely to live in urban centers and to support progressive policies, they are a driving force in the Democratic Party’s and the nation’s shift to the left.
Attitudes are what most distinguish single women from other voters. An American Enterprise Institute survey shows that married men and women are far more likely than unmarried females to think women are well-treated or equally treated. As they grow in numbers, these discontented younger single women are developing something of a group consciousness. Nearly two-thirds of women under 30, for example, see what happens to other women as critical to their own lives. Among women over 50, this mindset shrinks to less than half.
Now this is the kind of story that could generate a massive amount of ill-will. And one possible gloss on the SWFs is that there really is a gender war and that the success of feminism at the expense of middle-class men has reached an inflection point. But to me, the more significant subtext of the SWFs is the orientation of both our economy and our philosophy away from the very life choices that facilitate genuine encounters. The story of the single woke female is hardly different than the story of the Very Online “incel:” a hardening of dogmatic convictions and a skeptical view of others, especially the opposite sex, that attend a life mostly without genuine encounters.
Of course, this is not to say that marriage is the only way to have genuine encounters with those who both provoke and love you; these relationships are certainly possible elsewhere. But they are increasingly very difficult to find elsewhere. As peer groups become subservient to mobility and digital curation, marriage really does appear to be one of the chief remaining institutions where humility and honesty form natural boundaries around a relationship. In that sense, it’s reasonable to infer that a decline of marriage would be accompanied by an increase in political or relational dogmatism.
The point comes up again in David French’s debut column for The New York Times titled “Men Need Purpose More than Respect.” Everything David says about the crisis of men and existential meaning in their lives is true. But I think he might underestimate the importance of respect as a token of a genuine encounter. Men who demand respect from the faceless masses aren’t just wrong about what they really need; they’re wrong about what respect is. Respect is grown, not microwaved. It is a fruit, not a party favor. There are kinds of “respect” that people who don’t actually respect each other offer every day, usually in an HR-enforced setting. The respect that matters is borne out of knowledge: an understanding of someone that makes even points of strong disagreement seem worthy of self-questioning.
David writes, “Virtuous purpose is worth more than any other person’s conditional and unreliable respect. It is rooted in service and sacrifice, not entitlement.” I agree. But the same is true of respect. It too is rooted in thick relational encounter with the other. And the challenge facing men, like women, is that they face a rapidly deteriorating cultural infrastructure where true respect can be facilitated. Most of us encounter the world with a literal $1,000-mirror a few inches away from our face. How can we truly respect those we encounter not as persons but as pixels?
I wonder a lot of nowadays to what extent our most volatile and destructive episodes within the church are fueled by a lack of genuine encounter. It’s worth asking how much of the stare down between “pro-church” and “pro-victim” people with regard to ecclesiastical abuse or “narcissism” is really just exposing how little genuine encounters are going on in even seemingly “healthy” churches. Because it’s so difficult these days to cultivate and maintain relationships that challenge yet protect us, perhaps we should assume that we’re not doing as well on this as we think.
And in the broader culture, the decline of family means that a growing portion of all our relationships are being subjected to the self-referential dynamics of the trade-in society. The wonderful, life-changing thing about entering into a covenant with someone of the opposite sex is that you now have a lifelong learner’s permit. This other person reveals depths of themselves, which will elicit your frustration and then ultimately your sympathy. The peculiar de-centering of the self that happens when we really know and love somebody is a powerful immunity against our most cynical instincts. The question is, in the digital age, where can our selves go to be de-centered?
If you appreciated this article, you may be interested in my forthcoming book. Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age releases September 5. You can pre-order the book here.