There’s a general principle that underlies yesterday’s posts about the Catholic Church’s current problems, and it’s this: The more time people spend on social media, the more prone they become to recency bias, and especially the form of recency bias that inclines us to believe that what has just happened is far more important that it really is.
Everyone everywhere is prone to recency bias, but I think we are more prone to it than any society in history because our media are so attentive to the events of Now, and we are so immersed in those media that anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history. The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.
Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump. Trump knows perfectly well that his audience’s attachment to the immediate is so great that he can make virtually any scandal disappear from the public mind with three or four tweets. And the very journalists who most want to hold Trump accountable are also the most vulnerable to his changing of the subject. He’s got them on a string. They cannot resist the tweets du jour.
This tyranny of the immediate has two major effects on our political judgment. First, it disables us from making accurate assessments of threats and dangers. We may, for instance, think that we live in a time of uniquely poisonous social mistrust and open hostility, but that’s only because we have forgotten what the Sixties and early Seventies were like.
Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.
And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.
I write these words on the day following the death of Senator John McCain, and I find myself thinking about one particular moment in McCain’s long and varied career. When he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, having been so deprived of food that his weight dropped to 105 pounds, having been beaten regularly, having been thrown into solitary confinement, he one day found himself offered the possibility of freedom. His father had recently been named Commander of the U.S. forces in the Vietnamese theater, and his captors understood that releasing the young man would likely be a public-relations boon for them, an open declaration of their magnanimity. McCain refused — unless the men who had been captured with him were also released with him. This demand went unmet, and McCain not only remained in prison, he was also subjected to intensified beatings and torture so severe that for the rest of his life he would be unable to lift his arms over his head (as was often noted, he always had to have someone around to comb his hair, because he couldn’t). He waited another five years for his release.
All of which leads me to a thought, and a question. Several decades after McCain’s torture a man who had taken great care to avoid serving in the military, and who indeed had never done an hour’s work of public service, denied that McCain was a hero, mocked him for having been captured, cited McCain’s experience as proof that torture “works” — and in spite of such monstrous perversion of spirit was elected President of the United States with the overwhelming support of the very people most likely to say that they “support our troops.” How did this become possible?
The answer is: Gradually and then suddenly. We all saw the “suddenly.” But we have not thought nearly as carefully, as rigorously, as we should about the “gradually.” It’s too late to avert Trump, of course. But we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening gradually that will spring upon us with shocking suddenness if we don’t develop more temporal bandwidth and personal density. And do it now.