Here are some tips for becoming cognitively virtuous.
Well, it’s selfish, and inconsiderate; it helps to uglify and poison where we all live; littering harms everyone. Ok—so, no throwing trash out of the car window while driving, no dumping your garbage on your neighbor’s lawn.
But what if you were guilty of another kind of littering? Specifically, “informational littering.” How bad would that be?
Let’s offer a rough definition first. By “informational littering” I mean tossing around by word of mouth or by electronic means the rumors, gossip, lies, half-lies, propaganda, etc., that wash up on the various shores of our lives. If the garbage looks pretty, sounds good, is popular, or confirms our biases, we may be inclined to gladly pass it on. By word of mouth, and even more so by electronic devices, we can multiply informational littering, sometimes carelessly, or worse, deliberately.
What kind of virtues do we need to discern truth from trash, and to be on guard against committing informational littering? What habits of mind and heart should we develop in order to avoid poisoning the cognitive ecology? We must be committed to know the truth, love the truth, tell the truth, do the truth. But how?
Let’s start by being clear about virtues. A habit is a pattern of behavior made easier through repetition. A virtue is a habit that enhances the one who has the habit. A virtue is a habit of doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reason. How does that observation apply to becoming cognitively virtuous?
We’re human beings—we’re neither machines nor angels. We have bodies, emotions, and a need for belonging. Our humanity will affect how and what we notice and interpret. We tend to use our reason and our body to find what confirms what we expect to find and what has already been accepted in our heart. Without self-discipline, we’re more inclined to accept (and spread) what makes us say, “I thought so!” rather than, “Oh! I was wrong.”
Without self-discipline, we’re more inclined to accept (and spread) what makes us say, “I thought so!” rather than, “Oh! I was wrong.”
Thanks to the internet, we can arrange for ourselves to be flooded with words, sounds, and images that are specifically designed to prompt us to say, “Aha! I knew it! I’m right again! I’d better tell EVERYONE!” Some folks have learned to make a very nice living telling other people what they want to hear. Because we are emotional as well as rational, we can become, on both a psychological as well as on a physiological level, addicted to indignation, outrage, etc. Then we use the internet to announce to the world (at least to that part of the world that might give us the approval we crave) that we are praiseworthy because we like all the right things, and approve of all the right causes. Once the addiction takes hold, however, it’s all too easy to take that next step, to move from virtue-signaling (i.e., “approving of me for approving!”) to hate-signaling (i.e., “approve of me because I hate what you hate!”). Sadly, we know that mob mentality online can lead to mob behavior in person.
What’s the alternative?
Here’s where Scripture can be a great help. Let’s start with wisdom from the Apostle John: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1) Or, as Abraham Lincoln wrote many times, “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet!” There’s no substitute for a habit of self-criticism, impulse control, and emotional sobriety. Before we hit the “send” button—let’s do our homework.
It’s easy to get lost in bad news and worse—but “real life,” which is to say, the world that God made and is redeeming, has a goodness that must be told. Saint Paul advises us:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
We dishonor God, cheat our neighbor, and harm ourselves if we live, speak, write, act, and expect as if there is only misery, only darkness, only villainy.
There are deceivers in this world, both natural and preternatural. There are hucksters who want to sell us junk or rob us blind. And there are infinite opportunities for nonsense and scandal. In these our strange times, let’s renew our commitment to think, feel, judge, speak, and act as followers of Christ. Our Lord deserves that, and our neighbor needs it.
When I write next, I will speak of hope and sorrow in times of crisis. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
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