Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle is a dystopia, a bleak look at what our utter fascination with technology and a hyper-connected life could do to our relationships, our personality, and our freedom. The consequences are many, and grave, but one particularly sticks out to me: technology trivializes righteousness.
Illustrating this consequence is main character Mae Holland’s participation in a social justice movement, organized entirely through The Circle (a mashup of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple) and relying on The Circle’s system of “smiles” and “frowns” (a transparent parody of Facebook’s system of “likes”):
With the tools the Circle made available, Mae felt able to influence global events, to save lives even, halfway across the world. That very morning, a message from a college friend, Tania Schwartz, came through pleading for help with an initiative her brother was spearheading. There was a paramilitary group in Guatemala, some resurrection of the terrorizing forces of the eighties, and they had been attacking villages and taking women captive. One woman, Ana Maria Herrera, had escaped and told of ritual rapes, of teenage girls being made concubines, and the murders of those who would not cooperate. Mae’s friend Tania, never an activist in school, said she had been compelled to action by these atrocities, and she was asking everyone she knew to join in an initiative called We Hear You Ana Maria. Let’s make sure she knows she has friends all over the world who will not accept this, Tania’s message said. Mae saw a picture of Ana Maria, sitting in a white room on a folding chair, looking up, expressionless, an unnamed child in her lap. Next to her picture was a smile button that said “I hear you Ana Maria,” which, when clicked on, would add Mae’s name to a list of those lending their support to Ana Maria. Mae clicked the button.
Mae clicked the button. How farcical to think that clicking a button saves lives, but Mae is deluded into thinking it does. In fact, she is even deluded into thinking that her online actions have moral weight:
Just as important, Tania wrote, is that we send a message to the paramilitarists that we denounce their actions. Below the picture of Ana Maria was a blurry photo of a group of men in mismatched military garb, walking through dense jungle. Next to the photo was a frown button that said “We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.” Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do – to come out against these rapists and murderers – but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button.
In what Mae does there is, of course, no gravity whatsoever. She takes no risk. She does not even leave her chair. She simply pushes a button. Righteousness boils down to a few keystrokes; righteousness is not an action, only a gesture.
We laugh (grimly) at Mae, but in Mae we see ourselves reflected. I see myself reflected. I read somewhere (months ago, I cannot remember where) that Millennials often count being in the right group and saying the right things as being righteous. We change our profile picture to the gay pride flag, or we share a pro-life article on Facebook, and we think we’ve done something great.
Progressives and conservatives, everyone is touched by this tendency to see gestures of righteousness as actual righteousness. I am touched by it. I speak up (sometimes) about women’s rights, I teach my students about prison reform, I like a page on Facebook about ending sex trafficking. And I trick myself into thinking that doing these things makes me a righteous person.
But it doesn’t. The truth is, public gestures like this have very little real effect. The Circle makes this plain. We are told that “the smiles were sent directly to Ana Maria’s phone”, whereas “Tania’s brother was still working on a way to get the frowns to the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.”
Poor Ana Maria receives tens of thousands of electronic “smiles”, and nothing else, no real help. Be warm and well-fed, she is told, but she is given no blankets nor food.
Meanwhile, the Guatemalan terrorists do (or perhaps do not) receive tens of thousands of electronic “frowns” and are surely in no way deterred from their terrorism. The idea is ludicrous, laughable if it did not hit so close to home.
It is equally ludicrous to think that our gestures of righteousness are anything more than that: gestures. To truly be righteous, to be like Christ, we have to stop pushing buttons, we have to get up from our chairs, and we reach out with love and kindness to real people.
I mentioned earlier that it’s easy (for me) to slip into the trap of thinking that I can follow Christ by taking particular social stands, like standing up against human trafficking or injustice for prisoners. But I’ve become increasingly aware that taking such stands has nothing to do with whether I’m following Christ. I’m following Christ, not if I’m teaching my students about justice for victims of human trafficking, but if I’m showing justice to my students. I’m following Christ, not if I’m speaking up about mercy for prisoners, but if I’m being forgiving towards friends and family members that have offended me.
This happens in the real world, and it’s really messy. But it’s necessary.
Real Christlikeness is not something that we “like.” It is not something that we push a button for. It is something we live, every day, off-screen, and we cannot let technology tell us otherwise.