…restrained from entering into more important concerns by political and civil oppression, sentiments become events, and reflection deepens what it should, and would have effaced, if the understanding had been allowed to take a wider range.
~ Mary Wollstonecraft, from A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
“Sentiments become events.” These three words from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman can help us to understand a modern media environment in crisis. We have seen ample anatomizing of how powerful members of the public and private sectors use social media. We know that social media feeds on feeling rather than reason. The larger problem is that social media turns sentiments into events: emotions become a show—the show—and everyone in the audience ends up participating.
Spurred in part by the crises of the French Revolution and the less-than-universal expansion of liberties in the First Republic, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication specifically addressed the state and status of eighteenth-century women. At our present moment of media crisis, however, Wollstonecraft’s observations of how a corrupt society constrains reason by amplifying sentiments now apply to everyone. Wollstonecraft saw her time as one dominated by tyrants and sensualists—with the latter the most dangerous kind of the former. We find ourselves again (mis)governed, and now actually plagued, by both a tyrant and a tyranny of feelings.
This does not mean that reason should act as sole governor of the self or of society. Rather, as Wollstonecraft wrote, we must cultivate both reason and sensibility as checks and balances upon each other. If reason is “the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth,” and sensibility is the capacity for emotional perception and response, then sensibility and reason moderating each other produce “that soberness of mind which teaches a man not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think”—in a word, modesty. But with nothing more substantive to feed on than the “trifling matters” of local life, Wollstonecraft explains, reason withers and sensibility metastasizes. Sensibility unchecked produces affectation, superficiality, prejudice, and passion. Reason starved of substance and stage—barring people from knowledge and a platform for its exercise—is thus contrary to both the individual and common good.
But what if the same happens in an environment not of too little information, but too much, and in which reason might or must be exercised beyond exhaustion? What if we find ourselves overloaded with (mis)information?
With too much to take in, our capacity to reason is overwhelmed, and sensibility becomes tyrannical. We retreat into our epistemic bubbles, or we venture into hate-reading; we read what we know we are likely to agree or disagree with, and we experience pleasurable waves of affirmation or outrage. The experience and propagation of our emotions becomes the substance of our public engagement.
Take, for example, the ambulatory accretion of character flaws who despite an industrial tan remains a pale imitation of a president. He tweets from a place of emotion to a place of emotion; there’s little if any reasoning in his tweets and scarcely any point reasoning on them. His tweets are unreasonable not because there is nothing about them upon which we might exercise our reasoning, but because there’s so much—too much—of them, in them, and around or behind them to know where to begin: the Constitution, laws, government organizations and agencies, precedents, history, moral philosophy, common sense, empirical observations, facts, things a four-year old knows, things a two-year old is starting to get a pretty firm grasp of, something that’s been in your fridge so long it’s become sentient and understands not only that the tweet was wrong but can also explain why in an overlong thread of its own composition (unroll please). Systems upon systems, to lift a line from Alexander Pope, can be brought to bear in debunking a single tweet. My own efforts to parse a presidential missive or the avalanche of responses it generates, both positive and negative, produce a sort of Three Stooges effect: everything tries to get out the door at once, and my reasoning gets stuck. Sentiment, however, slips easily through the spaces in between. Supporters disinclined to question the content of an Executive Tweet in the first place need not even attempt to reason upon it; the merits of its “argument” are not the point. In any case, another tweet will show up and shift the focus before reason has even got its shoes on. Only sentiment can keep up with so high a rate of throughput.
A great deal of what we see and say on social media is simultaneously local and general. We write and read as members of relatively small groups and as members of potentially much larger publics. As social media platforms amplify our passions, our posts transcend their original functions; they become the subjects of news reports, evidence of public opinion, or viral memes. In this way, our sentiments become not just events but media events. The line between public engagement and public relations blurs as even posts not deliberately designed as emotional provocations are coopted and exploited for the sake of publicity. The exercise of reason for the common good remains possible, but the platforms are not conducive to it, and even if we presume reason to have been exercised in the crafting of a post or response, the sentiment expressed is the more readily comprehended, rewarded, and therefore amplified phenomenon.
Wollstonecraft would conclude that we post, like, retweet, and comment reflexively or out of a sense of duty to our friends and our enemies without fully reasoning upon, and therefore only incompletely comprehending, our own thoughts and actions. This is neither virtuous, she would say, nor consistent with what she viewed as our “natural” capacities, and the perpetuation of these sentimental relays leaves us subject to the suppression of our rights.
Again, this is not because we lack access to public life, nor because we have nothing upon which to reason, but rather because we have so much upon which to reason and so much access to the public sphere—potentially even to its highest offices. The sentimental media event is therefore particularly dangerous in that while it seems to offer (and less often, make good on) the promise of enhancing our ability to effect real political change, it also (and more often) drives a discourse in which the substance of what we post matters less than its potential for amplification. Wollstonecraft lamented that the patriarchy unjustly taught women to cultivate sensibility and let reason atrophy. The sentimental media event teaches all of us to do the same. Rather than fostering the exercise of individual reason for the common good, it promotes sentimentality to our common detriment.
In 1792, George Washington was at the end of his first term as the first president of a new nation. Wollstonecraft, considering his case and her own, wrote that he “has always been characterized as a modest man.” As the latest but hopefully not last leader of our still flawed and fragile republic approaches what we must all hope is the end of his time in office, he displays no sign of modesty, and the state of public discourse has given him little reason to change. We should not, of course, curtail our access to information nor give up our right—our duty—to exercise reason in and on behalf of the public. We cannot return to the state of oppression Wollstonecraft decried. We must instead recognize, foster, and amplify the soberness of mind that comes when reason and sentiment work in tandem.
Let’s ask @Jack if we can get a button for it.
Seth Rudy is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Rhodes College and the author of Literature and Encyclopedism in Enlightenment Britain (2014). He is currently co-editing a collection with Rachael Scarborough King, The Ends of Knowledge, which brings together essays from knowledge producers across the arts and sciences considering why we do what we do, and how we might know when we are done.