More Thoughts on Social Media and the Anxiety of Meaninglessness

As a follow up to my previous post, I decided I would elaborate more on how social media both reveals and attempts to confront the anxiety of meaninglessness. I think this is displayed most clearly in the way people use social media to promote their ideology (typically political or religious) and to mock and ridicule those of others. This is important to consider because much of the increasingly intense levels of polarization in our culture today get played out on, and exacerbated by, social media.  I contend that the drive to do this on social media is a response to the anxiety of meaninglessness that comes from encountering challenges to one’s dearly held worldview. worldview

First, let’s review Paul Tillich’s definition of the anxiety of meaninglessness. He explains it this way:

“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of non-being to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had previously affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference or aversion. Everything is tried and nothing satisfies” (The Courage to Be, 47-48).

Everyone has a framework for how they view the world. It explains to them how the world is, what is wrong with it, and has an idea of how it should be. Not everyone has a  sophisticated worldview, or would even be capable of articulating it well, but everyone needs to have one that they believe to be correct in order for them to make sense of the world and act within it.

Religious systems give us the reasons why things are the way they are and also give us a vision of purpose; where we are going and how to get there. Political systems give us a way of managing our lives in the day to day. The way it plays out most of the time is that religion gives one hope for the future, and the political gives one tools for right now.

Here’s a simple way to understand it. In Christianity, it is universally agreed that the future hope for Christians involves a new heavens and earth where violence and death don’t happen. It is an evil that will no longer exist. In the present, however, the world is full of violence, so Christians have to decide how they are going to respond to it, in the meantime. It leads to a number of difficult questions: should Christians be pacifists or should they participate in violence when necessary? Who decides when it is necessary? What are the hard and fast “rules” for participating in violence, and what are the exceptions?

How someone answers these sorts of questions informs how they believe society should be organized. If it’s agreed that violence is bad and we want a world that is less violent, we have to find a way to manage ourselves in a way that makes violence less likely. These are political questions because they involve managing the wider community so that it acts closer to the way it should.

Our religious and political worldviews guard us against anxiety because they help us interpret and simplify the surrounding chaos and complexity. That’s why people often get so riled up when their religious or political worldview is challenged or mocked. The worldview provides a shield, in a sense, from the unknown and the dangerous. When it’s attacked, we are forced to look at its weaknesses and come face to face with the possibility that we are wrong on the deepest levels. To be wrong on this level means we have to re-evaluate how we interpret the world, and that takes a lot of work. It also forces us to remember how finite we are, which corresponds to our anxiety of death.

The easiest way to combat this anxiety is to surround ourselves with like-minded people and consume information that supports what we already think we know. That explains the appeal of obviously partisan news outlets such as Fox or MSNBC. They appeal to people with a certain worldview and the way news is reported and spun aims to support the worldview of the viewers.

On social media, we find ourselves simultaneously encountering hundreds of people at once who hold to a number of different worldviews. While in “real life,” we can only have conversations with one or two people at a time on very limited subjects at once, social media removes these constraints. All it takes is one person to share an opinion that has the potential to challenge hundreds of friends’ worldviews all at once. Arguments in the “reply” section ensue and then friends start sharing content supporting their own worldviews on their social media. To bolster confidence in one’s own cause, people share memes that mock and ridicule their friends’ worldview, because that is the easiest line of attack.

The reason this get out of control like this and becomes so nasty is that it forces us to confront the anxiety of meaninglessness. It’s a spiritual crisis because we are exposed to the fragility of our own thinking and our limits of knowing become apparent. We see that our “friends” are challenging the things that are most sacred or meaningful to us. We are faced with the prospect that we might be fools. That is the threat of non-being.

So, is the answer to this not to share anything that could possibly be controversial or offensive on social media? I don’t think the answer is a simple yes or no, but we need to be thoughtful about what and how we share. We cannot take responsibility for other people’s anxiety, but we can be responsible in how we interact with people, even online.

Confronting new ideas and the anxiety of meaninglessness can be an opportunity for growth. That’s essentially what happens when we learn. However, we generally don’t learn through mocking, ridicule, and heated arguments that are about “winning” against an opponent. We learn through thoughtful relationships with other people where we share our ideas and challenge one another, but with an implicit understanding that the relationship is solid.

Social media can be a great place to explore ideas together, but it is also very impersonal and it limited in terms of what we can say. I think before sharing something or getting involved in an argument, we should ask ourselves whether we are genuinely interested in engaging with the ideas and potentially changing our own mind, or if we are only reacting to the anxiety of meaninglessness.





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