“The truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” These are the words of Socrates, telling the Allegory of the Cave—trigger warning: it is said to be one of the most beautiful analogies in Western thought—in Plato’s “Republic.”
Socrates describes the scene to an interlocutor, Glaucon: Prisoners are chained facing a cave wall. Behind them is a fire and a series of puppets that cast shadows on the cave wall. Unaware that these are just images, to the prisoners these shadows are the realest thing. This image represents opinion, the lowest form of knowledge.
This dramatic scene reminds me of a modern cave: Twitter. Thought prisoners, chained to a desk, can only see the tweets appearing on their computer screen. Unaware that these are just images, the tweets represent the most real thing to them. “How sad,” you may whisper into your atheistic Starbucks holiday cup. Indeed it is, but, alas, it is the current state of our political discourse.
Welcome to the Cave
The hub of modern-day discourse seems to exist on the screens of laptops and smart phones. In social media, images and social signaling are all that matters—though, as Plato tells us, these are mere shadows. Take, for example, the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court this term, Fisher vs. the University of Texas. You may have heard that Justice Antonin Scalia revealed his true, abominably racist beliefs during the oral arguments for this case in December. You may have seen or heard that on the wall of your cave; however, this is only the shadow of the truth.
Obviously, Scalia did not actually advocate for minority students to go to “slower schools,” as many on social media said. He was questioning the respondents on mismatch theory—the idea that affirmative action may often “mismatch” minority students with universities above their aptitudes, thus making their attrition more likely: “There are—there are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to—to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well…”
It is very clear to anyone who reads the transcript that Scalia is presenting an argument in the line of questioning that he does not actually agree with, something Supreme Court justices do all of the time. However, if you only saw this on the wall of your Twitter cave, you may have fallen victim to the gross splicing of this quote and the outrage thereafter. The fact that Scalia is not actually presenting a racist idea does not matter to the social justice warriors of Twitter. In that quote, he appears racist, and in the cave, that is more than enough reason to start cranking up the outrage machine.
It is no longer just social justice warriors and average Joes on Twitter perpetuating false images. So-called “respectable” outlets such as the Washington Post and The New York Times quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
Even more disturbing, this is far from an isolated incident. Do you remember the outrage over Starbucks’ Christmas cups? Well, “the outrage about the outrage of the Starbucks’ cups” would be a more accurate way to put it, as the initial right-wing Christian outrage can be traced back to only a handful of dissenters.
But news outlets ran with the story that a caffeinated avalanche of Christian outrage was directed at Starbucks. As a result, many Internet users—pagan and Christian alike—began to socially signal their fairness and reason by posting about how stupid it is to be outraged over a Christmas cup design. It is even more stupid, perhaps, to fabricate an entire outrage about a Christmas cup design for clicks.
The Prisoners Converse
Social signaling is a whole other bizarre aspect of the Twitter cave. Social media users often create images of themselves to show their peers—that is kind of the point of social media, after all. However, social signaling about already abstracted news stories (see: Starbucks’ Christmas cups) transforms online discourse to a weird meta-conversation. Not only are we not talking about facts, we’re not even talking about real opinions, either, but rather faux, socially tested opinions based on faux news stories.
Towards the beginning of the allegory, Glaucon asks Socrates about the prisoners: “…if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?” Like our incarcerated predecessors, we think we are having meaningful conversations on Twitter. However, our discourse is so abstracted from reality that it has very little content.
For an example of this, look no further than the horrifying terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California. After 14 people were killed at a community center, many took to Twitter to offer thoughts and prayers—which, to be honest, is a form of social signaling but can done in a meaningful way in the proper context. This met backlash from progressives, who saw the San Bernardino killings as a gun control failure and mocked the “thoughts and prayers” tweets vociferously.
Never mind that the attack ended up being a premeditated terrorist attack and never mind that California has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country. No, if you had seen the progressive signaling that culminated with this Huffington Post headline, you would have thought that praying Christians were to blame for these attacks because of their callousness on gun laws or their naiveté in believing that God could do anything about it.
Opinion Is the Lowest Form of Knowledge
The most interesting thing about this trend is that it boils down to social signaling by mocking another form of social signaling. How is that for circular thinking? Instead of discussing the facts of the case, we discuss how others appear to be discussing the facts of the case. This is how far removed our discourse has become from truth—we argue over the images of images of things. “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do.”
The prisoners in Plato’s cave can only see images of images, and this represents the lowest form of knowledge: opinion. Opinion is something we hold in high regard in our era of the Twitter discourse, probably because it revolves so much around the self. Your worldview—how things appear to you—is the only standard for truth in the modern cave.
Not only can you fine-tune your Twitter feed to shut out voices you disagree with, but so can the journalists from whom you get your news. Is it any wonder so many of the “narratives” of the Left and Right are becoming unintelligible to the other side?
But to know appearances is not to know the truth. As Plato tells us, “As being is to becoming, so pure intellect is to opinion.” That is why the prisoners need a philosopher to help them escape their thought prison—first, by showing them the puppets that create the images, then by showing them the outside world that the puppets represent.
Socrates acknowledges that this is a painful process, and when the prisoner first sees the light of day “he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him.” But ultimately, the pain of not knowing the truth is much greater than the temporary sting of light in the prisoner’s eyes. When you live in the shadows of the cave, your own worldview becomes a cruel and unrelenting master, and only the truth can set you free.