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Putting on Avatars, Putting on Christ: Reflections on “American Democracy in the Internet Age”

November 12th, 2019 | 8 min read

By John Shelton

G. K. Chesterton was once asked to publish a response to the question “what is wrong with the world?” With characteristic wit and aplomb, he sent the editors back four words: “Dear Sirs, I am.” The story, sadly, is apocryphal. But the point it is making is worth remembering.

While listening to warnings of the many dangers, toils, and snares of technology at a conference entitled “American Democracy in the Internet Age,” I looked down to realize that I was distracted by three devices (a laptop and not one but two smart phones)! If asked what is wrong with the Internet Age, I am afraid that I would have to borrow that confession.

The panelists (rightly) found much time for griping over the animosity of online discourse but one of the most salient points made, and one which I think underlies such animosity, is the somewhat novel capacity afforded by the Internet to re-create ourselves online.

As a millennial, I have had opportunity to do this quite baldly: playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games like RuneScape, Star Wars Galaxies, and World of Warcraft, I was freed to take on any identity (e.g., any species, gender, skin tone, vocation, moral leaning, and political faction) that the software would allow. My avatar’s manifestation need have no connection to my own given, bodily self.

The very idea of an “avatar” is revealing: the concept comes from Hinduism, referring to the incarnation of a deity’s soul in one of many interchangeable bodily forms. If we are to take the etymology of the word seriously, then, inhabiting an avatar is the work of gods: pure creation, uninhibited by material reality (ex nihilo).

As Adam Keiper proclaimed during the first panel, “the Internet begs for performativity.” In the world of the MMORPG, we are asked to pick and endlessly customize a character for our performance. But if the Internet demands, it also enables us to live up to these demands. Tara Isbella Burton pointed out that while the role of pre-Internet technologies in allowing advancing degrees of public performativity (e.g., the gas lamps of France that empowered foppish young men to “dandy” about the boulevards past sundown), the Internet opens this up in a new way.

This is the draw of MMORPGs, which I take as emblematic of much of what we are doing on the social media that dominates our Internet usage. On the Internet, we can finally live out our “hunger to become a creator, to be original” (which I take as Burton’s spin on the Nietzschean “will to power”). It is no accident, then, that Twitter would be the refuge of the “New Atavists” (Burton’s coinage, again): those Pepe meme-slinging, Bronze Age Mindset-reading denizens of the alt-right. With anonymous egg or cat-phished photos of brawny men for avatars, they are emboldened to LARP (live action role-play) out their calls for a return to manly strength, willpower, and other perceived virtues of their forefathers (hence, “atavism”).

But LARPing isn’t just something done on the Dark Web. Everyone on the Internet is performing a role; we’re all “phonies” (as Holden Caufield would put it) with ulterior motives: to be liked, to look attractive, to connect. While we might laugh (or cringe) at the image of pimpled male nerds dancing about Azeroth as female night elf druids, the appropriation of avatars isn’t something limited to MMORPGs.

Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are subtler but the same. Even on social media sites, where one’s avatar is typically an actual picture of his- or herself, we are always curating which self is on display: often happy, filtered, and successful. Our Internet selves very rarely constitute more than a two-dimensional version of ourselves, much like a Bitmoji or those big head caricatures drawn by street artists. Even in displaying ourselves, then, we are still displaying avatars; we are freezing and exaggerating aspects of ourselves for use as avatars. These digital selves are just as “authentically us” as if a snake crawled back into the dead skin it had previously sloughed off.

Perhaps this isn’t all bad. While the ability to inhabit anonymous and pseudonymous avatars affords us new heights of callousness and disregard in the digital domain as everyone who has ever read the comments knows all too well (n.b., don’t read the comments), there might also be a place for virtue to creep in. Is it possible, as Burton put it, that “our digital selves might lead us to desire to be a certain self that we then pursue,” namely a virtuous self? The Internet allows us to take on avatars that are unlike us but, if we are seeking to become something we’re not, that might be a boon.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis tells the story of a man who wore a mask, “a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was.” After wearing it for a while, he took it off to find that “his own face had grown to fit it.” While he was not much to look at before, “he was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.” This, Lewis says, is what the moral life is like. We pretend to be what we are not and eventually find ourselves to conform to the mask.

There is a certain audacity to this claim, as if the way to virtue is through deception. We are not virtuous people, we are bundles of “self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit” (what better way to characterize Twitter). Lewis admits, in his charming British manner, that this advice is “a piece of outrageous cheek,” and yet we are really commanded to it.

Here, Lewis helpfully distinguishes between two kinds of pretending: the bad kind, “where the pretense is there instead of the real thing,” and the good kind, “where the pretense leads up to the real thing.” So much of our pretending online is empty: we are not practicing virtue, we are contenting ourselves with merely signaling it. We too often pretend so as to deceive others or ourselves, rather than to practice virtues that we do not yet have.

The distinction, while often difficult for adults, is quite natural to children. As Lewis recognizes, they are always playing pretend, “but all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.”

What then are we to make of avatars? Are they a rebellion against the givenness of our bodies and ourselves as creations—or are they a ‘cheeky’ avenue to virtue? Perhaps Christian theology can help here by lending us a distinction between avatar and Incarnation. If avatars are marked by an arbitrary relationship between soul and embodied form so that our avatars are infinitely malleable, Incarnation names a fittingness between the two.

When the Word takes on flesh, deity and humanity can no longer be disentangled. From thereon, Christ is the necessary form of God or, in biblical language, the fullness of God. There is no question of taking another avatar or manifesting differently, as there is no God other than this God. In the Incarnation, the Word took on the fulness of human nature.

The apostle Paul describes the Christian life as a process of “putting on Christ” and “putting away sin”—elsewhere: “putting off the old man.” In the Internet age, this must mean putting away the false avatars we peddle online. Here, then, is the final difference between Incarnation and avatar: an avatar is any self that we put on that is not Christ. For in the end, God alone is our identity and destiny.

All other selves we would construct, online or offline, are false, at best no more than a caricature or an exaggerated parody of some passing feature of our true and final reality: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” — Galatians 2:20

In putting on false selves, I am too busy putting forward my self. I am failing in my duty to do the best kind of pretending: putting on Christ. What, then, is the problem with avatars? Dear Sirs, I am.

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John Shelton

John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.