We have come to implicitly accept that ideas spread like viruses. When we describe some idea as “going viral,” we conceptualize it as a microbe that infects host after host until it reaches epidemic proportions. Some experts argue that this is not an entirely accurate way of understanding the process. But ambiguities are an inevitable result of any argument from analogy. (The beauty of language—for me, anyway—is how it can be both insightfully precise and metaphorically vague, leaving room for linguistic play in our pursuit of truth.) As an example, I think ideas can also act like drugs and even produce states of inebriation in the people consuming them. Perhaps sometimes the metaphor of intoxication proves more useful than that of contagion.
Let’s take a look at patriotism. It’s an idea as old as the nations we call home. Governments have long used it to train their citizens to be loyal. But it carries a frightening history of establishing an us vs. them mentality and justifying atrocities ranging from unprovoked military conquest to outright genocide. Even if it’s usually just a reason to join others in celebration of shared national narratives—which are rarely as simple as they’re often presented—it sets a psychological precedent that favors who we are over who they are.
In his desire to challenge this kind of patriotic fervor, Mark Twain once quipped, “The soul and substance of what customarily ranks as patriotism is moral cowardice—and always has been.” People retreat to patriotism when they need to justify what they know they cannot. They are not infected with a virus. They have ingested a drug to alleviate the tension of some moral conundrum. They get drunk on it, wave the flag, and set off fireworks to distract them from the question, “is our country so exceptional that it can justify any action no matter the consequence?”
One of the promises of the communications revolution is that patriotism will erode as people around the world interact with one another across national boundaries more often. We’ll eventually abandon loyalty to country for a cosmopolitan ethic that promotes international community. But recent research suggests that the opposite may be happening. When the psychology department at NYU performed a sweeping study of Twitter in 2017, they discovered that people from different sides of the political divide rarely talk to one another. Even as national boundaries erode, political boundaries calcify.
In our most recent podcast, we discussed the possibility that many communities form in response to a hegemonic culture, and how the rejection of such helps people find common ground. As a member of Lucenti, I resist passing judgment on those who find the kind of intentional community they need to improve their lives. Nonetheless, I still worry about communities built around conflict with anyone “other” than “their own.” I worry that it facilitates a retreat to community values that shield people from confronting difficult moral problems, which may be key to individual growth. I hope, as Twain once did, that we can exercise moral courage that transcends the patriotic restrictions on viewing all as globally equal to all.