I value the old pagan myths, for they metamorphosize over time, developing alongside the human culture that created them. ‘Narcissus and Echo,’ the tragic tale of love and vanity, is one of the most renowned and relevant of these myths, imaginatively testifying to the real consequences of unrequited lust and self-deceiving admiration.
A modern reimagining of this myth has been playing over in my mind ever since March, when the world went digital. I was unsettled at that time to discover that during Zoom calls, instead of looking at the faces of people I missed dearly, I was often watching my own face in the upper corner, scrutinizing my own image whereas, in person, I would have been seeking to relate to the other person. Like Narcissus staring at his own reflection, deeper digitalization is certainly leading us to further self-obsession.
This election season has made this trend increasingly explicit. Today, as what appear to be the final results were announced, I scrolled through several posts bearing statements such as, “If you voted for [insert candidate], unfriend me.”
I very nearly replied to such posts with a simple: “No.”
This is not intended to indicate who I voted for, as I would rather my blog testify to how I voted (discerningly, deliberately, and discretely) rather than for whom I voted; I prefer to discuss ideologies, not denigrate individuals. What concerns me most is not that a person prefers a particular party, but that such persons would seek to ‘cancel’ those who disagree. This, I fear, represents a contemporary, politicized retelling of ‘Narcissus and Echo.’
Let me explain: In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Echo is cursed so that she can only repeat that which has already been said, and even this cannot be restated in full. Already this bears a fleeting resemblance to what I have previously referred to as ‘Instagram politics/theology.’ Instead of pursuing original sources and balanced considerations, we seem increasingly content to share screenshots of Tweets, Instagram text posts that intentionally leave out tricky bits, and Facebook blurbs that are nearly-impossible to verify. Too many of us are becoming content to regurgitate incomplete thoughts, for this is the closest we can come to speaking our own media-conditioned minds.
This, I might add, is equally true of individuals on both (or neither) side of the American political spectrum. Also true is that there remain fair-minded intellects on both sides, each trying their best to cite sources, check facts, and care for others. The problem is that we are all convinced that we fall in this second, better camp, but, more likely than not, we each tend towards the first.
Rather than pursuing informed, nuanced, and long-considered convictions, the modern citizen is given too much power; with a simple swipe, we are able to generate our own affirming echo chamber, thus enslaving ourselves to the tyranny of utter affirmation. Unfriending those who disagree or, lazier still, demanding that these perceived opponents delete themselves represents the damning marriage of Echo and Narcissus that even the authors of ancient myth did not dare imagine.
Our culture of cancellation and affirmation is at odds with itself. We are at once in danger of becoming Echo and Narcissus. We are too quick to repeat and repost the soundbites of others as our own thoughts and to open eliminate the voices that might have challenged us to truly discern and defend our beliefs. Meanwhile, we are becoming so self-absorbed that we cannot rationally cope with the fact that others do in fact believe and vote differently than us and that our highly-personalized newsfeeds, like the mythical reflecting pool, are not an accurate representation of reality.
The terrifying myth of fractured, inchoate relationship has become reality, but of course it has; such mythologies have always told us a great deal about ourselves, for our predecessors fashioned them in the image of broken humanity. In recognizing the resemblance between this tragic tale and that told by our own self-curated echo-chambers, it becomes clear that we, too, are rapidly ruining our chances at the respect and reciprocity of real relationship; rather, in our own insecurity and desperation for nothing other than total agreement and affirmation, we are throwing ourselves further into the oxymoronic simulacrum of anti-social media and polarizing politics, as well as, ultimately, defeating the opportunity to practice genuine discernment, dialogue, and decision-making.