Amazon Prime is currently streaming the bulk of the Star Trek canon, so I’ve been nostalgically revisiting some of my favorite episodes from The Next Generation and also working my way through Deep Space Nine for the first time. Besides a cast of characters who have become household names, Star Trek is famously rich with futuristic technologies. There are phasers, antimatter warp drives, energy shields, cloaking devices — and floppy disks, which have apparently made a comeback by the 23rd century. 

by x-ray delta one

To be honest, though, what seems most “out there” is the kind of semi-utopian society that humanity has created in the future. It’s something like John Lennon’s Imagine in space:  no racism, no class warfare, not much sexism, no poverty — and no perpetually warring religious sects, as everyone now willingly submits to the authority of Science. Having achieved a long-dreamt-of unity, humanity is freed up to explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations. 

Star Trek provides a nice bit of escapism during an election year in which things like wearing masks and reopening schools have become bitterly politicized. We’re unceasingly reminded that we will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America, or that there likely won’t be an America at all if Donald Trump is reelected. Race relations remain extremely tense: depending on who you ask, American society is either fundamentally and irredeemably racist, or slavery happened a long time ago and “some people” should just quit whining about it. The conversation about police reform — an incredibly complex and fraught issue — is often reduced to folks virtually or literally screaming slogans at strangers (“Defund the police!” “Back the Blue!”).  

I find it personally helpful to remember that cultural and political polarization in America is nothing new, and has often been worse. The 1800 presidential election saw campaigning even nastier than what we’re now accustomed to. As just one example drawn from many, John Adams’ operatives circulated rumors that Thomas Jefferson, a known deist, planned on confiscating and burning all copies of the Bible; Jefferson’s team made equally absurd claims that Adams intended to start a war with France. The actual election saw a tie in the electoral college, touching off a Constitutional crisis that had both sides muttering about civil war in a nation less than twenty years old.

In one important sense, then, not much has changed over the last two centuries. What has changed, however, is that we now have access to a level of information that would have been unimaginable to our 1800 counterparts. As my wife put it, “We know every bad thing that is happening in the world, all the time.” Even so, it’s a bit facile to blame the internet for our problems. Although it’s in vogue to criticize the Tech Giants for pushing polarization for profit (outrage gets clicks, clicks get ad revenue), recent research indicates that the fault is not in the algorithms, but in ourselves: other rich countries are growing less polarized as their internet usage increases. 

On the other hand, while the internet may not create polarization, per se, it does provide us with the ability to constantly keep tabs on what the cultural/political Bad Guys are up to, thus allowing us to indulge in the pleasures of perpetual outrage. The internet also rapidly disseminates and draws attention to scissors, a concept developed in the 2018 short story “Sort by Controversial” by Scott Alexander, and brought to widespread public attention by a remarkable Ross Douthat column in the New York Times, probably the most formally imaginative and unsettling political opinion piece ever published. 

by Phineas_Gage

“Sort by Controversial,” which masquerades as a blog post, tells the story of how a tech start-up accidentally invents an algorithm that creates “scissors.” A scissor is an idea, or belief, that is obviously true to a large group of people while being obviously false to another large group, such that the disagreeing parties cannot fathom how the other can be so idiotic, intellectually dishonest, and/or downright evil. Any attempt at debate rapidly descends into vitriol, name-calling, and worse. Scissors make reasonable disagreement, and even empathy, impossible. As the story progresses, the narrator discovers that some malevolent entity (he initially suspects but then rules out Putin) has already discovered scissors and is now using them to systematically tear American society apart. He concludes the story with this advice: 

Delete Facebook. Delete Twitter. Throw away your cell phone. Unsubscribe from the newspaper. Tell your friends and relatives not to discuss politics or society. If they slip up, break off all contact. 

Then, buy canned food. Stockpile water. Learn to shoot a gun. If you can afford a bunker, get a bunker.

Because one day, whoever keeps feeding us Scissor statements is going to release one of the bad ones.

Could “radical compassion and charity” save us? The narrator scoffs at this notion. Once you’ve seen a bad scissor, he tells us, you’d prefer thermonuclear war to living in a world where half of the population believes differently than you. 

“Sort by Controversial” is a solid piece of science fiction, albeit much darker than Star Trek. Sadly, it also feels more relatable. More than once this year, I myself have had thoughts like How could anyone think that? Are they stupid? Are they nuts? Are they wicked? 

I had, in short, encountered a scissor. 

By their nature, scissors leave no room for middle ground, mutual respect, or understanding. You don’t debate a scissor. You fight, not just for your position, but ultimately for your right to be considered a minimally decent human being worthy of existence.

But what would happen if we were to own up to a profound lack of minimal decency? In other words, what if we were to take seriously the Biblical teaching that we are sinners — not just imperfect, not just flawed, but fundamentally the kind of people who would string up God himself and go home feeling pretty good about ourselves (Acts 2:23)? 

There are sinners who try to earn their own righteousness by good deeds and public service, and there are sinners who try to enslave and exterminate whole races. We might even have to physically fight the latter kind of sinner; but recognizing our common brokenness, our shared desperate need of Christ crucified for us, is the only thing enabling us to love our enemies as Christ has loved us.

It’s only when we own up to the reality of who we are that the Cross really makes sense, that Christ claimed us not at our best but at our very darkest — in the words of Martin Luther, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” And it’s only then that we can look across the scissor and not hate.