Cambridge Analytica sounds like a friendly Harry Potter spell that does all your homework for you. In reality CA is a data analytics firm that is very much in the news these days, and for all the wrong reasons. They were caught using Facebook data to ‘psychographically microtarget’ millions of American voters online with various smear campaigns, in the aim of ‘electronically brainwashing’ them to vote pro-Trump. And to try and target them better CA essentially weaponized the Facebook data they took without consent. They wanted to know everything about potential Trump voters: where they lived, what car they drove, what books they liked to burn.
The controversy surrounding the embattled organisation continues to send shockwaves across the political spectrum. One of the reasons for this is that this complex yarn has many factors: the illegal breaching and harvesting of Facebook data, deep states and how they mine and misuse big data, data privacy and safeguarding issues, online political manipulation, Steve Bannon as a former CA board member, links to Russia interfering in our elections, the undermining of democracy, trust issues with big tech firms, political and propaganda warfare, and so much more. The website Vox has some helpful diagrams explaining how all these things connect. So great is the impact of this ongoing saga that we now have some people, be they alarmist or not, commenting about the future of western democracy itself.
Was this manipulation of data the main reason Trump came to power? Would Brexit have happened were it not for CA? In order to get to the bottom of it all CA are currently being investigated on both sides of the Atlantic. They are a key subject in two inquiries in the UK (with Theresa May finding the whole thing “very concerning”) and one in the US, unsurprisingly as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion. In the current political realm it really does not get any bigger than the Mueller investigation.
But this is not just about the manipulation of data. Because CA has essentially turned data into fear, this is also about the manipulation of emotions and feelings. In a secret recording from January 2018 Alexander Nix, the now former chief executive of CA, in reference to making false allegations against political opponents, said:
These are things that, I mean, it sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed. – Alexander Nix
There are similar comments from managing director Mark Turnbull, who was also secretly recorded speaking to potential clients, this time in November 2017. Turnbull said something that is, after closer examination, a fundamental truth of how we now do politics. He openly admitted that the company is in the business of preying on people’s fears:
The two fundamental human drivers, when it comes to taking information on board effectively, are hopes and fears. And many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears and concerns. There is no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because, actually, it’s all about emotion. It’s all about emotion. – Mark Turnbull
Brexit and Trump have clearly demonstrated the words of Turnbull to be chillingly true. Late night talk show host Seth Meyers, when analysing the ongoing saga with CA, made a similar point about how our fears are being toyed with:
A whistle blower who worked with Cambridge Analytica told The Guardian newspaper over the weekend, “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.” Incidentally, “inner demons” is a much more accurate name for what Facebook really is. – Seth Meyers, Mar 2018
Dr Thaddeus John Williams, assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University, adds a little more historical depth to this idea that feelings not facts dominate our mainstream culture:
If Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and a mix of our ancestors from virtually any age of human history were crammed into a time machine and hurled into the twenty-first century, there is something normal to us that they would find totally bewildering…I am referring to the sacred, unquestioned authority granted to feelings in our day. Western culture has been through a so-called ‘Age of Faith’ and an ‘Age of Reason.’ We live in what Princeton’s Professor Robert George calls “the Age of Feeling.” Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor prefers the moniker “the Age of Authenticity” to describe how staying true to your feelings, whatever they may be, has become the highest virtue of our day…In our Age of Feeling the only condition required for a feeling to be valid is not that it conform to the world beyond us, but simply that it be felt. – Dr Thaddeus John Williams, May 2015
Dr Williams mentioned the brilliant Professor Robert George, who serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. He is also a Roman Catholic and is considered to be one of the leading conservative intellectuals in America. He recently came to prominence when he tweeted the following (the quote has since been memed and Photoshopped to within an inch of its life):
We can argue the toss as to whether the current geological epoch we live in is the Holocene age, or the Anthropocene age, or even the Trumpocene age (a Google search on “the age of Trump” brings back over half a million results), but on a different cultural plain one thing is blatantly clear: welcome to the age of feeling. Welcome to a narcissistic age where feelings have been accorded as much currency as facts, if not more so. Welcome to an age where no one person can claim to have more or better feelings than anybody else. Welcome to an age where we have turned our collective backs on the ages of faith and reason. Welcome to an age where we feel more for our own selves and less for others.
To understand this age of feeling further here is a lengthy but nuanced and sophisticated discussion between Professor George and his good friend Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. This conversation took place in July 2016 in the elegant surroundings of the Princeton University Chapel in Princeton, New Jersey. Both of these prominent scholars tackled the concept of the age of feeling, specifically from within the framework of the Abrahamic faiths. It is a fascinating discussion that is well worth listening to in full and, as per usual, presented below are some of my favourite quotes from the event. As always some of these quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity, but their original intent hopefully still remains. Enjoy!
PS I very recently came across a few more articles with journalists trying to define the era we live in. Missy Comley Beattie asks if we are living in “the Age of Hatred” or “the Age of Annihilation” before declaring “I’m going with the Age of Absurdities and Atrocities.” Frank Bruni asks the question “Shouldn’t experience count in politics, too?” before declaring we now live in “the Age of Inexperience.” Paul Mero declares that we live in a time where “Intellectual integrity flies out of the window,” thus naming our modern age “the Age Of Unreason.”
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is an eminent scholar and thinker. Working together with him is really an enormous gift to me. I admire Shaykh Hamza not only for his obvious brilliance, but also for his courage. It takes a lot of courage to speak the truth out loud, especially in our current climate. Shaykh Hamza has put his very life on the line for the sake of the truth, and for the sake of bearing witness to the fundamental values that are shared by the great Abrahamic traditions of faiths. – Professor Robert George
Telling the truth in any time and place has always been a difficult thing. And we are called to be witnesses, the Abrahamic traditions share that idea of being witnesses. The Qur’an says “Be witnesses unto the truth.” And it actually says “Even if it is against your own selves.” So sometimes we have to acknowledge the shortcomings in our own traditions, in our adherence, behaviour, and actions. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
One of the hallmarks of true tradition is beauty, and one of the hallmarks of a loss of tradition is ugliness. Hence so many ugly modern buildings. So it is really nice to be in such an incredible environment as the Princeton University Chapel. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
How one feels about something does not change the underlying reality of the thing. – Professor Robert George
There is a story of a famous Evangelical Christian woman, a singer, known far and wide throughout the Evangelical Christian community. She left her husband for another woman’s husband. And when she made her public justification, for an act condemned by her faith, she said that God would not have put into her heart her love for this new man or into his heart his love for her, if God did not mean for them to be together, even though it meant abandoning their own families. There, it seems to me, is the challenge for the Abrahamic faiths in the age of feeling. The criterion of that singer for the rightness of an action is not faith as such, for we know what the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths say about adultery. It is not even the demands of reason. That was not her plea. It was that she knew something about where she belonged and what it was right for her to do, or at least not wrong for her to do, in virtue of something subjective not objective, something personal to her and to her feelings. – Professor Robert George
One of the problems with religion today is that it has lost, in many ways, its true defenders. Historically the vast majority of people, and today the vast majority of believers, are people that feel in their hearts that what they believe is right and true. And a lot of this is non-cognitive, such that faith is not so much about reason for a lot of believers. But that type of faith traditionally was considered a very flimsy faith and a very dangerous faith to have, because somebody could easily create doubt in their hearts. And this is certainly the role that the devil plays, whether it is a human incarnation of that concept or whether it is doubts that come to the mind. But the Muslims actually felt that faith had to be rooted in reason, and this was the dominant scholarly opinion. And it was to such a degree that some scholars actually argued that blind conformity to faith was unacceptable, but the majority said if that was the case then we would have to say the vast majority of believers did not have faith. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
I think it is very hard to argue, given the type of society that we are living in now, that people are happy, especially when we actually look at the statistics and social sciences that we have out there. I don’t think people are doing very well. On the other hand it is arguable that every time and place has these crises also. But as somebody who has lived in a Bedouin culture, what really struck me about living with Bedouin is that I did not see anybody that had any signs of depression. The people that I lived with in Mauritania in West Africa were deeply rooted in faith and reason. This was one of the rare examples in human history of aboriginal nomadic people that had a scholastic tradition. So I actually studied Aristotelian logic inside a tent with a Bedouin teacher, which is really amazing. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
What is happening now is because of a loss of real metaphysics and, as you know, the most fundamental metaphysical question is: why is there something as opposed to nothing? And for most people that idea does not occupy their thoughts but if they would allow it to occupy their thoughts, then their thoughts would automatically make an exponential leap from where they are in their unexamined existence to really having a difficult question put in front of them. And I think modern people do not realise how profound that question is. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
Empirical science today is considered by some as the only acceptable methodology, the only way, to examine reality. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
Imagine we are in this church and this is all we know of the world. We don’t know about Princeton, let alone New Jersey, let alone the United States, let alone planet earth, let alone the universe. We are just in this church and we have been here all our lives and this is all we’ve ever known. And if somebody escapes and comes back into the church and tells us that there is this whole other world out there, most of the people in the church would find that very difficult to believe because this is all they have ever known. And one of the problems with modern thought is they deny the possibility of ever getting outside of material reality, and yet thought itself is an immaterial reality, and therefore thinking about it is already being outside of it. This is because no matter how hard they try, they have never proven that consciousness has a material basis. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
When you remove God from the equation then I think critical theory makes perfect sense. But when God is still part of the way you are understanding the world, then critical theory I think, especially in its post-structuralist iteration, is the single most dangerous thing to theology and to Abrahamic metaphysics. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
The twentieth century has been the bloodiest century in human history. Wars have been fought on ideological grounds, but they have very little to do with religion, unless you define religion as ideology. And people like Christopher Hitchens have tried to define religion as ideology, but I don’t think that is really fair to religion. Human beings obviously have ways of understanding the world and these modern ideas, like materialism and Marxism, have been very appealing to large numbers of people, and mostly to people that have been oppressed. One of the things I find really fascinating in Marxism is the quote that “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” This is the great statement on religion by Marx. But it is never quoted in its entirety, because what he said was “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, it is the heart of a heartless world, it is the soul of a soulless place, it is the opiate of the masses.” In other words it is a way of numbing the pain of the world. What our modern world has done is that it has removed religion to fulfill the function of an actually healthy opiate, and it has replaced it with a real opium. We have a huge opioid crisis right now in this country. People are numbing themselves to the pain of the world because they have lost spiritual grounding in what the world is and what it always has been. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
What is confronting us right now as a species is that without the ethical tools that allow for really serious prescriptive answers, then I think right now we can possibly completely lose our humanity. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
The world is fundamentally designed to let you down, because you cannot put your faith in the world. If you put your faith in the world you will always be let down. And I think there is this diabolic impulse, this idea that somehow man can solve all of his problems. And this is certainly where technologists reside. They reside in this world where we are going to have a technological or a pharmaceutical solution to these problems. These problems can never be solved technologically. They cannot be solved pharmaceutically. And I do not believe they will be solved through transhumanism. I think transhumanism is just another arrogant attempt at playing God. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
We are living in a world where we have lost balance, we are profoundly out of balance in many ways. This plastic bottle of water that I am holding is a great example of complete insanity, and I will give you an example. I brought a Bedouin here from west Africa, he is a brilliant man who is really well versed in a lot of sciences. We were in Arizona in New Mexico, I was teaching a course there and he was with me. A person took one of these cups, drank some water out of it, and then threw the cup in the garbage can. The Bedouin asked me “What is that?” And I said “What? The garbage can?” And he said “Why did he throw that cup in there?” And I said “Well, those cups are made for one time use.” And he said “That is a very bad sign when a civilisation reaches that level of extravagance.” You could tell by his face that he was horrified by that, by the old sin of luxury or luxuria. He grew up in a place where everything is recycled because desert people live with very limited resources. So the idea of creating a bottle to be used once and thrown out is complete insanity. This is not sustainable, nobody can argue for the sustainability of a lifestyle of going to Starbucks everyday and getting that cup and just throwing it into the garbage can. And recycling is a total lie. And so these are real problems of balance. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
One of my favourite quotes from Confucius is “When I was 15 I set my heart on learning. When I was 30 I knew where I stood. When I was 40 I had no more doubts. When I was 50 I knew the mandate of Heaven (i.e. life’s purpose). When I was 60 my ear was obedient (i.e. my moral sense was developed). And when I was 70 I could fulfill the desires of my heart without going astray.” That idea of working on the self, the idea of self-mastery, has been so removed from the spiritual part of the human being. Where we see this type of mastery in sports, there is incredible discipline in sports. Our great athletes have phenomenal discipline. And musicians also, because you know how much work it takes to actually achieve that type of mastery. But the idea of mastering the soul has really been removed from our civilisation, and that to me is the greatest tragedy. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
One of the things that Muslim scholars say is that disobedience out of pleasure is always followed by ‘inkhibah’, a constriction of the soul. And obedience, which often involves a constriction of the soul because it is hard to do, is always followed by an expansiveness. And this is one of the signs that you have done something good is that it is followed by what the Qur’an calls ‘inshirah’, an expansion, in that it feels good. And this is why people do not like to exercise but after they finish exercising they always feel good. So when we do things that are good for ourselves that we don’t like, what follows is something very, very positive. Whereas when you eat that cheesecake, which initially appears very desirable, but afterwards you wonder “Why did I do that?” And these are very mundane examples, but when it comes to sin, really serious sin, because the cheesecake is not going to put your soul into perdition, but that other person’s wife will. And we have innumerable films where the scene after the sin is “Why did I do that?” – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
The major crisis in Islam right now is a crisis of authority. The Catholics have an advantage because they have the magisterium, where the Pope and the cardinals can determine what policy or doctrine is right, and that helps to a great deal. The Muslims are like the rabbinical tradition, we have a scholastic tradition which traditionally was based on what was called ‘isnad’, or ‘chains of transmission’. So one of the things they always asked Jesus was “Who were your teachers?” Because they wanted to know what the rabbinical chain is. “Are you from Hillel? Are you from Shammai? Who is your teacher? So we can know what school you are following.”…The only people that have a type of magisterium right now are the Turks and the Iranians, the Shia tradition. The Turks have a very standardised tradition, so that all of their scholars go to the same schools and learn the same books. The Iranians have the same situation. The Sunnis are in anarchy right now and this is a great problem for us. Normative tradition has really broken down. So, in essence, to help people that are from other faiths, I represent a more Catholic tradition and a lot of people say “Islam needs a reformation.” My response is “This is the reformation! You guys don’t know your history, because the reformation was one of the bloodiest periods in European history.” – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf