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Mark Zuckerberg’s Tower of Babel

Max Stearns

After the flood, the peoples, all speaking a single language, migrated to a city and constructed a tower so tall that it would reach the heavens. God, unpleased at such hubris, descended. Although He didn’t destroy the tower, He scattered the peoples and confounded their language. Ever the punster, God ensured the unfamiliar languages would sound as babble to those who didn’t comprehend. And yes, the play on words works both in ancient Hebrew and modern English.

I’m not alone in seeing the Facebook-Babel connection. Like the internet itself, Facebook is ethereal, not physical; it’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. Facebook is a medium that allows us to connect personally across the globe in a common language. Using Facebook, and other media, I can convey this blogpost to people instantaneously on the opposite side of the planet. Just as TV motivated an earlier generation to learn English, if only to enjoy U.S. broadcasts, Facebook has made English universal on a massively greater scale. Google translate allows posting in myriad languages, with sometimes humorous results, but English is the modern universal language, with Facebook, reaching the heavens and beyond, our modern tower.

In the original account, we are told: "And the Lord said, "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?"

There are at least two ways to read this that pull in opposite directions. Perhaps God imagines Himself threatened by human competition. Or perhaps, instead, God is concerned that the people will no longer internalize an important constraint on what they seek to accomplish. I find the second reading more compelling.

Facebook allows each of us instantly to find like-minded supporters of our views of the world. It lets us form groups and to “other” groups embracing divergent views. Of course, every group has blindspots; none has all the answers. But those blindspots appear ever distant when we join with so many others who reaffirm their unimportance. After all, so many people from so many places are signaling—with likes, hearts, or other emoji—our single-minded rightness.

The COVID vaccines are deadly.

Mask mandates undermine freedom.

CRT insists all white people are racist.

CRT is unbiased history.

Racism explains nothing.

Racism explains everything.

Climate change is a hoax.

The 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Voter fraud is ubiquitous.

Government can do no good.

Government can do no harm.

Capitalism is evil.

Socialism is evil.

Socialism has never been tried.

The Democratic party is socialist.

The Republican party is fascist.

January 6 was an attempted insurrection.

January 6 was merely friendly tourism.

Donald Trump played no role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol Building.

Facebook allows those holding nearly any of these views, or various combinations, to find communities who agree. (Those following this blog know that I don't equate the listed claims). Although the world has changed dramatically since the time the Babel story was supposed to have taken place, human nature probably hasn’t changed nearly as much. It is all too human to be accommodating, even accepting, of people who we genuinely must rely upon despite disagreements. When groups are forced to work together, they tend toward greater mutual respect. Once hardened lines soften. But when groups we disagree with can be readily dismissed, our positions become more entrenched. It becomes easier to castigate others as fundamentally misguided, even evil.

Consider this once more: "And the Lord said, "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?"

Maybe the problem wasn’t that people would be unrestrained in what they actually accomplished. The tower, we are told, was impressive. God did not tear it down. Maybe, instead, the problem was that people would be unrestrained in what they planned to do, without having to account for those with whom they fundamentally disagreed.

The problem with Babel might not have been the tower. The problem might have been that in building something so grand—with such unity of purpose—groups of people would no longer imagine the need to depend on those who looked differently at the world around them. Maybe dispersing peoples, forcing different languages upon them, would also force those holding different views of the world, in smaller communities, to work together, rather than reaching out to find or forge communities only comprising people who happened to agree. And just maybe, forcing people to see each other—really see each other—without casual dismissal is more important than finding affirmance among like-minded souls who tell us we are so obviously right.

I welcome your thoughts.

[Thanks to Rabbi Dan Wolpe for helpful comments on an earlier draft.]

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