Tuesday, October 8, 2013
On the Public Square
I just finished reading Elizabeth Scalia's On the Square article about Facebook and social media. She argues that FB is a "self-referential church of me" and she quotes Francis' comments on spiritual narcissism as a means of bolstering the argument.
Usually I really like Scalia's stuff, but this one I feel misses the mark. It's not that I'm inclined to defend Facebook. I closed down my FB account years ago, largely motivated by the kinds of concerns that Scalia raises in this article. It was too much of a temptation to waste time fretting about filling out boring questionnaires about myself, waiting, hoping for some sort of social affirmation in the form of a wall-post or a friend request. I just didn't have the energy to engage in that kind of virtual social anxiety. I think, though, that to see this as a manifestation of narcissism and worldliness is to judge too harshly.
Now to be fair, it's a judgement that I've made myself. There's a series of articles that I wrote for the Register where I was pretty much equally harsh on Facebook and the practice of “friending.” I'm now inclined to be a little gentler. Over the past year I've been an off-and-on Twitter addict and when I examine myself to figure out why it is that I compulsively check my @Connect button, it's not narcissism. It's loneliness. For three weeks recently I had one of my close friends staying down in my guest house and my Twitter usage plummeted. When there was a real flesh and blood human being around for me to interact with, I didn't care so much what people were saying about me on the internet.
Scalia typifies FB and Twitter use as, “mostly talking about ourselves, not only in our own feeds—where we share pictures of the meal we are about to consume, and the thought we have just had; and the next thought, and the next—but also in the feeds of others, where we share a usually pointless comment about their posting, that is really just another chance for us to talk about ourselves.” I think there's really a much more benign explanation for all of this apparently self-indulgent chatter. My sister works in international development, and once upon her return from several months in Uganda she commented that people have a need to be socially present. We have a strong impulse to observe and to be observed by others. This can become weird and perverse, voyeuristic or expositionist, but it is a perversion of a fundamentally ordered inclination. As John Paul II points out in Theology of the Body, our subjectivities are formed through interaction with the other. Seeing and being seen, knowing and being known, are the means by which we come to self knowledge, the means by which we confirm others in their identities, and the means by which we are intersubjectively transformed.
Social interaction is essential to human personhood. Without it, unless we have a really unusual solitary calling like St. Simon Stylites, we go nuts. We want other people to see our behaviour, to confirm that we're doing things right. This is in fact one of the primary means by which consciences are formed. Our sense of right and wrong is formed by the experience of observing others being lauded or punished, and from the experience of having our own actions subjected to the same public acclaim or censure. The desire to be excluded from this process, to “do it my way” without giving a damn what anyone else thinks, says or feels is borderline sociopathic.
The problem for people in the postmodern world is that the infrastructure and architecture of our physical environment is very isolating. Loneliness is not merely something that people choose, it has been institutionalized. We are the inheritors of a tradition which sees radical individualism as “liberation” and which prioritizes privacy to an almost insane degree. We are socially autistic. This is encoded in our ideas about personal autonomy and it is even present in our architecture: patios, porches, public space, common areas, and other social spaces which encourage community and interaction have been replaced with increasingly insular forms. The infrastructure of the postmodern world is an infrastructure of isolation. The only place where people routinely escape from this, the space in which we are seen and in which we see others, is on-line. On the internet it is possible to reveal oneself, to be honest, to express your opinion, to find others who are like-minded, and so forth. Thus social media becomes the public square.
Is it a good public square? It's got a lot of problems and it's certainly open to numerous abuses, but so was the Roman system of patronage, the Medieval system of fealty, the town-square of the French or American revolutions...This system is up in the sense that people are less likely to be literally thrown off a rock, beheaded or burnt at the stake in order to set a public example. It's down in the sense that people are less likely to provide concrete help and support when they only know each other in the virtual sphere. It's tempting to think that people feel less responsible for one another when they can hide behind avatars and aliases, but when I think of Les Miserables or Dickens, I'm not sure that human callousness is any more pronounced now than it was before. If anything, the fact that people feel the need to retreat behind a firewall or a facade before behaving like assholes indicates a general social belief that people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. The existence of purely nominal “friends” and of sycophantic networks is a perrenial feature of human societies, so is the human tendency to boast. On the whole, I don't think these tendencies are any more extreme on Twitter than they were around the watering hole.
I do think that we need to work towards the rebirth of physical community, the reclamation of the importance of face-to-face contact, but I also think that the internet including social media has the capacity to move us into genuine relationship. Sure, most of my followers on Twitter are people that I will probably never meet. But I have about a dozen real friends that I would never have been able to meet otherwise. And I'll be honest, I like knowing that Wesley Hill had the best oatmeal ever for breakfast, or that Joseph Prever has come across a Google search-term that just can't be believed, or that Gabriel Blanchard is traumatized by his colleague's mismatched socks and shoes. These are people that I like and care about, and I'm pretty much interested in knowing them – even the silly and unimportant things. I'd prefer if I could have them over in the evening and drink a glass of beer and sit on the porch and talk about the new Pope and the government and H. P. Lovecraft, but given that I can't have that I'm really grateful for the pic of the Sunday brunch or the heads-up that they're having a lousy day and could use my prayers.