© Patricia Shechter
18 July 2010
Fourth Draft -- Unfinished
Please do not cite, copy, or quote
We live in a culture today that offers so many distractions, so many means of subtle (and not so subtle) “entertainment,” so many ways which help us avoid paying full attention to anything that our minds seldom focus on a single thing for more than a few moments. In fact, “multi-tasking” has become an essential 21st Century CE life- and job-skill. It has become commonplace for affluent US North Americans to utilize multi-technologies all at the same time while utilizing a single device. People watch movies on their cell phones, iPhones, or “BlackBerries” while at the same time talking with friends, completing a homework assignment, and searching the web for the location, hours, and menu of a local restaurant, using the same technological device for all those tasks. New devices come onto the market every few months, new “must-haves” that ostensibly replace the now ostensibly outdated earlier “must-haves.” Most jobs, even entry-level positions, require the ability to manage multiple projects at the same time. Sending brief messages via cell phone has become so popular – so ubiquitous – so endemic – that it has resulted in the coining of a new verb: To text, as in “I’ll text so & so now.” Sending messages limited to a maximum of 140 characters via “Twitter” software now has its own verb, to “Tweet.” Life has started to be reduced to small bits – bits and bytes byte by byte -- mediated by ever newer forms of technology and media.
In a presentation at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church on 19 January 2010, theologian Elizabeth Dreyer, referring to the revolution in communications brought about by the Worldwide Web, Social Networking, texting, etc., stated: “Our anthropology is changing.” Put In different words, these new media – the web, cell phones, computers -- and their applications – Facebook, YouTube, texting – are changing how we are and what it means to be human. Foundational to my theology is that being in right relation and in relationship are essential to being human. Thus, my concern over the impact of the new media and their applications focuses on how they impact both our individual and our relational lives.
It seems to me that we are coming to be reduced by and to what the technology and media are able – and willing, according to the programmer(s) – to handle. We are able to claim hundreds of “friends” on Facebook (FB), and those FB Friends are able to watch and follow our every move on YouTube, should we choose to allow that. They know our list of 25 things about us and whatever else we choose to reveal or share. But are some of them – or all of them – or any of them – really friends? Or have we reduced the concept and meaning of friendship to something unrecognizable prior to this era? And do these putative friends really know us at all? What is our definition of friend in this “brave new world?” What type of time do we spend with them? What type of commitment do we have with them?
And then, who is the person on our own Facebook page? Are we really that person? Are we the sum of the various pieces of data – the random, or even not-so-random, bits and bytes – we ourselves added to the Facebook technology? What have we perhaps exaggerated? What have we deliberately left out? What have we forgotten? Deliberately misrepresented (lied about), even, perhaps – G-d help us – fabricated?
Social Media and Relationships
With our lives getting broken down into tinier and tinier fragments of time, bytes, and pixels, lists of data points for Facebook, snippets of video on YouTube, will we lose the ability to integrate / re-integrate ourselves as whole, full human persons, created in the image and likeness, not of a computer technology avatar, but rather of the Holy? Will we leave behind the talent for long-term, in-depth conversation, the patience to listen and to drink deeply of another person’s story? And if we do not cultivate that talent, if we, in fact, have no place in which and no way in which to cultivate that talent, how well will we develop the capacity to establish long-term, emotionally, as well as sexually, intimate relationships? How will we establish our ability to pray, to meditate, to be in relation to and relationship with G-d? If we have difficulty sustaining relationships with other people, people we’re able to see, hear, touch, embrace; if we have difficulty listening to other people, difficulty believing them when they reassure us that they do, indeed, love, care for, and treasure us, how will we sustain our relationship with G-d, or believe that G-d does, indeed, love us as no other does, that is, unconditionally? As Jesus says to Thomas the Apostle in the post-Easter Upper Room, “’Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’” (Jn. 20:29)
Don’t get me wrong – I love Facebook; I probably spend far too much time with it. And saying all of the above not deny the positive aspects of the ever-changing “Social Networking” universe. Its benefits became clear and obvious in the weeks following the massive earthquake that struck the island nation of Haiti on 12 January 2010. Facebook updates kept people around the world informed about the progress of the relief efforts of numerous relief organizations and also helped people caught in the disaster inform family members and friends of their status and condition. These media acted as “clearing houses” for the hundreds of inquiries concerning the whereabouts of people in Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were contributed to aid organizations via “Twitter.” Most incredibly, people who were trapped under rubble were able to send “Tweets” or text messages to let family, friends, & rescue workers know where they were, & this information helped to facilitate their rescue.
I don’t “text” or “Tweet” people. In my everyday context, however, I find Facebook to be a superb medium for reconnecting with and keeping in contact with friends, some of whom I have not been in touch with for decades. I enjoy reading what my friends have been doing, how their children are faring, what they are reading, listening to, thinking. I’m able to do all this without requiring an email from them; Facebook allows us to communicate in a kind of shorthand. Between Facebook and email, I was able to plan an eleven-day vacation in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the same time, I find it highly disconcerting to receive a “Friend” request from someone I don’t know, even someone of whom I’ve never heard – in one instance, in Morocco, and mostly in Arabic, a language I do not read. And I’ve “de-Friended” a couple of people for various reasons, including realizing that I wasn’t interested in reading what one was doing on a nearly-hourly basis & what she was cooking & eating for breakfast, lunch & dinner every day of the week.
Despite my finding Facebook useful and at times fun, I still have many questions and qualms about all of this new media. Reflecting further, I realized that those question & qualms brought me back to some very foundational questions. In our contemporary Western developed (perhaps over-developed), post-Industrial, post-Capitalist, extremely individualized, now-Globalized society, the main questions people seem to be asking, at least until this most recent thunderous recession, have been: “What do I like?”, “Who do I like?”, and “What do I want?” Yet, those are not my primary questions. As a Catholic Christian, a following of Jesus Christ, a feminist and lesbian-identified bisexual committed to “the faith that does justice,” an inheritor of both Judaism (by birth & raising) & the Christian Gospel (by choice at age 25) and tradition, my primary questions are: “In Whom do I believe?”, “What do I value?”, “Who do I love?”, “How do I live a life of love & justice?” and “Who is G-d calling me to serve / What is G-d ‘s will for my life?”
Social Media and Right Relation
Because I believe that living Ad maiorem Dei gloriam – For the greater glory of G-d – necessarily means living in right relation and relationship, these new media will be valuable only insofar as they help to develop & enhance relationship & right relation, that is, only insofar as they enhance our living lives of love and service. Thus, teenage boys using texting to check up on “their” “girlfriends” violates right relation.
More generally, a recent report on college students and empathy (Konrath, U MI Institute for Social Research, May 2010), indicated that its data show today’s college students “are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.” Researchers on the study cited several possible reasons, including exposure to media violence and the current atmosphere of hypercompetitiveness. Another factor, the researchers say, could be the recent development of social media. Edward O’Brien, a graduate student involved with the study, stated in a press release that “’The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.’” The confusing definition of “friends” combined with the distance provided by interacting with such “friends” almost totally online provides a buffer, insulating and isolating one from responses that are caring, empathetic, and loving. And I am forced here to wonder: How does Jesus’ “new commandment” in John’s Gospel to “’love one another as I have loved you’” fit in here, with our FB Friends? Would we follow Jesus’ commandment of love so great that truly loving service could lead to death, for those we name as Friends on Facebook?
A short digression: When I use the term “right relation,” I am referring to a way of being in relationship that is loving, caring, egalitarian, respectful, in which both partners in the relationship are true partners, with open communication & trust, in which both partners value what is unique about the other. Being in right relation means that those with whom one is in relation are regarded as “thou” rather than as “it,” in the sense of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Another way to understand the quality of relationships is to recall the Benedictine vision of hospitality, an extremely important part of the Benedictine life and charism. Everyone who comes to the door of the monastery is to be viewed as Christ. “All guests…are to be welcomed as Christ.” [RB:53] As persons living For the Greater Glory of G-D, to live in right relation, our own homes and our own hearts need to integrate Benedictine hospitality, so that we treat all persons we encounter as Christ. Living in right relation involves not only those with whom we are most intimate but also those who are strangers, or even possibly potential enemies, when they come to our door. We are called always to live in openness to right relation with every person we encounter, recalling that Jesus calls us to love not only our friends but also our enemies. (Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, except insofar as it is the Cross that we share with Him.)
I see these new media valuable insofar as they help us to continue to strengthen, enhance, and deepen our love for one another. Email has been wonderful for keeping in touch friends who live far away from one another; in my life. It has enabled me to keep in regular contact with a close friend, Kevin, a Jesuit who works in the Society of Jesus’ Chicago Province Mission in Peru. At the same time, Kevin & I make sure that we at least talk on the phone at least once when he visits the US. Email, Facebook, & texting alone aren’t enough. Or, rather, they are, perhaps, enough for reportage – I’m doing thus and so, just saw this & that, am working on bric & brac. They cannot, however, take the place of talking with one’s friends & loved ones on the phone or, better, face-to-face. It is during those long phone conversations and times together, with one another, talking, sharing, walking, being silent, that relationships grow, develop, strengthen, and deepen. The only reason that my friendships with Kevin and other geographically-distant friends have continued through long years of long-distance connections is because, when we became friends, we had the gift of those many opportunities to be together over many graced days and evenings when we were able to cultivate our relationships, deepen and strengthen our ties with one another, negotiate whatever difficulties cropped up, & come to understand the depth of our love for one another as sisters & brothers.
These friends form a set of relationships in my life that are so crucial that I am able to say honestly that I don’t know who I would be had I never met and become close friends with them – and by close, I mean intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually intimate. A friend from college, Charlie, whom I’ve known for over 40 years; Mary Christine, a friend from Berkeley & my early days in the church, who now lives in New York; Kevin, who I met at and with whom I attended seminary (graduate school in theology); Gary, another friend from graduate school, a clinical psychologist & former Dominican priest. Other close friends I have or have had have given me the wonderful gift of their deep friendship at different times in our lives. From all of these friends, I’ve learned many, many things. And one thing I’ve learned in the process of living a friendship is that friendships take work. They require time, attention, deep listening, patience, faithfulness, love, affection, good humor, honesty, gentleness, constancy, integrity, continuity, humility, tenderness, a willingness to admit fault, a willingness to apologize, a willingness to be forgiving and to ask to be forgiven. And probably other qualities I’ve forgotten!
Perhaps it is by being in right relation with those we love, taking the time to be with them (when possible), to listen –truly listen – to them; to laugh and cry with them; be honest with them & tender with them; & all of the other hallmarks of right relation – perhaps that points to the way in which, in this life, on an everyday basis, we find ourselves living “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam” – “For the greater glory of G-d.” By being in & living in right relation, we live in the Spirit of G-d, loving, caring for, and being in service to one another. And, loved and cared for in such a way, we are then empowered to go beyond ourselves, to live lives of love & justice, to do the faith that does justice. St. Irenaeus, an early Church theologian, wrote that “The Glory of G-d is the human being fully alive, and the life of the human being is the vision of G-d.”. If Facebook and other forms of social media enhance our being in right relation with each other, if they help us to be more intimate with and more loving toward one another, help us to be more honest and less defensive, help us to care more deeply for each other, help us to better serve one another and encourage us in engaging in the faith that does justice, then this new world of ubiquitous communication may be able to have a role in moving us from communication to communion and to a deeper awareness and understanding of our closeness to G-d and our dependence upon one another. These new media may be able to connect us with one another more intimately, even if / when we may not know one another personally, because these media have the ability and power, in times of crises, to communicate the critical need being experienced by a population, human and non-human, and help us to see clearly the ways in which we are being called to serve those most in need.
I am reminded of a story I heard within days of the earthquake in Haiti about a group of highly savvy technical people in Washington, DC. Word was disseminated through the Internet that technical folks were invited to gather in an office after the end of the regular workday to figure out how people with their type of expertise could be of assistance in the disaster. A group of ten or twelve met; they had heard that one of the most critical needs to that point was for an integrated database that could list those who had survived and those who had been killed. Any number of organizations had their individual lists, but there was as yet no single list; thus, those searching for news of loved ones & friends found themselves having to go from one organization’s website to another in their search for information. The people who gathered in DC hadn’t known each other; they began talking, brainstorming, proposing ways to tackle this problem, and started figuring out how to create such an integrated single database. From what I understand, groups like this sprang up all over the world – groups of computer-technical people who heard of a need and spent all of their spare hours over the next several weeks to answer that need.
At the same time, it has already become clear that these media may also be used for ill and even for evil. Whether used for bullying by high school students of other students; cyber-stalking by an ex-boyfriend, ex-lover, or ex-partner; trying to document imagined cheating by a jealous spouse by checking his lover’s Twitter account; spewing forth anonymous insults, including sexist, racist, and homophobic tirades on message boards; and many more examples, these social media can be seriously abused. When abused in this way, they damage, injure, hurt, and destroy. In this way, these media add to the alienation, pain, soullessness, increasing lack of empathy, and amorality of contemporary society. I believe that we must guard against contributing to this use of these media by never taking their use for granted and by always keeping in mind the fragility of our sisters and brothers.
Again, I want to return to Jesus’ Final Discourse in the Gospel of John and remembering Jesus‘ “’new commandment’” to his Disciples to “’love one another as I have loved you.’” (John 15:12) Whenever we utilize these new media, I believe, those words of Christ should be foremost in our thinking.