If a horrific act of murder happens somewhere in the world, but you don’t blog within minutes about it, or Tweet about What It All Means…do you still care?
In the week and a half since a young man (I won’t name him. It’s a scandal that we make celebrities out of terrorists and psychopaths) brutally murdered nearly 50 people in an Orlando nightclub, I and many of those close to me have had much to think about. The nightclub was a gay nightclub. The killer obviously targeted a specific community of human beings that particularly offended him, one that he wanted to terrorize. In the era of our media-soaked, clicks-oriented identity politics, the weight of that thought can be hard to feel. Not hard to understand, mind you; hard to feel, to truly have the horror and hatred and vulnerability of such an act reverberate in the soul.
The simple fact is that true empathy is not easy and it’s not instant. That’s an inconvenient truth, but it’s truth. Entering into the sorrow of another–what the Bible calls “bearing one another’s burdens”–is a moral, emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal discipline. It must be practiced. Christians are commanded to bear one another’s burdens because the default setting of the sinful human race is apathy and extreme self-absorption. To have the margins of one’s heart expand to include those with no earthly connection to you, whose well-being or tragedy will probably never intersect (in an economic or relational sense) with your life–that is something serious, and spiritual.
But in the age of Twitter, that kind of measured thinking doesn’t sell. Federal investigators were still among the bodies of victims inside the Pulse nightclub when online pundits started to eviscerate the “silence” of Christians and other religious traditionalists. From Twitter accounts across the country poured forth not just heartache but hellfire and damnation on all those who had failed to live-Tweet their sorrow or confess that they were partially to blame. In the hours and days after we knew what had happened to those people in Florida, the empathy and grief became inextricable from the bitterness and frustration with those who hadn’t grieved the right way, or hadn’t done it fast enough, or had “hid” behind words like “thoughts and prayers” instead of calling for new laws.
Does this sound healthy to you? Does it sound like the response of those who are grieving in a centered, emotionally mature way? Or does it sound more like what we would expect of a generation that doesn’t feel anything until its been siphoned through an online server and processed into pixels?
The danger of the internet has always been the temptation to live life through it, one orbit short of the uncomfortable, offensive, difficult realities of real, flesh-and-blood existence. Social media offers as convincing a replication of actual community as human brains have invented thus far. Many of us carry our community in our pocket, in a smart phone whose soft blue glow has rewired neural pathways and made us anxious and listless when we’re not logged in.
We seem to be at a point in American culture where a good many people seem to think that our online identities are crucial extensions of our moral selves–so crucial, in fact, that whether or not a person is compassionate or caring can be evaluated by a quick glance at their pages. Has this person acknowledged the story that’s on cable news right now in a timely fashion? Have they offered the kind of words that are acceptable for their online medium? If the answer to either of those questions is “No” (or “Unclear”), then they must be shamed. Those are the scales of online justice, and they are absolute and unyielding.
But the greater sadness in all this is not what happens to those who are actually praying or meditating or grief counseling, while others are Tweeting. The greatest sadness is what happens to compassion itself. Contorting social media to be an arbiter of decency doesn’t define social media up nearly as much as it defines decency down. It takes literally no authentic expression of oneself to click the particular combination of letters on a smartphone or keyboard that will garner endorsements (Retweets) or authentications (Likes). That kind of mastery of social media platforms is not a moral progress; it is a marketing skill, one that can be taught and learned and memorized and utilized to make enormous amounts of advertising dollars. Using social media “correctly” is not a character virtue; its a technological achievement.
The outrage directed at those who don’t grieve in the way the internet wants them to grieve does not foster compassion; it fosters hot-takes and the clicks that fund hot-takes. Those who genuinely believe that a Tweet or a Facebook post can be used to measure the rightness or the wrongness of a person’s capacity for love are thinking of love exactly the way that the advertising industry wants them to. Whether we are talking about the age of the billboard or the age of the meme, this idea of love is nothing more than Impulse –> Product –> Satisfaction. It makes for great car commercials and punchy online journalism. It makes for lousy human hearts.
Instead of defining decency down, perhaps more of us should consider adopting this kind of personal rule: When something happens (in the news, in my life, in my feed, etc.) that triggers in me a tremendous desire to express myself online, the time I should spend offline, in silent contemplation, should be directly proportional to the intensity of my desire to post. If I *can’t wait* to get my Tweet out there, I should spend quite a bit of time thinking before I put it out there. If I don’t feel quite alive until my Facebook post goes up, it shouldn’t go up right now. Only when I have a palpable sense of how small and ephemeral social media is, and how foolish I would be to think of it as some immanent layer of my humanity–only then should I share my thought with the online world.
This kind of principle might, just might, help us to keep in mind the difference between social media justice and cosmic justice, between the perfectly-edited compassion of the Good Blogger, and the dirty, costly, divisive compassion of the Good Samaritan.