Defining Decency Down

When a heartbreaking catastrophe takes place, but you don’t live-Tweet it, do you still care?

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.

 

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Do Kids Need Social Media to Succeed?

When you think of the things children need to succeed later in society,  you probably think of things like good education, a stable family life, and lots of love and emotional support. One thing you probably don’t think of? Social media. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a parenting book or a sociological report on childhood well-being that emphasized how important social media and iPhone apps are to a kid’s personal and economic flourishing.

Well, there’s a first time for everything I suppose. 

At The Washington Post, Crystle Martin and Mimi Ito, two researchers out of the University of California at Irvine, present their case that “digital inequity” is a serious social threat to the upward mobility of children from lower-income families. Most of the article is socioeconomic research that comports well with common sense: Wealthier families have more money to spend on things like smartphones and carrier plans, which in turn means kids and teens from those families are statistically more likely to be using the social media platforms on those phones than kids from families with less money in the budget.

Seems pretty logical to me. I’m not entirely sure why extensive academic research is necessary to confirm this, but there you go.

But the raw data alone is not the point of the research. Martin and Ito present the information in order to argue that there is a serious social and economic disadvantage to be suffered from not having access to the same social media platforms as wealthier Americans. “The emerging smartphone divide is troubling,” they write, and it must be addressed:

Teens’ access to Snapchat and Instagram may not seem like something we should be terribly concerned about, but it is an indicator of deeper and troubling forms of digital inequity. Social digital and networked media use is where young people gain everyday fluency and comfort with the technology and social norms of our times. Whether it is managing a LinkedIn network or learning to code, young people who lack digital fluency and full access will always be a step behind their more connected peers.

If you’re not reading carefully, the words “digital fluency” might race past you as you find yourself reluctantly agreeing with the authors’ conclusion. After all, isn’t the computer and the internet both integral parts of our modern economy? Isn’t inability to use email and web browser an obstacle to employment, even in the most non-tech industries?

Well, yes, but that’s not what is being talked about here. Rather, the researches seem to be equating familiarity with smartphone-only applications like Instagram and Snapchat with “fluency.” They apparently believe that the social and economic obstacles that encumber Americans who aren’t good with computers or the internet are also awaiting young children and teens who aren’t able to harness thelatest hardware and applications that their wealthier classmates might be using.

This kind of prognostication faces an obvious problem: How do you ever end up with reliable data when the products are so new and diversifying so quickly?  The research presented in this piece relies heavily ] on projection and a functional equivalence of social media with other digital tech like email. Why accept that equivalence though? Facebook is wildly different, both in form and function, than it was when it launched in 2006. MySpace, once considered the crown jewel of social media, is decrepit, and the much hyped Google+ is almost totally irrelevant to the average American teen. Forecasting what tomorrow’s social media platforms will even be is difficult enough; predicting their economic impact seems like a fool’s errand.

But that’s not this article’s biggest problem. Its biggest problem is its unqualified view of social media as something that automatically enriches a child’s life.

Let’s assume the research’s premise for one moment, and imagine that it really is true that not having an iPhone or Galaxy disadvantages teens in their future economic mobility. The next question should be: So what? Does an economic disadvantage automatically trump any and all other concerns that parents and families might have about allowing teens (and younger) unfettered access to social media?

And there are many such concerns. Of course there are the usual ones:  Sexting is pandemic among American teenagers, and it is well-known at this point that compulsive social media use (and many teens know no other kind of use) can have serious  effects on mental health. But even beyond this, there are worthy questions about why young people need to be trained on social media at all. After all, the astronomical usage rates of “connectors” like Facebook and Twitter are accompanied with the near-universal acknowledgement that our culture–particularly the Millennial culture–is marked by pathological loneliness and personal fragmentation. The stated goal of social media is to connect people with each other. If it is failing in that goal–and our reasons for suspecting it is failing are increasing–then why is it necessary?

Rather than assuming that the latest novelties from Silicon Valley will dictate our children’s futures, we should empower parents and churches, of all income levels, to take a higher stake themselves. How many teenagers spend hours on Twitter, enchanted by the most banal and transitory “Trends,” because they are left to themselves without any inkling of the delights of imagination and wonder, delights that exist right outside their window? Are many of the children I see in restaurants glued to their iPad having their mental and moral faculties shaped by corporations, merely because their parents are too glued to their email and Facebook notifications to notice?

It is one thing to submit that economic flourishing benefits the young. It is altogether reasonable as well to suggest that the youngest generation be trained in the tools of the modern economy. But it is quite another thing to urge parents to hook their children up to the most dehumanizing and trivial portals of diversion, merely out of the fear of having an incomplete resume.

If raising people who are capable of living healthy, rich lives apart from the soft blue glow of digital enchantment means a slightly less thick college application binder, so be it. One’s life, after all, does not consist in the abundance of possessions–or followers.

(featured image credit)

The Hyper-Examined Life Isn’t Worth Living

As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of the New Year, many of us in American culture will begin to reflect, even if briefly, on our lives and loved ones in the past year. For some, that will mean reliving warm and cherished moments, and for others, feeling anew grief and pain. In either case, there can be no doubt that American culture, as distracted and unfocused as it often is, encourages a kind of serious introspection this time of year.

Self-reflection is a good thing. It’s a habit that can produce the kind of humility, modesty, and moral awareness that characterize the people we tend to admire. It’s a practice rooted in a biblical command to examine ourselves, to take heed of our spiritual condition so as to not be deceived, either by sin or by each other. Done in the right spirit, introspection can remind us of our need for a Savior, and renew a genuine thankfulness and desire for Christ.

As is true of all things, however, self-reflection can be corrupted. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the hyper-examined life isn’t either.

The hyper-examined life is what happens when a legitimate desire to be self-aware becomes an unhealthy preoccupation with our own emotional lives.  Hyper-introspection can make us watch our thoughts and feelings with an obsessive hawkishness, making us perpetually unable to enjoy moments of self-forgetfulness. This can be particularly debilitating in relationships, when every relationship and encounter is constantly subjected to inward scrutiny.

At first, it may sound like the hyper-examined life is really a personality bug, a flaw in some introverted temperaments that really only affects a few people. But a quick look at social media, the dominant interpersonal medium of our generation, reveals quite a bit about how unaware we can be that we are living a hyper-examined life.

Because social media is essentially a faceless, competitive marketplace for digital personas, it tends to encourage habits of thought and feeling that tend toward a hyper-examined life. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have their respective “reward” systems for participation: Likes, Retweets, etc. The key to getting the most out of these mediums is to constantly orient your own personality toward whatever is popular (or controversial) at a given moment, and post accordingly. This habit can easily spill over into offline life; for example, choosing a book whose picture will get plenty of attention on Instagram, or posting clever zingers on Twitter and being unable to remember anything substantial about what you watched.

The effect here is that we fail to cultivate genuine moments of life that don’t have to rebound back to us in the form of digital approval. And that, in turn, can affect how we live offline too. Many writers and teachers have observed that my generation struggles with decision-making. Millennials often seem paralyzed by fear of failure, desiring complete assurance that the next step will be easy and rewarding. Thus, many young people unwittingly hurt their chances of lasting marriages, stable careers, and fruitful relationships by trying to constantly make the “right” decision, when simply making a decision would, in fact, be the right move.

An obsessive preoccupation with what others will think and a paralyzing fear of failure go hand in hand, and both are symptoms of a hyper-examined life. Many who are living a hyper-examined will flit and float from job to job, from friend to friend, from place to place. This may seem adventurous at first but often what is behind this rootlessness is a compulsive need for satisfaction in every season of life. Instead of losing themselves in the joys of the mundane, the regular, and the everyday, these wandering souls constantly search their own emotional state for happiness, not realizing that this kind of preoccupation with self is exactly what tends to kill happiness in the first place.

The hyper-examined life is exhausting. Life, including the Christian life, isn’t meant to be lived by way of non-stop self-appraising and people pleasing. A day in, day out regiment of the hyper-examined life leads inevitably to burnout, frustration, and a nagging sense of unfulfilled desire not based in reality.

By contrast, the well-examined life is not driven by fear or compulsive self-searching but by a humble desire for grace. Personal failures are not meant to be endlessly agonized over but repented of, with the confidence in God’s provision for forgiveness and transformation (2 Cor. 7:10). Confidence in the mercies of God disarms paralyzing fear, if we live life knowing that poorly made or even sinful decisions do not exist outside the scope of God’s plans and promises for us (Rom. 8:38-39).

Instead of meandering from one thing to the next in search of the emotional fulfillment that always feels out of reach, living the well-examined life frees us to drop self-preoccupation and learn the virtues of gratitude and contentment. The reality is that, many times, the most spiritual thing we can do is stop trying to think such spiritual thoughts and simply stop thinking about ourselves at all.

As you near the New Year, be encouraged to reflect well on 2015, to look for evidences of God’s grace in your life and take stock of how you can trust Christ more in thought, word, and deed. Then close your journal and go outside (and take no pictures!), or call an old friend, or take a coworker out for lunch. Don’t be afraid of the awkward moment or the failed attempt. Live life confident in the heavenly Father who spared nothing from you, not even his own Son. Think on that, and look at yourself through your Father’s eyes.