I have expressed my concerns about Catholic Internet culture many times before. Mostly it appears to be a problem with some bloggers, who seem to transform into a fiend returned from the dead as soon as they sit down in front of a computer. But I am of the opinion that the problem runs much deeper than just some mutant bloggers.
Now, I don’t want to generalize. I am probably just from the wrong side of the blogosphere, and aware of my own shortcomings, but where I come from this is a widespread problem. So if this does not gel with your experience just forget everything I am about to say and don’t bother to finish reading. But if, on the other hand, any of this makes any sense to you, then read to the end and assess.
In the Clutches of Interwebs
Recently in one of my classes we were commenting on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Gaudium, where Francis criticizes the way in which the new media is sometimes used in a manipulative fashion. One of the students, a priest, commented on how some of his former parishioners caused tremendous damage to others by posting on Facebook information harmful to others under their own names. The whole parish was adversely affected.
I have denounced many times before the use of anonymity and pseudonymity on blogs, when it is used to avoid accountability for having posted information that is harmful to others. But this priest’s story indicates that even when peoples’ names are known they somehow feel empowered to do and say things behind the protection of a computer screen that they would never dare do or say otherwise. So I now revise my opinion and suggest that the problem with the Catholic Internet is not in the first place “the blogger” or anonymity and pseudonymity.
The problem is something more general and nefarious.
In reality everything on the Internet is a blog or some derivative of it nowadays: social media, Twitter and most news outlets are all interactive. They have blurred the distinction between hard news and opinion. Peoples’ comments on Twitter become part of the news. And many hard news articles allow comments. News feeds themselves have blogs. And generally there has been a shift from emphasis, even in the most popular news outlets, from hard news to interactive commentary, all of which are easily posted to social media.
It is precisely the interactive quality of everything on the Internet that makes it not just a medium or a means of communication but a virtual world, which can become for some an alternate reality or a second life. In such virtual reality, peoples’ deeds tend toward the “fantastic” or “alternate” and easily slip to the darker side of that spectrum.
I am not denouncing the Internet. I am not saying you should shoot your computer or disconnect entirely. I remember that years ago certain clients of a condemned private revelation were “inspired” to go from home to home and offer to shoot the family television. There was also a time when good moral people thought that Satan himself had created the telephone. I am not a subscriber to such practices and ideas.
Abusus non tollit usus. Abuse does not vitiate the use.
Still, I believe the Internet is a new kind of horse to tame. It is entirely different than television or the radio. We may have had some crummy Catholic programming, and some that was not orthodox, but I do not recall that Catholic television or radio ever descended into the barbarism that we witness now on the Catholic Internet. Which leads me to suggest, only half-jokingly, that perhaps the Internet, as a pseudo-seat of consciousness, might be diabolically obsessed.
No, I am not really suggesting such a thing. It is only rhetorical. But you get my drift. There is something seriously wrong out there (or in there), and I think it is related to the relative unreality of the new media.
So the Internet is a virtual world in which ordinary rules do not seem to apply. The remarkable feature of it all is that the Catholic Internet is just as bad as the secular—perhaps minus (usually) the foul language and impurity. Of course, as I have already said, this problem is not universal—kudos to all those who act like human beings—but in my experience it seems to be very widespread.
What we have on our hands is an internecine holy war, justified on the grounds of all that is godly and truly worth dying for—except that no one is dying. It is just people’s reputations and that of the Church that are taken to the wall and shot. Talk about dirty laundry. We have put it all in a fish bowl for all our enemies to gawk at.
I personally think that the disease within Catholic Internet culture is fundamentally a problem of fair play. As I said, the ordinary rules of human decency do not appear to apply for the simple reason that poking at a computer keyboard and looking at words on a screen is something like reciting a tirade in one’s imagination. It just does not seem to be as real as doing it like a man to someone’s face. Everyone is just a little more “courageous” behind the screen, and thinks himself to be Blackbeard on the high seas.
This is a monster of our own making and some of its features are, indeed, horrible to look at. But we are too clever to make all of it repulsive. When we don’t descend into name-calling and character assassination, we hide behind glib rhetoric, amateur theology and do-it-yourself journalism. There are a thousand good reasons to engage in it and only one not to do so. The one reason is that we are destroying ourselves.
We have convinced ourselves that all this information is good for us, though it I believe we have come to value the quantity of information over its quality. We have become masters of information but we have failed to open the door to truth. Information and our control over it is now more important than truth.
Information has never been more instantaneous. We have come to expect to have the right to know everything that can be known immediately, and to interact with the sources of information and then to apply our own filters to everything that pours in only to shoot it back out onto the net with our own spin on it. It does not matter where it happens, or how remotely it happens, or really how significant the matter is. It is globally and instantaneous broadcast, and almost always through someone’s filter.
Pope Francis writes: “We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment” (Evangelii Gaudium 64). Amen.
And not only do we fail to discern between the relative value of the data we receive, we stockpile all the dubious content like dirty-bombs at the ready.
A case in point is the recent controversial synod here in Rome. Even now the accounts of what actually went on inside vary from source to source. But the sides were entrenched before it began, and the “reporters” were poised over their “publish” buttons, ready to “inform” us the moment some café dweller overheard a Cardinal’s offhand comment while eating his lunch. Just the other day the Holy Father said the impression left by the new providers of information that the synod was a “parliament” arose from the fact that, not only were the contents of interventions made public, but so were the names of the authors. We just cannot believe that there is such a thing as too much information.
We call it “information democracy,” and that may be exactly the right word because it is as partisan, factious and self-serving as American politics.
As one blogger rightly points out, both the blogger and the reader of blogs belong to a hyper-educated minority. But the trend I describe above indicates that this is the way information will continue to be exchanged at every intellectual level in the future with many its the characteristics only being augmented exponentially by growth in technology. Every criticism leveled against blogs can be brought to bear on social media and its hypo-educated teenage users. Whatever it is we are talking about, it is bigger than the blogosphere and it will be an even greater concern in the future.
But we don’t have to be Victor Frankenstein, who, once he sees the creature that he has given life, realizes what he has done and hates himself for it, and then destroys himself in the attempt to unmake his creature. The real creature that we have to worry about is not the Internet, but ourselves. There is no second life, and really there is nowhere for us to hide—no place real, that is.
The New Regime
It might sound like I am against the new information democracy. I am not. I am just not sure which side it is on. It seems to me that it just creates more politics as usual. Choosing between old media and new media is like choosing between the criminals in Big Business and those in Big Government. The cabal that formerly ran the monopoly of network news was not ostensibly less virtuous than the pajamas media. Now we just have much more tainted information to sort through. A better situation generally, I admit, but not utopia.
It is not just bloggers that are warlords of the market of information. Everyone electively filters, processes, suppresses and broadcasts information with new intensity simply because of the sheer volume, immediacy and transmitability of it. We all have our virtual fiefdoms, even if it is only inboxes and our forward buttons. I have seen the damage email forwarding has done to people barely or not at all known by those at the origin. We are all new masters of the information age who electively participate in the new mega-information wars.
The blogosphere is a honeycomb of echo chambers, each isolated from the other in spite of the interconnectivity of modern technology. It is a moral problem, for sure, precisely because our control over information is elective and especially because the choices are literally at our fingertips. The irony is that even when we rule the information with an iron fist, if we do that badly, we end up ruled by the information. It is pinging back and forth around the globe until final conflagration. And there is literally nothing we can do about it.
As I would guess, the vast majority of man-hours spent connected are purely elective and strictly speaking unnecessary. We really don’t even have a God-given right to all the information we have access to. Certainly, it is very rare animal indeed, that creature who quite literally must blog for his livelihood or wellbeing. No one’s blog, vlog, website, YouTube channel, Facebook page or Twitter feed is necessary for the perpetuation of life in our galaxy. And I seriously doubt that there are many, if any, Catholic bloggers whose work is necessary for the Church, or his diocese, parish or community. We have confused our pastimes with our duties, just as people have confused televised narcissism with reality. We have all become paparazzi.
It is a problem of both exhibitionism and voyeurism, but mostly the latter. And we are so eager to be the first to publish the photos.
That is actually a good analogy because our data streams are often a series of snapshots that we cannot really determine as to whether they form an objective continuity or merely a contiguous arrangement that we have arbitrarily formed according to our own biases and agendas. As I have said many times before, we do not know what we do not know. The massive amount of information we receive leaves us with false confidence that we have a better picture of what is real, when in fact the very volume, immediacy and transmitability place a greater burden of discernment on our shoulders. We never know all the facts. Technology will never be able to overcome this, though it presents us with the illusion that it can.
Thus we are tempted to tinker with information. Blogs are sometimes the video games of adults that think video games are puerile. And we take them nearly as seriously as teenagers take their video games. Political, cultural and religious junkies have their virtual world to play in too. But its not just a game. This alternate universe is full of people, many we have never seen or had a real relationship with—or ever will for that matter—full of faceless names which do not correspond to the real persons. But it is all so full of the most urgent reality that we cannot live without our alternate universe.
A friend of mine, quite disgusted with it all, has substituted the frustrated “blah, blah, blah,” with “blog, blog, blog” (annunciated with the appropriate boredom and disgust). In a way, that sums up a good deal more of the Internet than just blogs.
This is why I have always asserted that a code of warfare is appropriate to the Internet. IMHO, there is no point is signing off on polemics altogether. It is simply part of life, very much part of Catholic life, and always has been.
Perhaps this is one of the lesser-appreciated reasons why the cause for the canonization of G.K. Chesterton is so important. He was a polemicist with standards, and those standards were chivalry. His opus magnum, The Everlasting Man, was in a large part written as a measured way to quell the feud between two friends, who were in the middle of a bitter polemic, one a devout Catholic, Hillare Belloc, and the other a militant atheist, H.G. Wells. The book is a polite takedown of Wells’ The Outline of History, but by writing his book Chesterton also delivered Belloc from having to say anything else he might regret.
So for me, the jury is still out on the relative value of this new information democracy, which, like it or not, is here to stay, and as they say, moving toward singularity. (But that is another matter.)
Call chivalry idealistic if you like, but without it the whole virtual world is the Frankenstein of our making that will be our undoing.
There are various Catholic bloggers out there who have suggested their own set of rules to follow on the Internet in order to make one’s virtual pastimes more real and humane, and thus less monstrous. I recommend consideration of such lists. I will not add to them except to repeat my mantra: If you won’t put your name to it, don’t post it, and (in newfound light) if you won’t say it to someone’s face, don’t post it.
Take your hand away from the mouse, or your finger of the track pad. Perhaps you should just delete the whole creature before it escapes from your laboratory and wrecks everything.
But for me the far more important point is to remember that chivalry is a code of honor that transcends any list of rules. When it descended into the complexities and refined manners, it ceased to be itself. It became a joke that soldiers like Cervantes told to make us laugh. Remember, some men who practice impeccable manners are cads: we call them conmen and womanizers. There are plenty of those on the Internet too.
But what if Catholic Internet culture was to cease holding itself hostage to its own tribalism and distinguished itself by Christian chivalry? Perhaps we could call it “the new evangelization.”