2012-10-17

Neither Problem Nor Solution

Social media do link us. They create new kinds of community, which, I hope, do not replace, but facilitate traditional kinds of community. Yet there are dangers.

Take email, because even if you're not facebooking, you're probably sending and receiving email every day. It's such a wonderful tool. It's fast, it's convenient. It lets you think about and revise and delete ill-considered words before you hit send. In talking, once it's out, you can't take it back. Writing lets you be more exact and careful.

On the other hand, with email you have to be really exact and careful. Spoken conversation rolls along, and facial expressions and smiles and body language send reassuring messages, and if the other person looks puzzled or hurt by what you said you can see that instantly and adapt and reassure. But the email words just sit there on the screen, staring at the reader, as if daring the reader to draw a negative interpretation.

Literacy is a wonderful thing, and we know that literacy is a crucial part of critical thinking. Reading and evaluating the written word is the bedrock of critical thinking skills -- for the written word strips away the social friendliness of a face-to-face context. Critical thinking is a wonderful thing, but the downside is that it's so...critical. People who can think for themselves do -- and instead of agreement, you get all these individually staked-out positions -- which is great in contexts that call for contributing an original and distinctive rational argument. A family, however, would have a hard time if what family members most valued in each other was argumentation. The same goes for a community.

Illustration. For the first 50 years of the US supreme court, the justices sat around a table and talked their way to a decision on the cases before them. The result: a very high proportion of decisions were unanimous. By the 20th century, the justices had adopted the practice of not talking about cases with each other, but each retreating into their separate quarters where they and their clerks write their arguments, and where they write responses to each other -- proposing revision if they more or less agree and writing counter-arguments for their dissent if they don't. Their process is all about independent critical thought, at which, whether you agree with the decision or not, I think we can acknowledge they and their staffs are very good (with a few notable exceptions, the most egregious of which, to my mind, is the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision). As a graduate student of jurisprudence, I read a lot of Supreme Court majority and dissenting opinions. Aside from Bush v. Gore, even when I thought the decisions were wrong and deeply wrong, I could see they were well-argued (even, I'd say, the disastrous Citizens United decision). The result is that today a unanimous decision is very rare indeed, and the most common vote is now 5-4.

Written communication is great for independent thinking and critical thought, and we absolutely need it. Face-to-face oral communication is how community is built.

Disagreement is a good thing. We need disagreement and we need it worked out in a face-to-face way. Unitarian Universalism, more than any religion in history, honors and cherishes diversity, is built upon a love of community of difference. We want to hear each unique voice -- it's what we love about being Unitarian Universalists, and we are better at that, better at combining independent thought with community than any religion has ever been.

But sometimes best still isn't very good.

Face-to-face communication is how community is built. And I'm at fault because my face -- my original face before my parents were born -- hasn't always shown itself. We've got good independent thinkers -- no deficit there. Where we sometimes fall down, good people -- where I fall down -- is in presenting to each other only our electronic selves, not the fuller embodiment of who we are. Blogging ain't enough.

The technology itself is neither the problem nor the solution. The solution and the problem lie in the spiritual wisdom and responsibility, and lack thereof, with which we use the technology. Mindfully. Or not. With love truly as our guide. Or not. "We can feign helplessness and stand in awe of technology or we can act with intention and courage" (Mary Katherine Morn) and just be ourselves, our better selves, and make a more connected world.

Amen.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "The Electronic Self"
Previous: Part 3: "Hurricanes"
Beginning: Part 1: "Facebook?"