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Facebook: Facts or fury?

If I thought reading Facebook posts was a way of really listening to my neighbors, especially those who disagree with me, I wouldn’t be tempted as I am to banish it to electronic limbo.

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A recent New Yorker cartoon has a drawing of the office of an unidentified network provider which might as well have been Facebook bearing the caption:  “We’re close to being reliant solely on renewable sources of outrage.”

I was planning on writing an article saying a final farewell to Facebook which has in my experience become too often a vehicle for each half of the nation’s population to show off its righteous indignation at, and sometimes its outright hatred and contempt for, the other half.

Depending upon which side of the national divide you fall on, you will likely interpret that comment as referring to the other half.  If you’re a liberal, you’ll likely say:  “Oh, I know exactly what he’s talking about.  Those wretched, hateful Trump supporters.”  If you’re a conservative, you’re probably saying, with equal and opposite vigor: “Oh, I know exactly what he’s talking about.  The triumphalist, self-righteous, hateful, confused, and often bizarre rhetoric of the perennially-protesting-something-other crowd is just too much to endure.”

People post the most recent angry rant du jour on Facebook and ask: “Did you see this?”  The other half post the same with the comment: “What an utterly horrid piece of propaganda!”  Soon enough there will be re-posted comments on the comments, asking: “Did you see how the left/right (take your pick) became unhinged when they saw this post?” followed by the inevitable: “We’re not really unhinged: our seeming overreaction is entirely sensible.”

I can say to both sides: “I hear what you are saying, and I am entirely sympathetic.”  And yet: “A pox on both your houses.”  If the commentaries on Facebook and elsewhere are to be believed, so many people in America are currently “unhinged,” we as a society don’t have any hinges anymore.  But without hinges, we also have no way of opening doors.

If I thought reading Facebook posts was a way of really listening to my neighbors, especially those who disagree with me, I wouldn’t be tempted as I am to banish it to electronic limbo.  The problem is most of the articles or videos I see re-posted on Facebook are making the rounds precisely because they arouse strong emotions.  We are too often merely perpetuating the ignorance and fury of the mob, not informing the public discourse with clear, accurate information; tempering it with calm minds ready to listen, easing tensions with charitable interpretations of our opponent’s intentions, ready to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Note I said that I was “tempted” to banish Facebook, and I am, except for two things.  The first is I like seeing pictures of my friends and their families and finding out what they’re doing.  This is technology doing what it should do: helping to connect people who live far away from each other; not replacing human interaction, but fostering it in new ways.  Think about the gift regular mail service was to people like Jane Austen, John Henry Newman, and so many others who made frequent use of it.  Facebook could, in principle, serve the same purpose, and I think does for some of my students.

The second reason I’m not quite ready to banish Facebook forever, even though I am sorely tempted, is that, now and again, someone will post an invaluable article that I might have missed otherwise.  So, for example, during the latest Facebook fury over the immigration “ban” from “Muslim-majority countries” (a.k.a. the 90 day pause to review the process for accepting immigrants from seven nations designated by the Obama Administration and our European allies as dangerous and prone to exporting terrorist violence), I was pleased to find, among the expressions of outrage and completely risk-free “solidarity,” a small number of re-posted articles explaining calmly, often critically, but fairly, what the Executive Order actually said, along with the relevant information about previous administrations to help me put the whole matter into its proper context.  David French’s pieces for National Review were especially valuable in this regard.  For this, as for all solid, honest reporting by people searching for the truth and not merely bowing to an ideological agenda, I was supremely grateful.

This isn’t just about Trump.  One of Saul Alinsky’s first Rules for Radicals says:  “Pick the Target, Freeze It, Personalize It, and Polarize It.”  The problem is once one side does it, all sides do it.  Sound familiar? How has that been working out for us?  I would advise an anti-Alinsky approach:  “Pick no Targets; Show Warmth to your Opponents; Don’t Make it Personal; Argue in Good Faith; and Seek Common Ground.”  Above all, don’t let ideology corrupt your language or your logic.

People who called John McCain an “uncaring fascist” when he was running for President have no real words left to describe Donald Trump. More ominously, they have earned with many Americans the reputation of “crying wolf.”  “Fascist?”  They always say that when it’s someone on the other side.  They just don’t like losing elections — or power.   This is a dangerous brand of cynicism.  We should not be pleased when either side gives into it. And so we should be careful not to allow our language or our logic to be polluted either by radical ideology or cliché ridden sentimentality.

In this spirit, let me suggest that, especially as Catholics whose lives are supposed to be devoted to the Truth and to loving others as He has loved us, we ought to give serious thought to the sort of spiritual poison we might be spreading when we re-post articles.  What are we encouraging our friends to read, to reflect, and meditate on?  Will it still be valuable and important in a week? a month? a year?  Or are we allowing ourselves to be corralled into the same avenues of controversy and anger as everyone else in society?  Are we encouraging the sort of dialogue the country needs?  Or are we allowing ourselves to be coopted by the allure of angry rants that make us feel as though we are “doing something,” “aiding the cause,” “resisting tyranny,” when we might actually be doing none of those things.

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay entitled “On the Reading of Old Books” in which he discussed the paradox of being a modern author wanting people to read more old books.  It wasn’t that people ought not read any new books, simply that they should read more old ones than new ones — something on the order of three old books for every one modern one.  As a writer of modern articles, I face a similar paradox, but my advice would be the same:  three essays or selections from classic writers for every one by a modern author.

A recent study suggests people could read twenty books a year in the time the average person spends surfing the web.  Wouldn’t we generally be better off reading a daily dose of something from the Scriptures and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church?  Wouldn’t we gain more wisdom from them than paying attention to the latest angry rant from someone at The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, or NPR?  I’m not recommending we don’t follow the news — if we can get it — but that we read a few selections from Augustine’s City of God each day rather than listening to Bill O’Reilly; meditate on some passages from Aristotle’s Politics rather than suffering another Paul Krugman rant; listen to someone read The Federalist Papers rather than hearing pleas from celebrities on television or radio who pronounce on the Constitution because they’ve seen the musical Hamilton.

A friend used to say to me that the public gets the politicians they have earned.  When very few voters are interested in the needs and concerns that animate their opponents; when they unrelentingly focus on their private benefit rather than on any vision of the common good; when their rhetoric become contemptuous and hateful; when they traffic in sound bites, verbal ‘gotcha’ moments, and hypocritical emotional take downs (“shameful,” “unspeakable,” when the other side does it; “courageous” when our side does), do they really expect their politicians to act differently?  Or when they laud their own politicians for obvious exhibitions of demagoguery; cynically change the rules to suit their own convenience; “spin” facts to suit their agenda; and gather mobs to attract media attention; do they really expect those on the other side to refrain from doing the same for long?

The Constitution and the Federalist Papers be damned; we’re all devoted followers of Saul Alinsky now.  We get the politicians our behavior and dispositions have earned for us.

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 45 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."

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