On Social Media and Asking Larger Questions

Last evening The Courtier managed to overcome having had only four hours of sleep and an exhausting day pulling at the oars in order to attend, with the assistance of copious amounts of caffeine, a lecture given at Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum by Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago.  Before my non-Catholic readers tune out, let me encourage you to consider reading the rest of this piece, for His Eminence had a great deal of interest to say, applicable not only to Catholics but to Americans in general. In fact, he said such a great deal that was thought-provoking, I may have to re-visit my notes on subsequent blogging occasions.

Cardinal George selected, as his topic for the Tocqueville Forum’s 6th Annual Carroll Lecture, to explore the interconnectedness of “Truth and Freedom” in our society.  Quoting occasionally from his recent book, “God In Action: How Faith In God Can Address the Challenges of the World”, His Eminence displayed an ability to connect together seemingly disparate threads from philosophy, theology, history, and culture, to weave an understanding of where our society has come from, and where it is heading if we do nothing.  He is a man who has clearly thought and read deeply on these issues, and has a wonderful delivery: he is the sort of lecturer who says something intelligent but witty before a change of subject, and which seems to slip by you until your brain catches up a few seconds later and realizes the humor.

One of the most interesting aspects of Cardinal George’s appearance at Georgetown came after the formal lecture itself, in the Q&A section. The mark of a good public speaker of course, is how well he can respond off-the-cuff to questioning.  In response to a question about the polemicizing of American society, His Eminence opined that politics appears to have become the ultimate level of inquiry in our contemporary society, but that this is not the highest level of analysis.  The discussion of higher issues, which in turn leads to the questioning of what is ultimately true and false, leads us beyond politics and conservative vs. liberal.  Yet we seem to stop at a level of debate over immediate concerns, such as whether we should or should not raise taxes next year, without even bothering to engage higher issues.

In social media the Cardinal’s observations are particularly applicable. Beginning at the political level, we can observe that when the sound bite replaced the analysis of a speech or policy paper in the media as the means by which the public came to understand positions on important political issues, it was only a matter of time before this shift came to dominate how we engage one another in discussion. And social media outlets such as Twitter, which impose a fixed and extremely limited amount of space in which to get one’s point across, only reinforce the idea that brevity is the sine qua non of expressing opinions or asking/answering questions.  It is no wonder that civility has suffered in the process, for it is difficult to be brief and simultaneously to avoid being curt.

Moreover, while a figure such as Pilate could briefly formulate one of the “ultimate questions”, as His Eminence might put it, in asking, “What is truth?”, the wealth of interpretation and answers which could be engendered by that question are forestalled by contemporary social media.  Had he access to Twitter, the Procurator of Judea could certainly have tweeted that question, but when one must answer within 140 characters, and one is not Christ, it is rather difficult to encapsulate a comprehensive response.  Even the humble blogger must impose some limit on his responses to a topic, otherwise the underlying assumption is that no one will actually read what he has to say.

This is not a condemnation of the necessary limitations of social media, by any means.  In fact, as I observed to a friend last evening, those limitations can produce wonderful turns of phrase and demonstrations of a wit and facility with language, such as would have been appreciated in the days of the Ancien Régime or of Jane Austen.  Yet experience tells us that, truthfully, most of us are not particularly good at delivering the “bon mot”, and perhaps should refrain from attempting to do so.  True wit, when it makes its appearance on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere, is just as rare a commodity as it ever was, and yet people seem to be able to build significant followings based on a (false) impression that they are witty or clever, when in fact many times they are simply being mean-spirited or flippant, in ways which one suspects they would not be able to pull off in a face-to-face exchange.

Yet because of the focus on immediate political questions as being the highest level of analysis, as Cardinal George has diagnosed, we are not looking, collectively, at larger questions through social media, as had previous generations through fora such as the in-depth magazine essay, the public lecture, the local Atheneum, or similar organizations.  Questions of civilization, culture, history, and so on, all of which ultimately point us to questions about existence, are largely being ignored in favor of a never-ending exchange of tit-for-tat over what Senator or reporter said what to whom, and when.  Ask yourself, gentle reader, when was the last time you went along to hear a lengthy discussion between two experts with opposing points of view on a topic such as, how are human beings to use technology for the betterment of mankind, or whether poetry and literature are becoming irrelevant to the culture.

Far be it from me to suggest that the reader must spend his days solely reading blogs about the work of heavy thinkers, or tweeting only about serious subjects.  Yet for all of our education and wealth in the West, and particularly in this country, we seem to have produced a generation of adults in their 20’s and 30’s who are either unable or unwilling to engage in debate or exchanges about issues of greater and more universal importance to humanity.  If we can do little else but gossip, and grumble about political concerns, what sort of civilization are we to leave to our children? One in which, if you cannot turn an opinion into graffiti or a t-shirt slogan, it’s not worth knowing?

Change, if it is to happen, must come from those who are at least occasionally willing to put aside the popular, the pedestrian – and yes, the political, in order to look to the roots of human thought and achievement.  This enables us to understand the past and present, of course. However it also has us ask some of those larger, and indeed oftentimes uncomfortable, questions about the future, which every successive generation must face at some point.

“A Discussion” by Louis Moeller (c. 1890-1895)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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