Thoughts on Being a Dad

The other day a friend asked what I thought of being a new Dad. My answer was immediate: “It’s the best thing ever.” That wasn’t a lapse into kidspeak, either. I meant it literally. In my 28 years of life, I’ve never felt my heart glow warmer and brighter than it has for the last three months. My baby son has brought joy into our family’s home that we simply didn’t know existed. People told me it would be like that. I believed them, at least as much as you can believe people who tell you the Grand Canyon is amazing before you’ve actually stood before its ancient crevices.

I’m glad, too, that my son was born in 2016. If I’m being honest, I do worry about the world Charlie was just born into. I worry that my son has been born into a digital age that uses magic devices to vaporize childlike wonder. I worry that geopolitical tensions are trending toward the unsayable, right when he will be coming of age. I can come up with many reasons why I’d sleep easier if the world were different right now, or if we simply were somewhere else.

But I just said I’m glad he was born this year. The reason is admittedly selfish: Charlie is teaching me that everything matters, in a year and a season of life where I know I would be sorely tempted to believe the opposite. Everything matters, even the smallest, cheapest, most transitory things–especially those things.

I’ve been joking to my wife that having a baby has turned me into a sentimental puddle. That’s probably part of it. But I also think that this year, I’ve seen through the fog of cynicism in a way that I’ve never seen through it before. Why does our contemporary American culture seem to value snark and cynicism so much? Why are the best talk show hosts the ones who “destroy” a particular opinion or a particular candidate? Why are the best tweets the ones that make ordinary life sound ridiculous and meaningless? Why does everyone seem to want to be angry?

A popular internet meme right now says, “LOLnothingmatters.” That’s the E pluribus enum of the internet age. Nothing matters, nothing really, because it’ll all be cached and deleted and rebooted tomorrow anyway. In this vacuum of meaning, outrage and a dismissive “above it all” mentality  are what feel real. Nothing matters, except how stylishly one can declare that nothing matters.

I think this is a species of despair. There are reasons to despair, after all. We millennials were taught by teachers and TV that we had the whole world in our hands. Not true, apparently. The expressive individualism that was supposed to unlock our true selves has only made us lonelier and sadder than any other generation. Politics is hostile and deeply un-empathetic. Pop culture is mired in the stagnation of nostalgia. The only thing many people know they want is to go back in time, when “things were better.”

In this kind of atmosphere, it’s easy to forget what life is. Life isn’t huge moments of history-turning significance. Life is day after day after day of 4am feedings. Life isn’t national elections and What’s Happening In the World Today. It’s the same drive to church, the same walk through the same park, again and again. Our technological age makes us think that what’s really valuable is newness, speed, and cutting edge. Many people spend their life looking for the next “big” thing, the real Moment that will fill their void. What they miss completely is that there is no such Moment. There is no “tipping point.” Instead, there is morning and evening, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. That’s life.

Charlie knows nothing else but this life. He forgets yesterday as soon as it’s over. And that’s how his mother and I have to take care of him. We have to help him live each day for its own sake.

I think that’s what so many Christians miss. We become obsessed with not “wasting” our lives that we convince ourselves that life is the sum total of our majestic, “unwasted” moments. But that’s just not true. A small life isn’t wasted, because life itself is small, not huge. Instead of being busy trying not to waste my life, I have to simply live the life I already have: I’m a husband, a dad, a church member, an employee, etc. My unwasted life happens every day. When I remember this, I don’t panic at elections. I don’t give up on people. I don’t despair, because I know who I am is not dependent on how the world is doing today.

And I’m free to have joy. I can find pleasure in things like my son’s laugh, or our family’s favorite restaurant, or a good book. I don’t have to agonize over whether these things are helping me be “productive” or, in more spiritual lingo, “advancing” the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t Bible study + mission trips. It’s dirty diapers and snotty noses, because that’s where Jesus is.

My boy is only 3 months old, and already he is showing me where Jesus is. Now that’s the best thing ever.

Eaten By Lions, Facebook Style

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media, politics, and conservative evangelicals?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.

The Purifying Effect of Pleasure

One of my favorite parts of The Screwtape Letters is a section from the senior demon Screwtape, advising his “junior tempter” Wormwood to make sure that the human he is attempting to divert from God doesn’t cultivate many personal pleasures:

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

In other words: The more a person learns to love things because they are lovely to him, and not because they make him look better or advance his sense of ego, the closer they are to a true kind of humility. The man who loves every film that all his friends seem to like too may not actually be loving the art itself, he may be loving the satisfaction that comes when his peers authenticate his loves. In this instance, the object of love is not the film, nor even really his friends, but himself.

It may sound at first like Lewis is urging a kind of individualistic self-assertion. But that’s not true. What Screwtape dreads to see is not an isolated, self-focused, contrarian human existence (on the contrary, such ground is fertile for demonic success). What Screwtape fears is a human who finds genuine pleasure in things that do not rebound to his own glory. In this kind of moment of authentic delight, a person experiences a crucial reality of the kingdom of God: The things that bring the most happiness are the things that bring us out of ourselves.

The Italian poet Dante interestingly differentiated between a lustful love of the other, and a love of the self. In the Inferno, unrepentant adultery is punished in hell, but it is punished less severely than other kinds of human passion. Why? Because even sexual immorality with a lover requires a sort of surrendering of the self to the other. It is the “self-lovers” who are closer to the bottom of hell, because their sin is both rebellion against God and a violent disregard of that which is outside themselves.

In our contemporary Western culture, such a strong condemnation of self-oriented love sounds not just absurd, but outrageous. Ours is a therapeutic age that encourages us to live hyper-introspectively, continually discerning “who we are,” “what we want,” and most importantly, “what we deserve” out of life. The mantra of the 21st century is “Only God can judge me,” and in an age of murky religious pluralism everyone knows that God is really a euphemism for oneself.

My generation has no trouble encouraging individualism. The age of Netflix and Spotify is, if nothing else, the reign of the individual, with full power for selectivity and customization without any fear of ever being unable to satisfy preexisting tastes. But that’s not the kind of pleasure that Lewis is talking about. Lewis is not talking about individualistic pleasure, but personal pleasure. Individualistic pleasure seeks to hide from others to protect itself; personal pleasure does not hide, but neither does it demand to be the center of attention. It’s a contentment with what Lewis elsewhere called the “quiddity” of life–a real thankfulness and wonder at the universe, and a recognition of a great Giver.

Cultivating pleasures and interests that we can enjoy alone helps to protect against the instinct to always measure ourselves against others. Enjoying a favorite book that no one would give us props for reading allows to take delight in something truly outside ourselves, to forget ourselves for a moment and receive a gift. Making time for hobbies that won’t improve our resume or get us “Likes” on Instagram helps us to make sure that our personal formation isn’t merely an effort to gain approval and, thus, a sense of self-actualization.

It is fascinating to reflect that even though our modern age enables and incentives “me time,” so much of that time is meant to ultimately rebound in social approval. Perhaps one reason so many modern Americans find their “me time” dissatisfying is that they actually don’t do it well enough. By living life preoccupied by what’s most Tweetable or makes for the most compelling Facebook post, many of us don’t ever actually cultivate habits of rest and contentment. Even our R&R is mostly about working to get approved.

What Lewis prescribes here is, I think, supremely important in a digital age. Looking for joy in things that don’t come back to you in the form of praise or admiration is a spiritual practice. It could very well be that the price of digital distraction will be a widespread inability to really love anything, just an instinct to click, “Like,” and keep swiping. We should heed the words of Lewis’s fictional demons, and learn the freedom of personal, self-forgetful pleasure again.

The Phone and His Boy

Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay in New York Magazine is one of the essential pieces of reading I’ve come across so far this year. Partly, I suppose, because it is the essay that I’ve been trying and failing to write for the past year. The title according to the URL slug of the article is “How Technology Almost Killed Me,” and the headline chosen by the magazine to appear in social media shares is “My Distraction Sickness–And Yours.” But the headline I personally love is the one that appears directly on the page:

“I Used To Be a Human Being.”

This is the essence of Sullivan’s essay. What if our endlessly connected lives, empowered by mobile technology and sustained by an ever-demanding social media age, are actually making us less like the people we are created to be?

As Sullivan reminds us, he spent more than a decade professional enmeshed in the online world. At its height, Andrew’s blog was updated at least a dozen times per day, often with nothing more than links and summaries of what he and his team found around the web. It was lucrative business, but it came at a cost. Sullivan’s physical, mental, and emotional health eventually spiraled downward, culminating in his announcement two years ago that he was leaving the blogosphere for good.

All that to say: When a man whose online presence has earned him money and reputation tells you that digital addiction is a major threat, you should probably listen.

Here’s an excerpt, but I cannot urge you enough to read the entire piece:

…as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

And what a constant diet of “shadows” does is spread our emotions and attention so thin over our lives that we lose the ability to connect deeply with the biggest moments, the most fundamental truths, and the most important relationships. Everything becomes digitized so that life itself is defined down. We are never fully here because we are never fully anywhere; our thoughts are continually spliced up between the earth and the ether.

I’ve seen this play out in my own life. My iPhone offers the security and comfort of never having a bored moment. Twitter means I’m never more than 140 characters away from letting peers know I still matter (virtue-signaling, anyone?). The constant, agonizing pull to grab my phone in any moment of stillness or quietude is a daily experience. The temptation to keep checking notifications or blog stats, sometimes doing nothing more than refreshing the page or switching between tabs for an hour, is a daily experience.

And I’ve felt the consequences: Reading is harder for me because I can only go a few pages without needing something newly stimulating, and writing is even worse. I’ve found it more difficult than ever to meditate on Scripture for more than a couple minutes, or to immerse in focused prayer. Several times over the past year I’ve come home and told Emily that, despite my “output,” I still feel like the day has been wasted–or rather, that the day has evaporated like steam, while my back was turned for a few minutes.

Should I dismiss this struggle as an unavoidable feature of life in the information economy? Should I chalk up my hitting the wall in prayer and meditation to a lack of spiritual delight? It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that while many evangelicals have been running around proclaiming that technology is morally neutral–“it’s just how you use it”–the “neutral” technology has been shaping me and many others in ways that make it harder to pursue faithfulness.

One last thought: I’ve been seeing many people respond to Sullivan’s essay with frustration that he doesn’t seem aware of how closely tied many people’s jobs are with online connectivity. Some have criticized the piece for idealizing a sort of seamless transition from online life to disconnected solitude, when an increasing number of people in Western culture pay their bills through jobs centered around the internet.

As someone who has one of those jobs, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this critique. It’s true that many people have careers that wouldn’t tolerate a total retreat to online monkishness. I haven’t the foggiest idea how that truth is somehow incompatible with Sullivan’s warning sign. For every person who is online 24/7 to support themselves or their families, there are at least 50 others who are online that much and have no idea why. If you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without endangering yourself or loved ones, God has grace for your situation. If, on the other hand, you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without exposing yourself to the frictions and foibles of flesh-and-blood reality, let me encourage you: I think it’s worth it.

The Slough of Internet Despond

The latest nominee for Tweet of the Year comes from professor James K.A. Smith:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know a lot of people, some very close to me, who are going through difficult times right now. There are thousands of people in Louisiana this second who have suffered cataclysmic loss. Yet invariably, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their emotions and their hours consuming a diet of pixels.

 

The Worst President Ever

A president with wrong ideas is not a good president. But a president with wrong motivations would be the worst president imaginable.

Too often we think of politicians and rulers as fundamentally different types of people than the rest of us. It’s an understandable misconception, given that our ruling class is overwhelmingly technocratic and elite. From trust funds to the Ivy League, the existential gap between taxpayers and the leaders they get to choose from seems infinite.

But powerful humans beings are still human beings. That means they experience the same temptations, doubts, frustrations, and ambitions that their electorate experiences. If you want to understand the most powerful, influential people in the world, the best way to start is to try to understand the people working in the cubicle across from you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or taking notes on the other side of the classroom.

Every adult understands intuitively the difference between the wrong kind of person and a person who is just wrong. We practice this intuition every day on spouses, coworkers, children, law enforcement, etc. How many parents have pled for understanding from exasperated teachers with the words, “They’re not a bad kid”? Or how many of us have tried to get out of the speeding ticket by insisting that we had no idea the change in zone limit, or the speedometer has been messing up? Nobody in the right mind says, “You have to understand, my child is just an especially wicked and stubborn kid,” or, “Honestly, officer, I love speeding and breaking the law. Can’t you empathize with my loves?” In the contexts that come to us every day, we practice the difference between the wrong motivation and the wrong application.

What bewilders me about this election is the amount of people I’m running into who willingly concede that their candidate of choice may be the wrong kind of person. There’s a maddening air of willing indifference when it comes to motivations and basic moral orientation. And these same people are likely thrashing another politician, on the other side of the aisle, for being “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” in their policies or worldview. It’s almost as if there’s a huge group of voters in my social sphere who think the wrong kind of president is better than a wrong president.

But surely this is asinine. It’s a delusion that can only be maintained by divorcing entirely a person from their actions. If a candidate who seeks office consistently demonstrates morally contemptible behavior, a self-seeking narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation, how is it at all possible that his or her leadership will not reflect that? How is it possible to be the wrong kind of person but the right kind of leader?

Surely this is not the logic we would apply to even our babysitters. It’s one thing for a sitter to cluelessly give the children sugary sweets right before bedtime. That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake that can be cured through correction. But it’s another thing entirely for a sitter to plop down on the sofa, immerse herself in her phone, and let the children do whatever they want so long as she does nothing she finds inconvenient. The first babysitter needs instruction and perhaps some common sense. The second babysitter needs a moral intervention.

Parents get this distinction. Why don’t voters? Why are so many people in my Facebook feed convinced that character is negotiable if we’re talking about getting the job done? Why are so many evangelicals farming out their convictions about integrity for the sake of keeping the score between Left and Right even? When did we convince ourselves that the wrong kind of person can be the right kind of president?

A president with bad beliefs is a dangerous thing. But a bad person is even worse than bad beliefs. If this is true on Monday morning in the office, or on Saturday night during date night, it’s so much more true in November.

Social Media Isn’t News

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

Actor Bradley Cooper was just another celebrity face in the crowd at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, but many Republicans on social media took vocal exception to the “American Sniper” star’s attendance.

Shortly after Cooper was caught on camera sitting in the audience next to model girlfriend Irina Shayk, conservative Twitter and Facebook users began to flood the platforms with calls for his boycott.

“I have a list of celebrities that support Socialism I refuse to spend another $ on,” said one Twitter user. “Add this one. Boycott them all.”

“Bradley Cooper at DNC?!” exclaimed another. “Guess I’ve seen my last Bradley Cooper movie.”

The apparent reason for the ire directed at Cooper stems from his portrayal of decorated U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in the 2014 Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper.”

This is not news. It’s something that a handful of random people on the internet said.

I follow many conservatives on social media. I haven’t seen one of them complain about Bradley Cooper’s attending the DNC. I had no idea Cooper attended until this story. I actually had no idea that anyone assumed he was a Republican until this story. So what? A few random people online are unable to differentiate celebrities from the roles that they play. If journalists want to cover this, fine, but that doesn’t make it news.

Perhaps the entire point of articles like this one is to have evidence to say that group X is ridiculous and bad and you probably shouldn’t support them. Conservative websites do these exact kinds of stories too. “You won’t BELIEVE what Libs are DEMANDING now!” Click the link, and you’ll read tweets or see screenshots from 4 or 5 people you’ve never heard of, who have probably fewer than 1,000 followers combined.

It’s human nature to want to hear more examples, no matter how ridiculous, of why you’re right and They are wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold journalism accountable a bit. It’s positively ridiculous to turn the stray tweets or Facebook posts of a few people into a national political story. It’s also more than a bit dishonest–if a reader who doesn’t have any social media reads daily pieces like this that supposedly document what “Republicans (or Democrats) on social media” are saying, then their instinctive reaction will be, “Well I don’t want any part of that.” When it turns out, 99% of other people don’t either.

Social media isn’t news.

 

How the Internet Rescued Planned Parenthood

Last week, NARAL, one of the country’s oldest and most vociferous champions of the abortion industry, released a YouTube sketch called “Comedians In Cars Getting Abortions.” The video isn’t funny by any stretch of imagination, pro-life or otherwise. But I doubt very much whether NARAL’s purpose in producing the sketch was even to score laughter. Rather, the whole video feels like an exercise in what C.S. Lewis called “flippancy,” the lowest species of humor wherein morals and good taste are always assumed to be their own punchline. The point is not to get people to laugh at abortion, it’s to get them to scoff at the idea that one shouldn’t laugh bout it.

Anyway. The video isn’t really worth much angst. What was far more interesting than the content of the video, however, was the timing. NARAL published the sketch on YouTube on the anniversary week of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose on Planned Parenthood. Those series of undercover videos recorded Planned Parenthood executives discussing the methods of “harvesting” the tissue and anatomy of aborted infants, for the purpose of selling them to research labs. The videos progressively go deeper into a ghoulish world of unborn human trafficking, and at every turn, the employees and doctors running the show demonstrate a chilling apathy toward their visceral marketplace.

When the videos first started to release last year, many pro-life activists believed they would be hugely consequential for Planned Parenthood. The Center for Medical Progress framed the sting as conclusive video evidence that the abortion provider was violating multiple federal laws prohibiting the profitable business of selling human body parts. Calls for Congressional investigations began immediately. Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards initially ignored the videos but eventually apologized for the “insensitive” language recorded on camera. For several weeks, it looked like the most important player in the abortion lobby had finally seen its foot slide in due time.

But nothing happened.

Though several states did vote to cease any taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the fallout for the country’s biggest abortion provider was miniscule. Hearings in Washington went nowhere. Cecile Richards kept her job. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the videos “disturbing” during the first few weeks of outcry, but promptly reaffirmed her support (with PP returning the favor). National opinion on abortion law saw little or no change. One state even exonerated Planned Parenthood and indicted instead David Daleiden, the head of the Center for Medical Progress (those charges have since been thrown out).

By the end of last year, it was clear that the videos had skipped off the surface of public consciousness like a stone on a lake. There would be no reckoning, no cultural moment. Why?

The videos’ producers probably bear some responsibility. As Joe Carter has noted, the release of the videos was (seemingly) unaccompanied by any larger, coherent strategy. There seemed to have been a tactical failure to think through, “What are we asking the public to do with this information?” By the time that media outlets were begrudgingly acknowledging the sting’s existence, the space for narrative and action had been ceded already to Planned Parenthood and its legions of allies.

But the strategic failures are only part of the explanation. The CMP may not have come up with the best plan for releasing their footage, but such a misfire doesn’t take away from what the videos actually show. The pro-life community was almost immediately mobilized, and as mentioned, several state legislatures felt pressure to respond. It’s not as if the videos were (as many in Planned Parenthood’s corner have insisted) simply smokescreens. So what happened?

The truth is that the sting’s impact was limited by social media. That may seem like a self-evidently false statement, given the fact that for a long while social media seemed to be the only outlet where the videos could be seen. Sure, the number of times that the videos were streamed, counted against how many mainstream media outlets refused to acknowledge them, may seem like a victory for conservative conscience on social media. But the failure of the videos to translate into a wider sociopolitical moment is actually a commentary on the inherent limitations of social media.

Popular perception is that Facebook, Twitter, and internet commenting threads are populist locales, providing a kind of grassroots rebuttal to the “elite” culture of big media. This is only partly true, though. When Facebook employees acknowledged a few months ago that their news aggregation services were explicitly designed to exclude conservative news outlets, they were revealing how deep of a misconception the “populist” imagery of social media really is.

Before Twitter and Facebook are communities, they are inevitably corporations—corporations with leaders who have ideologies. Every single that happens on social media happens—consciously or not—in a business context. This is why social media can never be a new kind of “town hall.” A town hall binds members together by space, membership and physicality. Social media binds members together by consent to what amounts to a business contract. The business of social media is to make money off its users. This impulse affects not just what social media companies allow on their platform, but even how they present what is allowed. Thus, videos on Facebook are surrounded by “Suggested” videos that have no meaningful tie to the original content. The goal is to get clicks, because clicks are profitable. Distraction means more clicks. Focused contemplation—the kind of thinking that leads to some action—is an enemy of distraction, and thus, an enemy of profit. Therefore, the entire superstructure of social media is one that undermines the appeals to conscience that the CMP’s videos employed.

Unless you woke up each morning last summer determined to take down the abortion lobby, there’s a good chance that your outrage at Planned parenthood didn’t survive the next viral video or trending hashtag that came along. How could it, when there is just so much content to look at it, and so little time for any one thing to stick? When your feed stopped talking about the videos, did it feel wrong, or merely normal? Or did you even notice?

The fuzzy, pixelated thinking that social media foments is a good conduit for getting angry, but it’s not actually good at getting things done. This is one lesson that we should learn from an otherwise lamentable protest culture in American universities. Though social media undoubtedly has played an important role in organization, the campus protests that crippled Missouri and made a think piece out of Oberlin have been remarkably present, physical affairs, protests that are connected in meaningful ways to place and people. With Planned Parenthood, there were indeed local protests and rallies. But these gatherings were not unique to a specific cultural moment. Once the assembling was over, the internet consumed the evidence.

The pro-life movement has historically been remarkably good at mobilizing communities. In this sense, the Planned Parenthood protests were unique in their ineffectiveness. But there is a long term lesson for pro-life here. The kind of social change that will throw off one of the Sexual Revolutions’ most precious and protected dogmas will not happen amongst people who just need their “click fix.” It will happen amongst people for whom wanton destruction of unborn life matters enough to build relationships and make appearances (and not just at protest rallies). The comfort of the social media echo chamber is seductive, but benefits those who are fine with likes, comments, and retweets–just not change.

 

Defining Decency Down

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.

 

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)