The “All I Really Meant…” Syndrome

Lately, I’ve been having to field a lot of questions along the lines of “Your pastor just said WHAT?” with the expectation that I have to come up with something to say in their defense.  Sometimes, frankly, there isn’t much to say in their defense, but that’s OK, because, as my wife said pertly in answer to such a query from a Catholic friend yesterday, “We’re Protestants, so we don’t have to agree with everything our church leaders say.”  Indeed, I have the Christian liberty to stand up (respectfully) and say so if I think they’ve just gone off their rocker, while remaining a happy parishioner all the while.  Sometimes it’s better to just let love cover it and let others carry on the controversy, if controversy there need be.  But as I’m increasingly troubled by the rhetorical trend—the “All I Really Meant” Syndrome—and as I’ve blogged extensively in the past to reflect on the challenges to responsible rhetoric posed by new media (i.e. here), I thought I would weigh in with a few reflections.  (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This post should not be taken by anyone as my “firing a salvo” against either of my pastors or “throwing them under the bus.”  I refuse to be sucked into the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality that dominates in so many circles.  Friendly critique can and should go hand in hand with love and loyalty.  This is a point I want to elaborate on in a post hopefully later this week: “The Guru Syndrome and the Fear of Difference.”)

The particular posts that prompt this reflection (though many examples of similar rhetorical bent could be found) were by my current pastor Toby Sumpter’s “Free-Range Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus” posted just yesterday, and, to a considerably lesser extent, my mentor and former pastor Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism” posted a little over a month ago on First Things.  Although very different in subject area, intended audience, and quality, both had at least this in common: both created quite the online kerfluffle of controversy (Leithart’s, of course, in a wider sphere), and both knew they would do so, and intended to do so.  Both, for the sake of maximizing rhetorical effect and provocation, avoided defining their terms, and indulged in broad generalizations.

I am not interested in evaluating or critiquing those original posts in any detail (for excellent, simultaneously charitable and hard-hitting responses to each, with which I largely agree, see respectively here and here), but rather in assessing the interesting follow-up posts, the “All I Really Meant, Guys…” posts (see Toby’s here, Leithart’s here).  In both cases, the author admitted that the original post had clearly caused offense, but insisted that he thought it had been misunderstood, and defended it on the basis that there was a genuine problem out there that he was trying to critique, and those to whom the critique didn’t apply should just relax.  What both conspicuously lacked was a recognition that much of the offense caused may have been their fault, and accordingly needed to be recanted of. (Leithart’s, I should note, did strike a humble note, and made concessions at several minor points, but it unfortunately did not do so on the really key points.  Leithart admitted that there was probably a lot of unclarity in his choice to designate contemporary American sectarian Protestantism as simply “Protestantism,” but maintained unapologetically that this helped give him the “rhetorical edge” he was looking for.  And when confronted over the fact that his article had conflated historical Reformational Protestantism with contemporary pseudo-Protestantism, he simply denied ever making any historical claims, despite several lines in the original article that could hardly be read as anything else.)

And this, it strikes me, is a major problem.  Let’s assume that the follow-up posts, in each case, cleared up all the potential misunderstandings and dealt with all the objections (I don’t think, in fact, they did in either case, but leave that aside).  First, the fact that such follow-ups were necessary is still probably evidence that something had gone seriously awry in the initial salvos.  To be sure, that isn’t necessarily the case.  It’s possible for people to take offense when none has been given, or to misunderstand and misrepresent what has been very clearly set forth.  But when you have a large number of intelligent charitable folks who know your work quite well taking offense or misunderstanding your target, then odds are, you didn’t put things as clearly as you should.  Especially if you admit that you were intentionally being rhetorically edgy.  So such follow-up posts need to strike a more penitential tone.

Second, even if the follow-up clears everything up, that doesn’t mean, “Ok, we’re all good now.”  There seem to be a lot of bloggers out there (and I’ll be the first to admit I used to be one of them, and still can get worked up and fall prey to the temptation) who think they can be as provocative as they want at the front end, so long as they’re ready to qualify and clarify and soften things later on.  Unfortunately, the medium doesn’t work that way.  You can’t throw a verbal grenade into a crowded e-audience and just plan to clean up the pieces afterward anymore than you can throw a real grenade into a crowded audience so long as you have paramedics on hand nearby.  The fact is that follow-up posts almost never get anything like the hit count of the original post.  Even after the follow-up has been posted, there are still plenty of people out there sharing and re-sharing the original and taking offense at it (or using it as ammo to generate offense, just as likely) heedless of all the ex post facto qualifications.  Moreover, studies show that our minds have a very difficult time forgetting first impressions and overwriting them with subsequent corrections.  Like it or not, your first take is likely to stick in most people’s minds, especially given that it is going to be the more rhetorically explosive and the more likely to appeal to those of short attention span.

So, all of that to say, adding clarifications after the fact is nice, but it’s a heck of a lot nicer to speak clearly in the first place.

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Why Read Fiction? (And How?)

On an email list I am a part of, someone recently raised a series of questions about Christian literary criticism—essentially, how can we be good readers but at the same time critical readers?  or do we have to be critical readers to count as good readers?  Must we theologize about books in order to be good Christian readers, or can we simply enjoy them for what they are?  In response, I offered a brief account of the phenomenon of fiction, and what we should be looking for when we read it; a friend suggested I adapt these thoughts for sharing here.  (Almost everything I say here about fiction, I should add, could equally apply to film.)

First, I tried to address the worry of how one can can give oneself over to the fictional world as a Christian.  If the author might try to lure you in unacceptable and immoral directions, you must maintain detachment, allegiance to your Christian commitments.  On the other hand, such detachment—filtering everything you read through your worldview categories—can get in the way of actually hearing what it is the author is trying to say.  I wonder if this is indeed altogether a unique problem of fiction, as many people often imply, or rather a feature of all good reading.  My recent reflections on “intellectual empathy” (see Matthew Lee Anderson’s original articulation of the concept here, and my follow-up remarks here) lead me to think the latter.  To read any author fairly and justly, sometimes we need to be able to enter mentally into the universe that he is working from, to imaginatively adopt his starting points and see from that standpoint why he values what he values.  There is always a certain detachment in this, since we are not really leaving behind our commitments, but precisely because we are so confidently grounded in them, we can imaginatively bracket them out for a moment, knowing that they’re not going anywhere.  But although the intellect can perhaps abstract in this way, the will cannot.  I cannot, for the sake of argument, make myself temporarily love a position I take to be falsehood. Read More


A Snapshot of America

More than ever today, we hear handwringing among the press, politicians, and pollsters, about how America is “headed in the wrong direction,” and eager finger-pointing over who is to blame.  Naturally, we assume that it is our politicians (especially the ones on the other side of the aisle, of course) who are responsible for the general national malaise.  But how much of it, I can’t help but wonder, is due simply to the steady inebriation of our senses with electronic media, and abandonment of reading?  One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to be sobered by the following statistics (taken from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows):

1150: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends online (on a computer)

49: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends reading any form of print publication.  

2,272: number of texts per month the average American teen sends (that’s 75 per day)

153: hours per month the average American spends in front of the TV (still rising despite increased internet usage)

Unsurprisingly, Americans outstrip Europeans by a long shot, spending 50% more time surfing the Net and three times as much time in front of the TV. 

(These figures are all from 2009, I should add, and are most likely considerably worse now, as they had been getting worse at a rapid pace through 2009.)

And consider that, as of 2006, 42% of those watching over 35 hours of TV programming a week (the national average) also used the Net for over 30 hours a week, for a total of over 65 hours per week, nearly 2/3 of their waking hours.  

 


Narcissism Goes Social

Have you ever found yourself reading over your Facebook feed over your morning coffee (or after dinner, or when you’re supposed to be working, etc.), and wondering to yourself, “What inanity has possessed the human race?  Why do all these people think we want to read their banal witticisms, their soapbox pontifications, or their semi-daily log of what they’ve been doing for the past few hours?  Of course you have.  And no doubt you have also found yourself, as I have, blinking at my Facebook wall seconds after posting an update and asking, “Why did I bother to post that banal witticism, or soapbox pontification, or pointless revelation about my recent activities?”  

A recent study helps answer the question for us by translating into scientific precision what we all already know deep-down.  We like to talk about ourselves.  We get a real kick out of it.  In fact, we get a little chemical high from it, a spurt of dopamine, the same thing that gives us a buzz after delicious food or sex, or after vanquishing a foe in a game.  

 Dopamine, in fact, is virtually programmed into the internet, since dopamine thrives on novelty, the sense of perpetual discovery and accomplishment.  As we click our way through link after link, our tiniest effort is rewarded with a new array of images and information, and our brain celebrates each “discovery” with a little dopamine party.  Since dopamine circuits have a strong tendency to become addictive, it is no wonder that the internet has proven so dangerously addictive, whether it be pornography, RPGs, or just mindless browsing.  Such addictions are troubling enough, but perhaps even more urgent is the need to reflect on what we may be doing to ourselves by subjecting our social lives to the constant influence of such stimuli.  

 

Let’s go back to that inane status update, that banal witticism.  We may get a little wave of satisfaction simply from posting it, simply from speaking our minds to the world, but that satisfaction quickly evaporates if our utterance goes unacknowledged.  We get a kick out of talking about ourselves, yes, but not (usually) by simply addressing an empty forest, but by addressing another human being, one who appears to be listening to us.  We crave, in short, affirmation.  We each play the starring role in our own mental narratives, and we desperately want to see that role acknowledged.  How often have you posted that status update, or that cool link, or made that clever comment, and found yourself randomly checking back in on Facebook later in the day, hoping to see notifications announcing that someone else “liked” what you said, or commented on it?  Maybe never.  Maybe it’s just me.  But if it is just me, I doubt Facebook would be that successful.  The “like” button was a genius idea.  Every time someone likes your status or your picture, it’s a little pat on the back.  The reward circuits in your brain purr with satisfaction.  Well done, me, they say.  You have achieved something, however petty, and it has been recognized as worthwhile.  Perhaps we even find ourselves subconsciously keeping score with ourselves—”Ha!  12 likes this time.  Last time I only got 8.”  To be sure, comments are great too, especially when they function (as they often seem to do except when responding to a controversial opinion) as just a glorified “like”—”Oooh, what a lovely picture!”; “Hahaha!  That was hilarious!”  Even when we tell ourselves we really don’t give a darn about the stupid world and its stupid Facebook (as I tend to do), we are not immune—we can’t resist feeling gratified at that little icon of proof that someone is listening, and someone is interested.

 

And of course we can’t.  We’re social creatures.  Narcissism may be the product of sin, but a desire for community, for relationship, to love and be loved, is quite natural.  But sin (and I should point out that I see no necessary contradiction between identifying something as sin and identifying it as a physiological proclivity of the brain) means that we are terribly prone to distort this desire for sociality, preeminently by letting the desire to be loved take charge, at the expense of the desire to love.  In other words, while a need for affirmation is natural, it can readily become pathological.  Indeed, we recognize unhealthy sorts of relationships in just this way.  It is perhaps most glaring in young boys, who will do the most absurd and obnoxious things just to get attention, just to get recognized—even negative recognition can seem like a victory.  In teenagerhood, we’re a little more subtle, at least in our eyes, but to outside observers still shameless in our pursuit of recognition and acceptance.  The different sexes may do it somewhat differently, but they have plenty in common—we want people to laugh at our jokes, listen to our stories, invite us to parties (even if we don’t want to go to the stupid parties!).  At this stage, most of us no longer get a high from negative recognition (and when we do, that’s usually a sign that we’re really starved for recognition), and so we try to groom our self-presentation so as to get as many signals of positive recognition as possible, to get real-world “likes,” demonstrated through words, gestures, and privileged seating arrangements.  

Hopefully, we become mature enough to recognize before long that this isn’t the ideal form of sociality, that the temporary highs of this kind of recognition are followed by inevitable lows, as we worry desperately whether it will be repeated.  It doesn’t actually make us feel affirmed, or happy.  This kind of sociality, based heavily on narcissism, is not the opposite of loneliness, but usually simply another path to loneliness.  

What we really need to be happy are relationships that are so close, so firm, that we do not need to receive constant indications of affirmation.  In our superficial relationships with “the cool people,” we want to always be told that we are cool too.  But from a really good friend, we want criticism as well as affirmation.  I want a friend who knows me as I really am, rather than merely the facade I try to present to the world, who is willing to tell it to me like it is, to talk to me about my faults, and about his faults.  From such a person I won’t require constant tangible proofs that he finds me interesting, and so I won’t need to always say something clever or brilliant to elicit approval.  These friendships are truly healthy relationships, the kind of sociality that we should strive for, but alas, they are rare indeed.  Now, what is my point in all this?  I have already admitted that the unhealthy kind of sociality, the projected facade hoping for recognition, is perhaps most common in most of our lives.  What does Facebook have to do with this? 

Well, the thing is that there are real limits as to how much we can ensure a constant stream of positive feedback in the real world.  Even the coolest of the cool people do stupid things.  And when you do something stupid in a social setting, the self-image you wish to project is broken, you are laughed at not for your wit, but for your foolishness; you receive negative recognition.  And indeed, rarely are we indulged with such self-enclosed cliques of mutual affirmation that we do not have to face criticism and questioning, people disapproving our actions whether than approving, all of which only the most self-deceived can ignore.  Our daily social lives, then, can never be a narcissistic dream come true.  We might still aspire to be the life of the party, the guy with all the great jokes, but we generally learn to settle for less.  We adopt strategies of self-deprecation and goofiness to make the best of our social shortcomings and faux-pases; we train ourselves to maintain a certain detachment both from praise and criticism so that we are not constantly lurching between psychological highs and lows.  In short, the unyielding reality of the real world of social interaction places great constraints on our narcissistic indulgence, and may indeed eventually condition us to be well-adjusted, psychologically stable inhabiters of the social world, able to love and be loved in due measure.

 

The online world is not like that.  Stephen Marche draws attention to the temptations it poses in an intriguing recent article for the Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely”:

“Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.”  

What the online world, and Facebook perhaps best of all, enables us to do is to curate our own self-presentation, our own terms of social engagement, largely free from external interference.  Sure, there can be disorienting moments, such as when someone else posts and tags a picture of you doing something embarrassing (though you can then at least remove the tag), or when someone makes an obnoxious comment on your wall (though you can delete it if you wish).  It’s far from perfect—indeed, to be perfect, it would have to be so removed from the real world as to cease to be a genuinely social medium.  But the possibilities are certainly tantalizing.  I can post only the pictures of myself in which I look most attractive, and when I’m doing the coolest activities; whereas in real social interaction, people see me from unflattering angles and at unflattering moments all the time.  I can choose which interests and hobbies to list, to make myself out to be a very intelligent, fun, and well-rounded person indeed.  But all of this is simply the canvas and the palette.  The real power of the medium is its freedom from the awkward give-and-take of conversation.  Perhaps I am almost incapable of making a witty rejoinder on the spot, but give me a few minutes on my own to think one up, and I might as well be Shakespeare.  To be sure, most of us are still not as responsible with the medium as we would like to be.  We still stick our foot in our mouth on Facebook (though again, we can delete the comment if we do).  But never before have we had such a platform for fine-tuning the persona we wish to project.  In Marche’s article, one scientist worries “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process,” and Marche goes on to observe,

“Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Australian study ‘Who Uses Facebook?’ found a significant correlation between Facebook use and narcissism: ‘Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, exhibitionism, and leadership than Facebook nonusers,’ the study’s authors wrote. ‘In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.’”

 

But all this is not the worst of it.  Let’s get back to that “Like” button.  Have you ever heard someone complain “There ought to be an ‘unlike’ button too.  That status/picture/link/etc. is just stupid, and someone needs to tell that person”?  Probably.  I know I have.  It’s only fair, isn’t it?  If someone’s going to put up a stupid piece of Republican propaganda or whatever, and get 37 “likes” for it, then the rest of us ought to at least be able to register our disapproval.  Why not turn Facebook into a 24/7 voting booth, where everything is constantly subjected to a popularity contest of likes and unlikes?  After all, Youtube does this.  I think Facebook’s programmers are too clever for that.  That would destroy the delicate psychological-chemical ecosystem they have designed.  We want to see that notifications button light up and know we’ve gotten something positive, some kind of affirmation.  When we see it, our brains release dopamine.  When we view it, and see the comment or “like,” dopamine again.  But if at every moment we faced the fearful possibility of an “unlike”?  That would cast an unhappy shadow over the whole user experience. 

To be sure, people can always make negative comments, but again, these are generally confined to disagreement on matters of controversy, like politics, in which the person posting often expects and perhaps wants to provoke disagreement.  But just as people will almost never tell you to your face that you look unattractive, or your baby has a stupid name, or your conversation is uninteresting, your jokes unfunny, your tastes frightfully gauche, your ignorance appalling, etc., people very rarely have the gumption to go and say these things on a Facebook status, either.  “You named your kid what?”—”Um, please tell me that wasn’t supposed to be funny”—”Are you trying to look like a slut in these pictures?”  How often do you see those comments?  Hardly ever, of course.  Most people don’t like to rock the social boat too much.  But didn’t I just say above that in real life, there are constraints on narcissistic indulgence, because of the negative feedback we can get?  Of course.  But most of this feedback doesn’t take the form of direct critical comments.  We have developed a thousand and one ways of manifesting skepticism, disapproval, or contempt without saying a word.  We have any number of social cues that say, “Dude, that was a stupid thing to say.  You’d better sit down and retreat to the corner so you don’t make a fool of yourself again.”  These cues are essentially lost in the online world.  In a medium like Facebook, then, we have a self-curated social space in which positive feedback, usually so ambiguous and evanescent in the real world, can be quantified, can be experienced as a direct chemical stimulus, and in which negative feedback, so crushing in the real world, can be muted almost altogether.  In short, we have a world where we can become increasingly insulated from criticism, from the brutally honest give-and-take relationships that actually make us mature and experience genuine fulfillment, and it becomes increasingly possible to live out our fantasy of being the hero of our own narrative of the world.

 

None of this is inevitable, I should hasten to add, and certainly the solution is not repudiation of all social media, especially as these tendencies are not unique to Facebook, but in blogs, email, chat, and almost everything about the internet.  As Marche’s article argues, those with otherwise healthy social lives can use Facebook effectively as a means to enrich them further (though I am skeptical that this is as easy as the article suggests; it still requires a good deal of discipline).  Our technologies are tools, which we can use for good or ill.  But we would be foolish to pretend that they are mere tools, in no way shaping us even as we use them.  Rather, they are intrinsically predisposed toward certain uses, and toward creating certain habits in their users.  We must not be heedless of the ways in which these “social media” may in fact erode the very foundations of healthy sociality, particularly in the young, the lonely, and those who have not yet formed healthy patterns of social engagement.  If these technologies are tools, we must remember that any tool is fit for only certain purposes, and only if we retain a clear sense of its purposes and limits can we continue to profit from its use.