13 March 2017

Collisions in the Fast-lane: Twitter and it's Kin

I will be the first to admit that twitter is a fascinating and useful platform, but few will argue that it can bring out the worst in people. It is not, however, simply the shield of the internet, or even our ever-growing echo chambers that are the chief source of the problem. One frustration many have is that there is no coherent harassment-prevention policy and a lot of people get heckled, or bombarded with rude and crude tweets. I am mostly a casual observer and have no twitter following to speak of, so that is not something I’ve personally experienced. You should know that I’m on the outskirts of this here town and don’t really know anyone important enough to get yelled at on twitter.

Let me give a quick caveat to my concerns, then I’m going to explain the problems with, not twitter itself, precisely, but what it cultivates in us.

When I first heard of twitter, I didn’t remotely understand its purpose. I heard people praising it in connection to the protests in Iran circa 2011, so I assumed it was some sort of news outlet, rather than—essentially—a string of abrupt personal status updates. It took me years to grasp the concept, and I only dipped a toe into the platform in 2014 so as to better follow the vagaries of the publishing industry.

Now, I have seen people say and do positive things on twitter. Not just nice hashtags, but efforts of real value. I have seen people support someone who is discouraged or harassed. I have seen people unselfishly advocate the work/art of others. I’ve been linked to many a good article (while ducking and dodging the click-bait). I have seen people talk sweetly and kindly about those they love. I have seen some good comedy and, all too rarely, some wise and compassionate social commentary. So there is that. Let it not be said that I was unfair.

The problem is not with Twitter itself, precisely, but with what it necessarily cultivates in us. The very brilliancy of such a platform is also its villainy; that which makes for great wit and instant updates also makes for terrible consequences in many other areas. There are four main characteristics of Twitter that put us on our worst behavior.

1.      Brevity: The space for a punch-line is the same space given for a complex argument so, for the most part, there are no complex arguments. The platform encourages stereotyping, over-simplifying, broad-sweeping generalizations all in the service of the required brevity. Yes, you can do a tweet-storm, but at that point you are sort of using a loop-hole, and it’s still one sentence at a time, and scanning eyes will skip around to find the thing they want.

2.      Emphasis: The platform also encourages over-emphasis. Since you usually can’t make a many-bulleted, complex, full-scale argument, requiring step-by-step data and logic, but you really, really want to prove your point as succinctly as possible, most people just use extreme language. Hyperbole is used instead of reason—since there’s no room for it—and then, over time and frequency of usage, it eclipses reason. Reason is no longer invited to the table. We come to believe the extreme language we employed for mere expediency, and so do others. What was once recognized as hyperbole for the sake of emphasis, simply becomes “the truth” and fie upon all those who dare question it. We begin to believe our own lies.

Not only do we exaggerate to emphasize, but we begin to crave that everyone match the extreme nature of our language. It becomes a Cold War of hyperbole-turned-“reality.” The stronger you feel, the more extreme language you want to use, which pressures others to do the same, lest they fall behind. It’s a lot like when one sends e-mails…you start by using one exclamation point, so they they use two (so you won’t think they’re under-enthusiastic) and by the end of it, the whole text is riddled with meaningless punctuation. Eventually the truth—the proper temperature of the given sentiment—is lost entirely. Everything boils over and kills whatever value was present to begin with.

3.      Immediacy: A platform like twitter is designed for instant feedback. Something happens, you tweet it right then—whether it’s newsworthy, funny, infuriating, or false. This leads to two big problems. In the moment of reaction, emotions are at their highest peak, reason often at its lowest. You know this if you’ve ever gotten in a knock-down, drag-out argument with someone you love, where they’ve really gotten under your skin. You get so hot and angry, you start exaggerating, making outrageous accusations that don’t line up with reality, and using “always” and “never” where you really mean “sometimes.” (“You NEVER listen to me. You ALWAYS get what you want!”)

That’s one thing in a personal relationship, where you can mend it, and move on. But the nature of the public platform makes it that much harder for anyone to apologize and acknowledge their untruths. The height of anger, rage, meanness, hurt, confusion and frustration are all on display because the platform encourages it. Yes, it is possible to be disciplined just as it is possible not to drink too much at an open bar, or not to watch too much Netflix when the next show only gives you 17 seconds to stop it before you’re hooked on the next one. But when you’re angry and the option to spill your anger is right there at your fingertips, and you might get a lot of back-patting feedback to boot? Well, the temptation is strong, and only grows stronger each time we blast our in-the-moment emotions onto the internet. We get to the point where we can’t not do it.

The second thing that happens is that bad information is circulated just as swiftly as good information…nay, faster. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” Incendiary, angry, snarky stuff—whether true or not—will get around a LOT faster than a calm, measured truth. Falsehoods, false equivalence, and funny lies get traction, so we’re tempted not to scrutinize the things that we already want to agree with.

4.      Public Space and Publicity: None of this is being done in the privacy of your mind or your home. It is ALL on display. The good, the bad, the ugly. Even if any given sentiment expressed is genuine—you’re supporting a cause you 100% believe in, boosting a signal that you 100% support, or encouraging someone that you honestly admire and want to help—there is often still some part of you that is doing it for the feedback: the thanks, the favorites, the accolades, or even just the general atmospheric impression you give of “being a good person.”

Being a good person on twitter consists in garnering favorites, retweets, links, and adulatory comments. You don’t have to go very far out of your way to prove that you’re on the “right” side of an argument, or that you’re angry about the same thing everyone else is angry about. The platform provides tremendously easy access to a pleasing (and passing) sensation of goodness. Of course giving an impression or getting feedback are things we all desire for almost anything we produce: writing an article, or a book, or making a piece of art.

But once again, the brevity and immediacy are what make the key difference here. When creating some art (a novel, a painting, anything) time and effort and thought wear on the piece of art like water, shaping it slowly over time. You don’t just spit it out in two seconds. You have to wait a long time for feedback, or for it’s intrinsic value in the grand scheme to show itself resilient. You have to do the work without any accolades at first.

Not so with twitter and like platforms. Public interaction in the form of feedback and accolades are immediate, so it tends to shape what we say and do far more than we realize. The distance between creation and subsequent response is reduced almost to nothing. Room for deep thought and careful creation—without thinking about what others will say about it—is essentially lost.

When you write about that good thing you did, are you doing it because you’re trying to encourage others to do the same, or because you want everyone to know you did something. Probably a bit of both? Even if it’s the former, you’re doing it to prove you have the right to encourage others to act…and eventually, it’s more and more of the latter, because it feels good to be praised for doing something, rather just doing it and never letting the right hand know what the left is doing.

Thus Twitter becomes an external archive to prove to others that we hold the correct opinions and are doing the correct things in the correct way. It’s almost as if we’re in a perpetual state of building our own public defense. As if…we’re expecting to be brought to trial in a court of public opinion and need to have evidence for our public persona.

I think that says an awful lot about both the way this platform seeps into our thinking, and about where we are as a culture. We all think we’re on stage, waiting to be praised or booed—wanting to know instantly what people think of our thought-of-the-moment. And, if we’re not careful, we’ll become the marionettes who just do and say that which we know will garner praise, likes, retweets…or simply the mere absence of censure.

06 January 2016

The Screwtape Letters

I recently discovered these amazing, artistic renderings of sundry Lewis writings (please check them out, O Reader, they are worth your time) and it put me in a mood to re-read Screwtape Letters in particular. It had been quite a while.

For those unacquainted, the book is written as letters from a senior devil to a junior, all of which regard the best ways to tempt a given “patient” (a human) and lead him away from what the devils refer to as “the Enemy,” meaning God.

I forgot how excellent this book is!

I had actually hesitated slightly before re-reading, because I wanted to read it out loud to my husband, and reading in the voice of a devil seemed a little uncomfortable. Of course, Lewis had to write in that voice, mind you. He said it was the easiest book he ever wrote and the least enjoyable, all “dust, grit, thirst, and itch.”

Since my review of Pilgrim’s Regress has turned out to be a helpful post, I decided I could add to the Lewis reviews. If nothing else, this is an exposé on my character, because what I will list here are all the most convicting elements of the Screwtape Letters…all the ways in which I have allowed myself to be fooled, lied to, tricked, and clouded.

1.      Argument style:

This one is best relayed in quotes, as follows. Screwtape is telling Wormwood (the junior devil) to encourage his patient to focus on those little habits or mannerisms of his mother’s which most annoy him so as to damage their relationship by inches and pinpricks.

“Let [the patient] assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy…And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones an looks which similarly annoy her.”

Screwtape then advises that the patient be made to speak normal words in a particularly nettling manner, thence to be “surprised” that the nettle finds its mark.

“Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offense is taken.”

*Ahem* Reading this passage was like having cold water dumped on my head. Deservedly. I have done this. I have said things in sharp and exasperated tones, then been irritated that anyone should take offense but me. “All I said was such-and-such. How could that possibly hurt your feelings? It certainly wouldn’t hurt mine.”

2.     Approved but inactive virtues:

Along the lines of believing in God—as even the demons do while shuddering—faith without deeds is useless.

“All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets here.”

“Here” being hell, remember.

There are so many times where I see a truth but struggle to adhere to it in the clutch. I approve a truth, but do not internalize it. I agree with a truth, but do not apply the discipline necessary to live it. And this is deadly in the most honest sense.

3.     Political Christianity (it doesn’t even matter which side):

When the war (WWII) breaks out Screwtape tells Wormwood that he would do well to try and figure out whether Patriotism or Pacifism would be a better inducement to folly. It’s not to do with which is worse or better, but rather which is better suited to his personality and, therefore, more easily twisted to his endangerment: “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the enemy, are to be encouraged.”

“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as part of his religion….Then…come to regard it as the most important part.”

This is something of which we should always be leery: cramming God into a political agenda, even a good one. Now, I have very strong political ideals and leanings. But they must all be measured by a rubric outside of themselves: whatever is not of God must fall off. There is much that is not of God in absolutely every corner of the political field. We must never forget that. We must never fall prey to the belief that ANY earthly faction perfectly represents God’s “interests” or character, for in that moment with have replaced Him with something that is NOT GOD, and it does not matter how good it seems or is. In this case especially, the perceived good is the enemy of the actual great.


We must always be “alive to the social implications of [our] religion” even though the intersection of theology and politics is regarded to be an excellent point of spiritual attack.

A tricky situation indeed….a dangerous road that we must nevertheless walk.

4.     Law of Undulation

Simply put, we are rhythmical, amphibian creatures—“half spirit half animal”—and thus we go through peaks and troughs.

Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood that God appears to use the troughs of spiritual life even more than the peaks…indeed “some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.”

A period of spiritual dryness or dullness is neither the loss or end of faith, but the refining of it to great purpose. Remember this. I am telling myself, and anyone else who will listen.

5.      I’ll just leave this quote right here: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return…”

6.     In one letter, Screwtape berates Wormwood for having let ‘the patient’ slip back towards the Enemy…and how did this happen? The patient read a book he really liked and took a peaceful walk. Joy, nature, and clear thought become an act of routing the devils’ intentions, or at least taking cover from direct fire. Another thing we would do well to remember.

7.      The combat of daily prayers:

Even Screwtape assumed daily prayers as a given, though of course he regards them as a troublesome barrier to tempting. I forget about this sometimes. Daily prayer. Such a simple, seemingly little thing. But it’s humility, it’s warfare…and it’s necessary.

8.     A Taster of Churches:

Screwtape advises Wormwood “Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”

This is especially convicting of our broader culture. It often does lead to giving up on church altogether, for all churches have flaws, even drastic ones. She is, after all, made up of humans.

9.     “…zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours…the assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense.”

Our time is not our own.

10.   “How valuable time is to us [tempters] may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy [God] allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently he wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years.”

That’s kind of a thrilling notion, isn’t it? What we experience isn’t just the norm. It’s intense training and preparation.

So I actually had TWENTY-EIGHT bullet points when I started this, but it was getting so long, I decided I’ll save the others for another time. Or perhaps I should just say: read the book, and see what you find.

07 December 2015

Start at the Beginning

Some years ago, I spotted a quote on facebook by a nun named Joan Chittister. The context in which it was posted was that of an attempt to discredit the pro-life movement as hypocritical and unethical. Indeed it is frequently used to support abortion. It is as follows:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
-Sister Joan Chittister

On broad principle, part of what she is trying to communicate is obvious and true: if you are pro-life, you must be pro-the-whole-life. There is a separate discussion here as to what is the best method of taking care of that whole life—at the governmental level or at the individual level—but here we are going to focus on the first part: whether the pro-life movement is really just "pro-birth" as she puts it.

As mentioned above, this quote is often used against those who believe a child in the womb has the right to life, i.e. ‘It’s all rhetoric with you people. You don’t care about kids or life, you’re just dogmatically fixated on little clumps of cells for some reason and you want to control women’s bodies. You should worry about the kids already born.’

I think those who support abortion are desperately misunderstanding what pro-life (or pro-birth) really means. To be pro-life means that we do not believe we have the right to simply kill children (however small they are at the moment) at our own convenience or until such a time as the world they are about to live in is perfect and can guarantee their every need and safety. By that logic, you could murder anyone in an abusive or poverty-stricken circumstance and be justified because you are, without their consent, saving them from the pain and suffering of their own life.

Pro-life is about a fundamental belief in the value of human life because we are all made in the image of God. In addition to that, it is very particularly about defense of the innocent and voiceless. Therefore it must start with protecting the infant in their most vulnerable moments—before, during, and immediately after birth—but it certainly should continue into a desire and sustained effort to help and protect them as they grow. Parents should care for their children. Communities should support those in need. This is why pro-lifers also emphasize the importance of marriage and families, by the way.

Also, it is for this reason that so many churches have ministries that help struggling mothers with counseling, formula, housing, public services, food, clothing, diapers, carseats, strollers, educational materials on motherhood, and job posting boards. I am grateful to have been able to volunteer at such a ministry at my old church. I saw mothers, struggling through difficult circumstances to do right by their children. I saw young women, some high-school age, making a choice to guard over rather than exterminate a life that was undoubtedly an ‘inconvenience’ to them. I have a profound respect for those who refused to give up and believe the lies that society tells them: that they have the “right” to be rid of their children.

What is a woman who decides to keep her baby—in spite of struggle, pain, poverty, fear, or uncertainty—and give that child her all? What is she? She is hope for the future. That’s the sort of woman that can change the culture in a profound way. That’s the sort of woman that maybe, just maybe, can resist the deep and despairing ruts of the poverty and pain into which she may have been born. She can raise a son or daughter with strength and conviction and persistence. She can change the world by her choices and the choices she makes for her children.

Does no one else realize how truly powerful and profound that really is? The very act of choosing life encourages still more life. It is a foundation.

Now, I am not an idealist. I know that there are far too many women who do have their children, but do not give them the care and love they need. But why? Well there are many reasons, but perhaps one is that our culture is telling them that they shouldn’t have to and it’s easier to be bitter and lazy about an undesired circumstance than to face it head-on with courage and hard work. (It's easier to give the bare minimum to your child, and you don't even have to be in dire straits to do that.) Perhaps because self-sacrifice is brutally hard. Perhaps because we all have to battle our fear, addictions, selfishness, weakness, and pain, and so many people do not even know how to begin to fight because we live in a culture that says “Myself is all that matters and I should be able to do whatever I want.”

Our culture of contempt for such an utterly defenseless life as that of a child in the womb is a culture that creates poor parents, poor choices, and destructive futures.

One pro-abortion argument says that by eliminating the child, you save them from the harsh circumstances he or she may face. They weren't wanted anyway, right? But the truth is—partly because of a culture of abortion, those circumstances are still there. They just exist around a void where a life once was. And that void doesn’t make anything any better. Indeed it will lie in wait for the next child and the next and the next. It takes putting the cart before the horse to a whole new extreme: you are saying “kill the child so that they will not have to suffer this world” while thereby creating the very world of violence and disrespect for life that you claim you would shield them from. Abortion is the “cure” that viciously perpetuates the disease.

This is the poverty of logic that exists in the pro-abortion argument. It claims—mostly as a canned argument, not as a moral conviction—that you should worry first about the whole life of the child, while denying the strength and importance of where that life begins. It is a-linear and a-logical. You have to go to the foundation of life before you can even begin to speak about how it must subsequently look. You have to allow the child to live in order to then care about their life.

If you follow the rationale of the pro-abortion argument you have put human children on the level of humanely-raised livestock: give them nice conditions if you can, kill them when you must, otherwise divvy them up for parts for the good of society.

Honestly, do you think we have so many mass shooting simply because of the mere existence of means to kill people or is it also because we live in a culture where life is so casually and ruthlessly disregarded at its weakest and most vulnerable? A culture where we tell a woman with a unique role as guardian and cultivator of LIFE, that she has better things to do, and serpent-like, convince her to kill her charge and call it something else.

The tools of mass murder and mass shootings may be readily available, but we have actively cultivated an environment in which the use of those tools for meaningless deaths seems easy in the minds of more and more people. If you can kill a child in the womb, someone who is utterly dependent and utterly helpless, it is foolish to think that this will have no effect on the collective psyche. When you withdraw rights and humanity from the voiceless you are carefully sewing together the most ruthless and heartless society—and even worse—you are doing it under the guise of benevolence. You are calling good evil, and evil good.

In this the frequent pro-life comparison of abortion to slavery in the U.S. are very, very apt; it uses biased pseudo-science (ignoring actual science), cultural conditioning, economic entrenchment, media, jargon, and nebulous phrases of ‘benevolence’ to justify the dehumanization of a large group for the benefit, succor, comfort, and convenience of those in possession of greater social power.

So why do pro-lifers appear to talk more loudly about protecting children in the womb than any subsequent needs, if they care so much about both?

Because when you live in a culture where a child has the right to live in the first place, you have a far better platform from which to encourage and assist the future of that child. You can care just as deeply about the child coming of age, as coming out of the womb, but you have to start at the beginning and work from there.

We were once a rational society. No more. The idea of beginning at the beginning seems to be out of vogue. Everyone wants to start their argument at the point of their own fancy, their own need or preference, rather than by reason. In this way, you will find yourself working very hard to keep up with the times, ever moving the markers of what lives are “valuable.” We keep wondering why we see such callousness towards life—especially towards the lives of those who already struggle, who are already at a disadvantage—well if you wonder, this is why. You cannot value that which has been dismissed at the outset.

You cannot expect human kindness writ large, if you dismiss that which is humanity writ small.

We are becoming the ‘men without chests’ of which Lewis spoke in his book ‘The Abolition of Man.’

“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I would add, we claim the right to kill the defenseless, and wonder why there is so much heartless violence in our world.

As a last point, it is foolish to scoff and be dismissive when someone draws the connection between abortion and eugenics. The disproportionate effect of abortion culture on minority communities shows that the racist factor of eugenics is alive an well. Sex-selection abortions shows that the misogyny of eugenics is alive and well. Screenings for various diseases and syndromes—so that you can have the option of aborting a down syndrome or otherwise ‘undesirable’ child who might be more difficult to care for—show that the Hitler-like eugenic contempt for those who are weak or disabled is alive and hideously well.

People wonder how a whole society allowed such a thing as the Holocaust. This is how. They were told it was their right. They were told it would make them stronger, richer, freer, safer. They were told it was for the good of society. And everyone agreed not to think about the gritty details of what all that ended up looking like.

Caricature, propaganda, normalization. Frogs sitting ignorant in boiling water. We’ve been boiling so long, we’re all but disintegrated.*

*I say we often in this piece. I am obviously pro-life, but when I am speaking about the darkest sins in our human nature I usually say we, even if I am talking of something I fiercely oppose. Because we are all fallen short of the Glory of God, and because this is the culture we live in.