Injustice, Reform, and Optimism

In the serendipitous manner that “way leads on to way” when you’re online, I came across a seemingly obscure essay by G.K. Chesterton titled, “The Vote and the House,” dealing, initially at least, with the rules governing canvassing for votes in England. The essay appeared in a collection published in 1908, although it may have been first published earlier. In any case, there were a few interesting passages that resonated with our present political climate.

The third rule for canvassing, Chesterton noted, told him that he must not “threaten a voter with any consequence whatever.” Chesterton, of course, knows what this intends to mean, but “as verbally and grammatically expressed,” he adds, “it certainly would cover those general threats of disaster to the whole community which are the main matter of political discussion.” For example:

“When a canvasser says that if the opposition candidate gets in the country will be ruined, he is threatening the voters with certain consequences. When the Free Trader says that if Tariffs are adopted the people in Brompton or Bayswater will crawl about eating grass, he is threatening them with consequences. When the Tariff Reformer says that if Free Trade exists for another year St. Paul’s Cathedral will be a ruin and Ludgate Hill as deserted as Stonehenge, he is also threatening. And what is the good of being a Tariff Reformer if you can’t say that? What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems. But these things are, after all, consequences, so to speak.”

Ah, it would seem that this passage is, as they say, evergreen.

Then, after discussing the objections of “refined persons” to both canvassing in politics and interviewing in journalism, Chesterton comes to this conclusion:

“The whole error in both cases lies in the fact that the refined persons are attacking politics and journalism on the ground of vulgarity. Of course, politics and journalism are, as it happens, very vulgar. But their vulgarity is not the worst thing about them. Things are so bad with both that by this time their vulgarity is the best thing about them. Their vulgarity is at least a noisy thing; and their great danger is that silence that always comes before decay. The conversational persuasion at elections is perfectly human and rational; it is the silent persuasions that are utterly damnable.”

That whole paragraph is worth reading (link below).

Finally, I’ll leave you with the paragraph that was my impetus for writing this post in the first place. It’s a provocative reflection on the relative merits of optimism and pessimism with regards to reforming injustice. I pass it along to you as someone who does not think of himself as an optimist, generally speaking.

“For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment. That is the explanation of the singular fact which must have struck many people in the relations of philosophy and reform. It is the fact (I mean) that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better. The optimist Dickens has achieved more reforms than the pessimist Gissing. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are. A man like Godwin believes existence to be kindly; but he is a rebel. A man like Carlyle believes existence to be cruel; but he is a Tory. Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things. And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible—like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable—like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.”

You can read the whole essay here, although I couldn’t tell you why it was classified as a “short story.”

Maybe the Kids Aren’t Alright

Consider the following statements regarding the place of digital media in the lives of a cohort of thirteen-year-olds:

“One teenager, Fesse, was usually late – partly because he played Xbox till late into the night ….”

“We witnessed a fair number of struggles to make the technology work, or sometimes to engage pupils with digital media in the classroom.”

“Homework was often accompanied by Facebook, partly as a distraction and partly for summoning help from friends. Some became quickly absorbed in computer games.”

“Adam [played] with people from the online multi-player game in which he could adopt an identity he felt was truly himself.”

“Megan worked on creating her private online space in Tumblr – hours passing by unnoticed.”

“Each found themselves drawn, to varying degrees, into their parents’ efforts to gather as a family, at supper, through shared hobbies, looking after pets, or simply chatting in front of the television – albeit each with phones or tablets at the ready – before peeling off in separate directions.”

“Digital devices and the uses they put them to have become teenagers’ way of asserting their agency – a shield from bossy parents or annoying younger siblings or seemingly critical teachers, a means to connect with sympathetic friends or catching up with ongoing peer ‘drama.'”

Okay, now what would be your initial thoughts about the state of affairs described by these statements? Generally speaking, presented with these observations about the lives of 13-year-olds, I’d think that we might be forgiven a bit of concern. Sure, some of this describes the generally recognizable behavior of “teenagers” writ large, and nothing here suggested life-or-death matters, necessarily, but, nonetheless, it seemed to me that we might wish things were a touch different in some respects. At least, we might want a little more information about how these factors play out over the long run.

But the author framed these statements with these sorts of interpretative comments:

“… the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them.”

“As adults and parents, we might spend less time worrying about what they get up to as teenagers and more time with them, discussing the challenges that lie ahead for them as adults in an increasingly connected world.”

Couple that with the opening paragraph, which begins thus: “With each generation the public consciousness conjures up a new fear for our youth ….” There is no quicker way to signal that you are not at all concerned about something than by leading with “each generation, blah, blah, blah.”

When I first read this piece, I felt a certain dissonance, and I couldn’t quite figure out its source. After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that the dissonance arose from the incongruity between the cheery, “the kids are alright” tone of the article and what the article actually reported.

(I might add that part of my unease also regards methodology. Why would we think that the students were any more transparent with this adult researcher in their midst than they were with the teachers whose halting attempts to connect with them via digital media they hold in apparent contempt? Mind you, this may very well be addressed in a perfectly adequate manner by the author in the book that this article introduces.)

Let me be clear, I’m not calling for what is conventionally and dismissively referred to as a “moral panic.” But I don’t think our only options are “everything is going to hell” and “we live in a digital paradise, quit complaining.” And what is reported in this article suggests to me that we should not be altogether unconcerned about how digital media floods every aspect of our lives and the lives of our children.

To the author’s point that “the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them,” I reply, that’s a damnably low bar and, thus, little comfort.

And when the author preaches “As adults and parents, we might spend less time worrying about what they get up to as teenagers and more time with them, discussing the challenges that lie ahead for them as adults in an increasingly connected world,” I reply, that’s exactly what many adults and parents are trying to do but many of them feel as if they are fighting a losing battle against the very thing you don’t want them to worry about.

One last thought: we are deeply invested in the comforting notion that “the kids are alright,” aren’t we? I’m not saying they are not or that they will not be alright, necessarily. I’m just not sure. Maybe some will and some won’t. Some of the very stories linked by the website to the article in question suggest that there are at least some troubling dimensions to the place of digital media in the lives of teens. I’ve spent the better part of the last fifteen years teaching teens in multiple contexts. In my experience, with a much larger data set mind you, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful, but there are also reasons to be concerned. But never mind that, we really want to believe that they will be just fine regardless.

That desire to believe the “kids are alright” couples all too well with the desire to hold our technology innocent of all wrong. My technological habits are no different, may be they’re worse, so if the kids are alright then so am I. Perhaps the deeper desire underlying these tendencies is the desire to hold ourselves blameless and deflect responsibility for our own actions. If the “kids are alright” no matter what we do or how badly we screw up, then I’ve got nothing to worry about as an adult and a parent. And if the technologies that I’ve allowed to colonize my life and theirs are never, ever to blame, then I can indulge in them to my heart’s content without so much as a twinge of compunction. I get a pass either way, and who doesn’t want that? But maybe the kids are not altogether alright, and maybe it is not altogether their fault but ours.

Finally, one last thought occurred to me. Do we even know what it would mean to be alright anymore? Sometimes I think all we’re aiming at is something like a never-ending and exhausting management of perpetual chaos. Maybe we’ve forgotten how our lives might be alternatively ordered. Maybe our social and cultural context inhibits us from pursuing a better ordered life. Perhaps out of resignation, perhaps for lack of imagination, perhaps because we lack the will, we dare not ask what might be the root causes of our disorders. If we did, we might find that some cherished and unquestioned value, like our own obsession with unbridled individual autonomy, might be complicit. Easier to go on telling ourselves that everything will be alright.

Links and News

Zygmunt Bauman, the esteemed Polish sociologist, is now 90 years old. His advanced age has done nothing to slow his prodigious productivity. During a recent visit to Spain, he gave an interview that was published in El Pais. I encourage you to read the whole thing, it is not very long. There was one paragraph in particular that caught my attention:

The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.

I’m not sure that the very broad strokes with which he characterized social media are entirely fair. A bit more nuance is probably called for. That quibble aside, the bit about networks and communites strikes me as being quite well put and worthy of our consideration. One way of characterizing the history of modernity is precisely as the progressive liberation of the individual from the bounds of traditional communities. This liberation has not been without its costs.

I’ll pass along another interview, this one in De Zeen with Maarten Hajer, chief curator of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016. I found it notable chiefly for Hajer’s determined opposition to what I’ve called a Borg Complex:

Speaking at an opening event for the biennale, Hajer called for architects and designers to stop treating the advent of smart technologies as inevitable, and to question whether they will solve any problems at all.

“People with lots of media force pretend to know exactly what the future will look like, as if there is no choice,” he said. “I’m of course thinking about self-driving vehicles inevitably coming our way [….]

Discussions about the future of cities are at risk of being “mesmerised” by technology, he added.

“We think about big data coming towards us, 3D printing demoting us, or the implication of robots in the sphere of health, as if they are inevitabilities. My call is for us to think about what we want from those technological advances.”

Quite right.

Finally, I know that most of you reading this blog do so chiefly for what I have to say about technology. There are some of you who are interested in the relationship between technology and religion, particularly its relationship to the Christian tradition. And among those of you residing in that slice of the Venn diagram, there may be some who live in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, PA. If that’s you, then here’s some news. I’ll be teaching a course, “Technology, Faith, and Human Flourishing,” with my good friend, Dr. Mark Garcia, as part of the work of CSET. If you’re interested, feel free to contact me via email at cset@greystoneinstitute.org and I’ll tell you all about it. Also, if you know of anyone who might be interested in the course or in the work of CSET, please pass my email address along to them. CSET is very much in the “labor of love” phase and building an audience of interested readers, participants, and supporters is one of my priorities at present.

I should add, too, that I’ve very recently started posting with some regularity at CSET’s blog. Click over and follow along.

Funny How Life Comes Full Circle

A few days ago I had a passing encounter with a gentleman I had never met and will likely never meet again, yet the memory of this brief encounter has lingered and I’ve been reflecting on it ever since. The telling of it will take only a moment, but perhaps the reading of it will linger for you as the experience has for me.

It was an unusually pleasant late afternoon, by central Florida standards. Pleasant enough to plop my daughter in her stroller and set out for a walk around our neighborhood. Making our way down an uneven and narrow sidewalk, I noticed a man in a wheelchair wheeling his way toward us. As he approached, it became apparent that the sidewalk was not big enough for both his wheelchair and my daughter’s stroller. It also became apparent that he was an amputee.

At my first opportunity, I pushed the stroller into a driveway and waited for the man to pass. As he did, I smiled and nodded. Slowing his pace just a touch, he nodded back and, with a smile of his own and a tone utterly bereft of bitterness or self-pity, he said to me, “I wish I had my dad to push me now.” With that he gestured over his shoulder as if to point at where his dad would be. “Funny how life comes full circle,” he added. And with that he was gone.

Immediately, I was deeply moved by what was certainly one of the most poignant encounters I’ve ever experienced with a stranger. It was the sort of encounter that jars one’s point of view, causing all of life to appear, for a moment, in a different, clearer light. Turning it over again and again in my mind, I think it was the untroubled wistfulness that was most striking, that and the wisdom so winsomely delivered.

So there I was, still in the full flush of early fatherhood, imagining myself, and my daughter, many years hence, wondering, among other things, how life and love will weave us together.

 

Developments

It’s been about half a year since last I posted so I thought it was time for a bit of an update. I’m happy to report that our daughter is healthy and happy and now six months old. Being a parent has been everything you might guess: exhausting and wonderful beyond what I could have imagined, and I thought I was going into this with eyes pretty wide open.

Progress on the dissertation has been slow–see above–but I’m hoping to pick up the pace in just a few weeks time.

Then there is the Center for Study of Ethics and Technology (CSET), of which I am the director. This is in every respect a fledgling venture. For the past few months it’s been little more than a place-holding website with a “coming soon” page that amounted to false advertisement. It’s not too much more than that now, admittedly, but the site is in better shape and I will begin blogging there this week. Also, I’ll be announcing details about a course that I will be co-teaching, “Technology, Faith, and Human Flourishing,” this June in the Pittsburgh area.

The future of CSET depends on many things, of course–eventual funding not least among them–but my hope is that the Center will be a source of timely and, one hopes, intelligent reflection on the ethical consequences of technological change, both through the creation of online resources and through public lectures, readings, colloquia, and courses. Those familiar with my writing on this blog will not be surprised by the sort work taken up by CSET. There will be, however, more of a focus on the intersections of technology and religion, an area that was mostly a tacit theme here.

If any of this sounds the least bit intriguing, you can keep up with CSET through the usual means. Visit the website and sign up for email updates or subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed. You can also follow the Center on Twitter and/or Facebook. And, of course, if you know of anyone who would find the Center’s work to be of interest, let them know that we are up and running.

I’d certainly be glad to hear from you if you’ve got any thoughts about what might make CSET useful. Feel free to drop me an email.

I hope this posts finds you all well. Cheers!

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