In my last post, I began musing on Facebook, after a unprecedented-for-me imbroglio in that strange new world that Mark Zuckerberg has bequeathed us.
As I explained then, I naively precipitated unexpected conflict on my Facebook Wall – naively, I say, because I have spent years only tentatively engaged in this world conquering phenomenon. And, as I also said, this had much to do with its capacity to suck me – weak as I am – into worlds of trivia. Moreover, I also feared highly charged polemics where people hardly seem to listen to one another.
But, paradoxically, there is an opposite tendency to these polemics that likewise concerned me. The remarkable Catholic thinker Michael Martin once likened it to a ‘jungle of parrots’. There, instead of charged ‘debates’, one witnesses the other extreme: people inhabiting artificial cyberworlds where they rarely hear anything but the voices of those who most agree with them.
Strangely, both sides of this paradox suddenly came to the fore when a young friend, whom I have known since her infancy, entered my Facebook stream, asserting a right to abortion at whatever point a woman wants and for whatever reason. Here is what set me and others off …
Now, given my friend’s youth, I could not help but wonder if she has been significantly informed and shaped by her own particular Facebook ‘jungle’: a jungle wherein all one ever hears is ‘a woman has a right, whenever she wants, whenever she wants, whenever she wants …
And all that has led me to wonder about other Facebook jungles out there. I imagine there are little white supremacist jungles now, where all some people – including vulnerable young people – may ever hear are people parroting: ‘Jews are bad’ ‘Jews are bad’ ‘Jews are bad’ or ‘Blacks are bad’, ‘Blacks are bad’.
How much, I ask myself, is the current fragmentation of America into the bitter extremes of Trump and Clinton supporters due to people living more and more exclusively in their own private Trump and Clinton jungles?
But that American example is only one instance I think of. In Europe and America, there will now be Facebook jungles of everything under the sun: Beatles’ fans, Moonies, Neo-Nazis, enthusiasts of psychedelic drugs, various sexual kinks and so on as well as feminists, who, as I tried to suggest in my last post, may often be re-iterating, again and again and again, a right to an abortion – without ever having any clear idea as to what a right really is.
Of course, Facebook is only an intensification of a phenomenon that already existed on the internet before, what with various forums and cyber-groups, etc.
Yet Facebook is nonetheless a mighty intensification of that pre-existing tendency – on a truly astonishing scale.
Something like three quarters of the American adult population use Facebook regularly. And whilst Europe and other parts of the world lag behind, they are evidently catching up. Moreover, the percentages amongst the young are the highest. Apparently, fifty per cent of 18-24 year-olds go on Facebook when they wake up (Source: The Social Skinny).
Figures like that disturb me. People getting wired from the moment they wake …
(I cannot help but compare this to what Ireland once was, where a huge percentage of the population would have begun with morning prayer – but we will not pursue that digression further.)
However, despite all my concerns, one must allow that this staggering global phenomenon is here to stay. It is transforming the world, and, despite the dangers, sometimes in meaningful or even miraculous ways. (As I also indicated last time, I have recently been more awakened to the potential beauty of Facebook by the many kind, caring and intelligent comments I have received there, since I became more engaged.)
For Catholics who care about the world, then, the question becomes how can we engage with Facebook in a fashion that draws out its miraculous potential, whilst minimising its more tragic aspects?
Indeed, I even find myself wondering about Facebook as a new spiritual discipline that is now incumbent on us. Perhaps in preparing for Confession, it may be good for some of us to ask: how have I behaved on Facebook lately?
At any rate, I would encourage enquiry amidst practising and faithful Catholics using Facebook. Questions like the following, I think, are good:
- How can I remain conscious and kind whilst using Facebook?
- How do I manage to really listen to people whom I have never met and are only represented to me as disembodied pixels?
- How can I share the my life-transforming experience in my ongoing Sacramental Encounter with Christ with those who have not the least idea what this Sacramental Encounter is?
For the true nature of the Church remains absolutely invisible to virtually all non-Catholics. Usually, they think it means a belief-system or an institution. Our materialistic culture has lied to them their whole lives long.
And here, strangely, was one good thing about my recent imbroglio – it helped to make the Church at least a tiny bit visible to those whom it is probably entirely obscured.
For that imbroglio was not a parrot jungle, but rather a brief intersection of very different sorts of people I have encountered in my life.
For a few moments, Catholics like myself were actually speaking to folk thoroughly immersed in secularism (and even the esoteric perspectives characteristic of my New Age past). Indeed, knowing my young friend’s utterly secular European background, I can easily imagine that this could have been unlike any other online experience of her life.
For a brief moment, at least, I believe she glimpsed an alien universe – a universe of intelligent people who do not subscribe to the endlessly re-iterated assertion that abortion is a right’, ‘abortion is a right’, ‘abortion is a right’ …
Now, I do not know how much attention she truly paid to this. But even if she did not, the possibility remains of reaching people through Facebook who may never in their entire life have heard an intelligent Catholic perspective.
I say this because I know from my own life experience what this is like. Until my astonishing conversion around age thirty four, I was so wrapped-up in both New Age-ism and the all-surrounding secular culture that the term ‘intelligent Catholic’ might have almost seemed oxymoronic to me. Truly, the intellectual depth within Catholicism came as an utter shock to me when, after all those years, I finally encountered it.
Now to many cultured cradle Catholics this may seem difficult to imagine. They have been immersed in the profundity and lucidity of the tradition for their entire lives.
But whatever the case, we need to imagine, as best we can, the desperate plight of people – particularly the young! – now being utterly submerged in all these terrible jungles of mindless re-iteration.
Clearly, Facebook presents opportunities here, if we as Catholics can reach out to people like the man I once was who had not only no idea of the intellectual depths of Catholicism, but, of course, of the life -upending transformation of the Sacramental Encounter.
That man got to thirty four years old without even knowing what a Sacrament is! And I very much doubt my young friend asserting ‘whenever, whatever’ abortion ‘rights’ has any idea what a Sacrament is either.
But to reach out skilfully, one must be conscious, kind and skilful.
This, incidentally, also relates to what I had in mind whilst writing my book The Gentle Traditionalist – how Catholics might interact gently with people caught up in secular (and New Age) jungles who have been robbed of the least understanding of Catholic tradition.
It is not their fault.
How do we help them?