Everything in Moderation

Last week I listened to a great conversation over at FLOSS Weekly regarding social media, conversations, and moderation. In case you don’t read the news often…or social media…in which case this might not interest you but I digress…there’s a been a bit of a stir around Twitter lately. The short version is that it’s about to become a privately held company controlled by an eccentric person with a lot of money who isn’t interested in curtailing anyone’s free speech.

Go ahead, I’ll let you catch up…

So, yes, regardless of how you feel about this…and my feelings are mixed…I think we all can agree that Twitter is about to become a very different neighborhood.

Like most of you, I’ve used social media for a long time. I would even have called myself a power user at one point, although I’ve stepped back from a lot of platforms, including deleting Facebook. Twitter has been the one that I’ve generally held onto, although lately I’ve been staying with the sites that were mainstays back in the day….Reddit, Digg, and so forth…because Twitter is beginning to become a platform for people to scream at each other, as well as making really frustrating and isolating decisions about how it can be used.

On the podcast, there was discussion about how, if Twitter is the public square for conversation in America, what moderation is necessary and appropriate? In short: is Musk’s vision of reducing moderation a pipe dream? The panel talks about how Reddit is heavily moderated, and, as a result, new users are often moderated out and leave. This poses the question, is that level of moderation a good thing?

Some level of governance is necessary for social discourse. However, the idea that the right kind of governance…taking the form of content moderation…can resolve the noisy echo chamber that Twitter has become is faulty at its premise, because it’s trying to fix a cultural problem with technology. We can’t moderate how people feel about each other, even if we can how they interact with each other.

The problem with Twitter, or any other social network, isn’t that there aren’t correct rules. The problem is that it gives everyone a platform to speak, but no one knows how to have civil discourse. To the contrary, it’s become fashionable to not be civil. As the panelists point out, when moderation reaches its extreme and people are banned from a network, they just create a parallel network. These are just echo chambers.

The problem is cultural. The problem is that we view anyone who disagrees with our perspective as “other,” as a hostile. The problem is that no dissenting views are tolerated in our so-called public spheres. The problem is that America’s version of discourse is to scream louder than the other person so that no one can hear them.

Let me say again, a functioning community must have some rules. Classrooms, faith communities, neighborhood gatherings, all have some level of expectations of behavior, if nothing else. If Twitter is indeed our public square, then I also have to wonder if the scope of the rules is different. If so, however, then I think that it has to be pubic and democratic, not private. There needs to be expectations of how to behave, but this will be useless if those engaging don’t care about those expectations.

Of all social networks, Twitter still doesn’t know what it is. It has grown into something unintentional, and can’t facilitate the conversations of a culture un-educated in civility. We can try to fix this with moderation all we like, but those efforts will fail. The problem lies much, much deeper than the platform which gives it voice, and trying to use more technology to resolve this will not be effective.

This is a problem that our tools cannot fix.

Image attribution: Pete Simon under Creative Commons.

I’ll Never Let You Go – The Grief of Losing a Dog

Just before I was in high school, my family got a dog. He was a small dog, and I’m honestly not entirely sure of his breed except to say that there was Chihuahua in there somewhere. We got him as a puppy, and this was at a fairly formative time in my life…I was old enough to take on a lot of the responsibility of him. He grew up through my high school years, faithfully waiting for me every afternoon when I disembarked from my ridiculously long bus ride. I made up funny voices for him to try to verbalize the expressive facial expressions that we came to know and love. I picked on him like a little brother. In college, I would come home on weekends and he was always there to greet me, faithful as ever.

When that dog died, it was a gut punch. If you’ve lost a pet, you know…there’s a grief process on par with losing a family member. I felt it for a while. Even though I didn’t live there any longer, it felt like a betrayal when my parents got a new dog. How could my old friend ever be replaced? It hurt that they tried.

This has come up a few times lately as our children are…passionately….expressing their desire for us to own a dog. I haven’t owned one since we lost that beloved friend. I don’t want to go through that loss again. The grief is not trivial.

Still, to go to the extremely expensive…and, I would argue, unethical…lengths of cloning a pet would be foreign to me. When I read this column about the industry that has grown up around this practice…yes, you read that correctly…I was more than a bit amazed. And, quite troubled, as well. What disturbes me is not so much the cost of doing this business, but rather the underlying assumptions that creep in through the writer’s descriptions.

If you read the column, you’ll notice that the writer feels the need to point out that cloning a pet is like resetting a phone…similar model, but new data. The comparison is to a cloned animal not having the memory or experiences of the original. I find it disturbing that our accepted cultural analogies to living things have become operating systems. I sort of get it…we are created as creators, and the lens through which we see our world is that which we have built…but there is inherent in this a disrespect for the living thing.

I’m not immune to this. Several years ago, we went through a weekend with no power after a nasty ice storm in North Carolina. When we left to stay with friends who still had power, our daughter’s betta fish didn’t survive the 40-degree nights. She was young at the time, too young, we decided, to have that conversation. So, as she hadn’t noticed when we returned, I made a late-night run to a pet store to insist to the mystified employee that I needed a betta that was a very exact color and appearance. They had one, and when my wife texted to check on my progress, I replied that I was inbound with the “Mark II.”

The source of this flippant disrespect for the living world around us can be found in abundance in the wording of the column. The process of a surrogate pet having the cloned pet is described not as a miraculous event of life continuing (even though it has been meddled with), but in purely scientific terminology. The new cat is an “embryo.” The focus is on the DNA of cells from the original animal, as though the animal is nothing more.

In his analysis of C.S. Lewis’ thought, Joe Rigney coins the expression “scientific reductionism.” He is using it to encapsulate one of Lewis’ central thoughts in the Abolition of Man. His definition is the audacity to believe that if we know all of the facts about a thing, that we know the essence of the thing (my paraphrase). That’s what I find at work here. Even though the subject of the column recognizes that her cloned cat is not the same as her first pet, there is a presumption that we have the right to artificially create a Frankenstein animal because of our grief process, because the animal has no substance other than its DNA. Essentially, in this view, the animal is no greater than the sum of its parts.

This reductionism is a fatally flawed premise. While mostly just gallows humor when we think about it in relation to pets, it becomes significantly more dystopian when framed in terms of humanity. Because, at its core, it requires the rejection of the recognition that humanity is more than just chemicals and electrons. There is no more value in life than that. When there is no more value in life, then war is acceptable. Murder of the unborn is acceptable. Mucking around with processes in our bodies that we don’t understand is acceptable.

Despite all of the science fiction through the decades that has warned us of exactly this issue.

Sometimes, when I stop to remember, and especially when I visit my parents today, I still miss that dog. Naively, I sometimes wish that he could have lived forever. I would never presume, however, to have a hand in re-creating his life, because I didn’t create it to begin with.

We’re playing God. And we’re enormously under-qualified.

Image attribution: Shadowgate under Creative Commons.

Nothing to Fear But…

I once heard a pastor say that you should never make an important decision if you’re hungry, tired, lonely, or scared. I’ve always found that statement to be simple yet profound. It’s also easy enough to view it through the lens of current events.

As human beings, regardless of where we live or what our circumstances, for the past two years, we’ve made almost every daily decision on the basis of fear. After all, a novel virus that is potentially lethal is a worse-case scenario…literally a silent killer. Seemingly overnight, our daily activities, our interactions, nearly everything that we took for granted had to be re-examined as potentially deadly activities. Worse, if they were not deadly for us, they could be deadly for those with whom we were in contact, even incidentally. The volume of what we didn’t know was profound.

There was little information, and fear thrives in a vacuum.

The issue with fear is that it’s contagious. It’s selfish. It overtakes any rational thought. There’s a reason why the first instruction in an emergency is to “remain calm.” When we’re calm, we can examine the situation that confronts us and think through the best course of action. We can make reasoned decisions. When fear is our motivation, we are always on the defensive, always reactionary, always choosing fight or flight. The end goal of every decision is to survive, at the expense of everything else.

As a human race, if the pandemic has taught us anything at all, it’s how well-equipped we are to consider only ourselves and to hate “the other.” People who are scared of dying want to force decisions onto others not because they care about their peers, but because they themselves are afraid to die. If the other makes different decisions, the narrative is twisted to say that it is they who are selfish. We may mask our motivations or do the mental gymnastics to convince ourselves otherwise, but ultimately, this is the case.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and a lot of blame to go around, from profit-seeking pharmaceuticals to news editors tweaking headlines for shock value. I would argue that social media is to blame for much of our current predicament, as well, because it forces us to exist inside of a hive mind in which no deviation from the majority perspective can be tolerated.

Add to this the fact that so many have watched people they care about die from this plague. So, on top of fear driving our decision-making, now there is grief. And rage.

Let me pause to say, I get it. I do. If I thought that death were the end, I would be terrified. Even knowing that it is not, the thought of leaving my children with no father keeps me awake at night. My point here is, though, that we cannot….for the sake of our societies, our very humanity, we cannot…base our decisions, our policies, our interactions, on fear.

We must have courage. True courage, which is not the absence of fear, but rather the fortitude to continue forward despite fear.

We must have love. Love that puts others before ourselves. Imagine how differently these last two years could have gone if our decisions had been made considering the good of our neighbors before ourselves…self-sacrificial decisions based on love of those around us.

At my most pessimistic, I’m not certain that this is even possible in our digital age. I think that social media and the information onslaught has robbed us of the ability to consider others before ourselves, to react to anything in a calm frame of mind, to view the nuances of any situation with which we are confronted.

Even if this is the case, we must…absolutely must…regain these abilities somehow. Because, if we don’t, it won’t be a virus that leads to our collective demise. We will see to that ourselves.

Just a Thought: Privacy as an Absolute

I want to just state something in which I firmly believe: Privacy is a human right.

That has implications in our digital age, and in times when fear has taken hold. So allow me to propose privacy as a priority, by which I simply mean this:

Privacy is an absolute.

Privacy wins over every other concern.

That means that privacy wins over security.

That means that privacy wins over public health.

That mean that privacy wins over everything.

If it does not, if we allow it to be sacrificed even a little for even what we might perceive as a noble cause, then it means nothing at all. It is gone.

And if it is gone, then we are no longer free. The nature of our humanity is fundamentally altered for the worse.

The choice to uphold privacy over other concerns will mean increased risk. It means that we will need to give up the illusion of safety as a state that we can reach.

Life involves risk. We need to learn to live with that.

The Theology of The Great Pumpkin

While slowly but steadily unpacking our new house, we began making plans for a family Halloween party. If you’ve read my brain dump here for very long, you’ll know that I’ve never been a fan of Halloween, at least not since coming to faith almost two decades ago. While I love an excuse to get into a fun costume, Karen and I generally avoided it early in our marriage, typically just going out for dinner during the trick-or-treat window. When we had kids, though, it’s difficult to tell them that they can’t participate in this event. And, one of the selling points of the new house as they were struggling with anxiety about leaving the old neighborhood was that we would be moved in just in time to go trick-or-treating in the new neighborhood.

This year was also, for a variety of reasons, my first time ever carving pumpkins. I’m proud to say that I did a fairly decent job, but…you be the judge.

A photo of my jack-o-lanterns on my doorstep

A couple of years ago, we purchased It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in the days leading up to this holiday-that-isn’t-really-a-holiday. The kids have grown quite attached to it, and, I must admit, I’ve started to look forward to viewing it each year, as well. This year, though, because the kids are of an age where everything must be watched multiple times, and thus I heard a perpetual loop of the subject matter for three days, I began to notice the theology of the Great Pumpkin.

You have to feel badly for Linus in this story. He’s the lone believer in the Great Pumpkin, an odd distortion of Santa Clause, and he’s mocked mercilessly for it. Perhaps because of the striking and inescapable fact that the Great Pumpkin as a concept if such a cheap facsimile of “the real event” that is still two months away, his friends think that he has lost his mind, or at least has beliefs that are subject to, as Charlie Brown states, “denominational differences.” All except for Sally, whom he convinces to keep his vigil with him. 

We all know the end. Linus is left disappointed, earning Sally’s ire and his friends’ mockery, all while being horrified that he will be passed by because he used the word “if.” After all, the Great Pumpkin only rewards the utmost sincerity, and there can be no room for even the slightest slip of the tongue if one’s faith is to be rewarded. I feel sorry for Linus. As he looks toward an obvious imitation of the truest event of Christmas, he finds that the pressure is on him. It’s not about what the mythical figure that he looks to does, it’s all about what he is doing, and he will inevitably fall short. There’s always theology at work in the classic Peanuts specials, playfully packaged for us to digest, and this particular special shows us the fallibility of a theology of works. Linus’ ultimate faith experience is about his own efforts. He isn’t looking outside of himself.

The end of this pseudo-holiday special is touching…as we see the clock at 4a.m., Lucy goes outside to find Linus shivering in the pumpkin patch. She has mercy on her brother, and leads him into the warmth of his room where he falls sound asleep. Linus has been devout, but believes himself lost because of the smallest error. We have to believe that his sleep is fitful. I have to wonder, here, if Lucy is demonstrating a deeper faith than her brother, as she shows mercy on someone with whom she had the most intense of debates just hours earlier. She loves her brother, that is evident, and that goes deeper than any “denominational differences.”

There’s much that we could learn from this Charlie Brown special. I think that Lucy’s actions in the final scene are something that would be of a most urgent importance for us to grasp today.

Image attribution: PumpkinWayne under Creative Commons.