A Zone of Silence: New Year’s Resolutions, Social Media, and the Intellectual Life
“New Year’s resolutions go in one year and out the other,” so the old adage goes. Given that this piece is running in late January, it is safe to assume countless New Year’s resolutions have been broken. My “resolution,” though I would hardly give it such an official status, was to evaluate my habits of social media use. For years, I labored under the rather Gnostic assumption that the thousands of disembodied interactions we have on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are good because they aren’t physical. Whereas in-person, emotions and distractions can make dialogue difficult, being a digital discussant permits a more rational encounter. Of course, I often overlooked my own actions: how quickly I shoot off barbed replies, employ logical fallacies, and make snap judgments about what others have posted. Such hypocrisy is amplified by apps like Timehop which let you see your history of social media interactions. I do not always like the “me” that is mediated by social media. As I have been considering social media so far this year, I have, for unrelated reasons, also been reading Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges’ great book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods. The book is highly relevant to questions of social media usage even though it was originally published in 1946.
Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a French Dominican Catholic Thomistic philosopher and priest. The Intellectual Life focuses on the practical aspects of being an intellectual, though, as Sertillanges admits, “Every truth is practical; the most apparently abstract, the loftiest, is the also the most practical. Every truth is life, direction, a way leading to the end of man” (13). For Sertillanges, intellectualism is not monopolized by the academy. In fact, if he were alive today, he would likely be cynical about the state of the academy, given the rejection by modern intelligentsia of a pursuit of truth that involves the whole person. In Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, Andrew Louth provides a helpful critique of the disassociation between head and heart which is endemic to post-Enlightenment modernity, a phenomenon he would probably agree has only been accelerated by the rise of postmodernity. Louth states, “much of the division in theology is simply a reflection of the division in our culture: the specialization in theology, the remoteness of theologians—often complained of—from the Church and the believing Christian, and indeed the remoteness of theologians from one another (the Old Testament specialist from the specialist in nineteenth-century theology, say) are all part of a phenomenon we see much of elsewhere and have come to regard as inevitable” (2). The status quo described by Louth does not describe the type of intellectual Sertillanges is interested in cultivating. Instead, Sertillanges argues:
There is something shocking in a dissociation which dislocates the harmony of the human being. One has no faith in jewel merchants who sell pearls and wear none. To be in close contact with the great spring of all things without acquiring anything of its moral nature seems a paradox…Life is a unity. What is the source of this unity of life? Love. ‘Tell me what you love and I will tell you what you are.’ Love is the beginning of everything in us; and that starting point which is common knowledge and practice cannot fail to make right paths of both in a certain measure interdependent. Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue” (18-19).
To Sertillanges, the intellectual is not someone on the faculty of a university or even a serial degree collector but someone whose whole being is constantly being conformed to the truth. and the truth is not accessed first by the mind so much as it is by love. There are three ways social media generally detracts from our ability to become the kind of intellectuals Sertillanges argues that we should be.
The first barrier to Sertillanges’ intellectual life is noise. The contemporary person’s senses are constantly bombarded with noise. Sounds are everywhere: the car radio, podcasts and music on smartphones accessible anytime and anyplace, 24/7 cable news creating a false sense of urgency as it aimlessly meanders from story to story, and noise-canceling headphones creating isolation, a source of private noise amongst a sea of noises. Beyond audible sounds, images are everywhere, operating as “visual noise.” Red Crow Marketing estimates that the average consumer sees somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements per day. Facebook and Instagram create an even larger proliferation of images through pictures and videos. This is a particularly insidious aspect of social media because of the neural effects it has on its consumers. In Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, Shane Hipps argues:
“[I]mage culture dramatically shapes the way we think. It also determines what we think about. Images are not well-suited to articulate arguments, categories, or abstractions. They are far better suited for presenting impressions and experiences…the flickering mosaic of pixelated light re-patterns neural pathways in the brain. These new pathways are simply opposed to the pathways for reading, writing, and sustained concentration. The television image is extraordinarily stimulating to the brain and not in a healthy, ‘this discussion about politics is so stimulating’ way — more like the sugar-is-stimulating-to-the-body way. The televised brain candy we consume doesn’t develop — or even require — any mental capacity” (77-78).
It can be argued that we become what we behold, which is why so many of us merely parrot our preferred cable news channel and regurgitate the talking points that consistently pop up in our echo-chamber feeds while viciously reacting to and attacking what seems “out of place” when we see opinions with which we disagree.
Being subject to this onslaught of noise is, to some degree, inevitable due to the times we inhabit. Even if I turn my smartphone off, I am inundated with screens and advertisements while I drive or take the metro and hear music at any store or restaurant. Nevertheless, for Sertillanges, the cruel shackles which constantly bind our attentions with noise must be loosed. “Do you want to do intellectual work?” he asks. “Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile” (xviii). In doing this, one follows the example of Our Lady who refused to rush to hasty conclusions about the events which happened to her and “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; RSV). This is how Christians have historically approached Scripture. Gregory the Great, for instance, compared exegesis to eating. The text must be chewed, its sweetness savored before it is digested and becomes part of the reader. This is true with regard to how we encounter Scripture but it also extends to how we engage all of God’s Truth. Noise does not encourage this cogitation. For that, we must have silence to sit with truth, enjoying its delightfulness as it becomes a part of who we are.
Whether it is auditory sounds or the visual noise of images, social media thwarts our ability to create a quiet zone within ourselves that is the prerequisite to a successful intellectual endeavor. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the market, she raises her voice” (Prov 1:20). The question is which do we heed: the cacophonous din of social media or Wisdom, who speaks in the still, small voice of silence? Choosing silence is further compounded by the fact that noise reverberates and echoes. Even in those moments when the phone is off, the mind creates its own “noise” by anticipating the alerts it might miss while it is sequestered in private study or prayer. So it is not enough merely to remove the self from social media without quieting one’s own heart first. According to Hugh of Saint Victor, the disease universal to humanity is the “wavering heart, unstable and restless” caused by the love of the world (Noah’s Ark I.2). Social media encourages restlessness and instability, which at some level is inculcating a love of the world.
What is the solution to this quandary then? The love of God. Silence is the first step towards that love. Sertillanges says, “It is in the creative Thought that our true being lies, our self in its authentic shape. now this truth of our eternity, which dominates our present and augurs of our future, is revealed to us only in the silence of the soul—that is, in the exclusion of foolish thoughts which lead to a puerile and dissipating indulgence in distraction, in the repression of the murmured suggestions that our disordered passions never weary of uttering” (xx-xxi).
A second vice encouraged by social media is fury. On social media, people are prone to become heated and graceless. The comments section of any post is always a breeding ground for this type of reaction. Instead of well-thought-out critiques, most disagreements are expressed in abrupt, dismissive, or insulting ways. Furthermore, such reactions almost never change minds and almost always entrench ideological opposition. In such moments, the purpose becomes about being right. Identity becomes wrapped up in the argument: I do not accept the argument offered by the other person because I have so conflated my identity with my position and argument that my posture becomes purely defensive. This is not to say that conviction is a vice. Quite the opposite. Conviction is necessary because, without it, we would be malleable in an unhealthy sense, “driven and tossed by the wind” (Jas 1:6). Conviction is good but, like everything else about us, our conviction must be subordinated to the truth.
Sertillanges addresses the temptation towards the type of fury engendered by too many digital encounters. He asks, “Are we perhaps ourselves exposed to the temptation of disparaging, envying, unjustly criticizing others, of disputing with them? We must then remember that such inclinations, which disturb and cause dissension, injure eternal truth and are incompatible with devotion to it” (xxiii-xxiv). While eternal truth is not actually changed by our rejection of it in an objective sense, it is subjectively harmed insofar as we remain in ignorance and fail to be transformed by it. The seed that fell on rocky soil in the Parable of the Sower was just as much seed as that which fell on fertile ground. Failure to implant and germinate reveals more about the soil than the seed. So it is with us. Dissension and disputation which come from a failure to embrace the truth are reflective of the restless heart discussed above by Hugh.
Instead of policing others through internet shouting matches, Sertillanges offers an alternative. “Severity with oneself, so favorable to rightness of thought, so helpful in safeguarding it against the thousand dangers of research, is heroism. How can one plead guilty and be glad of one’s condemnation without a boundless love for truth that gives judgment?” (xxv). It is far better to turn the spotlight of criticism inward toward the self than outward toward others, particularly on social media. Am I thinking to the best of my ability? What are the weaknesses or flaws in my position? What research do I need to do to have a credible opinion on this topic? These are all starting points that are infinitely more productive than social media squabbles. This is an intellectual act of self-immolation whereby the self is sacrificed for the sake of the Truth and, in so doing, the intellectual appropriates the crucicentric pattern of sacrifice by our Great High Priest into the intellectual vocation.
Third, a corollary to the unhealthy attachment we place on positions and arguments which produce fury is vanity. Vanity manifests itself in an inability to take criticism and an impulse to lash out at disagreements. Sertillanges observes, “The jingling bells of publicity tempt only frivolous minds. Ambition offends eternal truth subordinating truth to itself. Is it not a sacrilege to play with the questions that dominate life and death, with mysterious nature, with God — to achieve some literary or philosophical celebrity at the expense of the true and independently of the true?” (6). Tish Harrison Warren has written about this in Christianity Today, pointing out that the internet has led to platform building that regularly rewards those who genuinely do not have qualifications to speak on given topics and lack a larger accountability structure.
Social media encourages a ruthless regimen of self-promotion. Sharing an opinion becomes not so much an opportunity for ideological advancement as self-exaltation for recognition (I.e. the like button). Our culture is one of instant celebrity, paired with a negative view of authority which emboldens many to speak on what they are probably not qualified to address, reflecting narcissistic tendencies. Going back to the above point, in being silent, one practices self-control and humility. Silence conveys a love of Truth. Sertillanges rightly claims, “A sure devotion to the true, without personal passion, without loss of balance, is the corrective of excess…Truth serves only its slaves” (xxvi, 4). In silence, we learn a type of detachment that frees us to serve the Truth.
Perhaps this argument is overly Luddite. It may also be that I am projecting my own self-diagnosis onto the way social media tends to operate. It should certainly be admitted that technology and social media have their benefits. Yet social media does present us with many challenges which, if left unchecked, can make the intellectual life a hard one. In Sertillanges’ framework, the intellectual reaches their goal not necessarily via the academy but through a self-sacrificial love of the Truth. Where there is noise, they practice silence; where there is fury, they practice detachment; where there is vanity, they practice humility before Truth. Sertillanges’ holistic vision of the intellectual is a helpful corrective to the excesses of a social media-driven culture. We would all do well to follow his advice: “Rest in quiet certainty…plunge every day of your life into the spring which quenches and yet ever renews your thirst” (11).