I know I’m late to the love fest, but I’ve been under the flu. I read Pope Francis’ Message for World Communication Day when it was issued on Jan. 24, and I only get happier upon re-reading it.
NOTE please that I am outside of my comfort zone in this posting, for two reasons. First, I am not a Christian and I know I may be misreading the Pope’s words. Second, I am going to evaluate and expound on what a Pope says. Chutzpah* has a new poster boy! So, please think of this only as me trying to make personal sense of a message that I find profoundly hopeful. *[The joke this links to is not really about chutzpah, but it's a pretty good joke.]
The first thing to note are the ways the message refuses to go wrong. The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.
But he doesn’t. He sees the Internet as “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” as the post’s subtitle puts it. This is because he views the Internet not within the space of communication, but within the despair of a fragmented world. Not only are there vast inequalities, but these inequalities are literally before our eyes:
Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows. We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.
Traditional media can show us that other world, but we need something more. We need to be unsettled. “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” Pope Francis says, and then adds a remarkable characterization:
This is something truly good, a gift from God.
Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.
This is not the language I would use. I’m an agno-atheistical Jew who lives in solidarity with an Orthodox community. (Long story.) But I think – you can never tell with these cross-tradition interpretations – that the Pope’s words express the deep joy the Internet brings me. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist,” the Pope says in the next paragraph, listing the dangers with a fine concision. But still: The Internet is truly good. Why?
For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences:
If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.
This will change our self-understanding as well, without requiring us to abandon our defining values:
We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.
(This seems to me to be a coded sentence, with meanings not readily apparent to those outside the fold. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding its role in the overall posting.)
The Pope does not shy away from the difficult question this idea raises, and pardon me for having switched the order of the following two sentences:
What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? How…can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?
That is (I think), how can a Catholic engage with others who deny beliefs that the Catholic holds with all the power of faith? (And this is obviously not a question only for Catholics.) The Pope gives a beautiful answer: we should “see communication in terms of ‘neighbourliness’.”
“Communication” as the transferring of meaning is a relatively new term. The Pope’s answer asks us to bring it back from its abstract understanding. Certainly the Pope’s sense takes “communication” out of the realm of marketing that sees it as the infliction of a message on a market. It also enriches it beyond the information science version of communication as the moving of an encoded message through a medium. (Info science of course understands that its view is not the complete story.) It instead looks at communication as something that humans do within a social world:
Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.
From my point of view [more here, here, and here], the problem with our idea of communication is that it assumes it’s the overcoming of apartness. We imagine individuals with different views of themselves and their world who manage to pierce their solitude by spewing out some sounds and scribbles. Communication! But, those sounds and scribbles only work because they occur within a world that is already shared, and we only bother because the world we share and those we share it with matter to us. Communication implies not isolation and difference but the most profound togetherness and sameness imaginable. Or, as I wouldn’t put it, we are all children of G-d.
Then Pope Francis gets to his deeper critique, which I find fascinating: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression…” And “Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.” The primary threat to the Internet, then, is to treat it as if it were a traditional medium that privileges the powerful and serves their interests. Holy FSM!
Pope Francis then goes on to draw the deeper conclusion he has led us to: the threat isn’t fundamentally that the old media will use the Net for their old purposes. The actual threat is considering the Internet to be a communications medium at all. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected’; connections need to grow into true encounters.”
The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.
The most basic image we have of how communication works is wrong: messages do not simply move through media. Rather, in the Pope’s terms, they are acts of engagement. This is clear in face-to-face communication among neighbors, and it seems clear to me on the Net: A tweet that no one retweets goes silent because its recipients have chosen not to act as its medium. A page that no one links to is only marginally on the Web because its recipients have chosen not to create a new link (a channel or medium) that incorporates that page more deeply into the network. The recipient-medium distinction fails on the Net, and the message-medium distinction fails on the Web.
Now, this does not mean that Internet communication is all about people always encountering one another as neighbors. Not hardly. So the Pope’s post then considers how Christians can engage with others on the Net without simply broadcasting their beliefs. Here his Catholic particularity starts to shape his vision in a way that differentiates it from my own. He sees the Internet as “a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,” whereas I would probably have begun with something about joy. (I’m pointing out a difference, not criticizing!)
Given the tension between his belief that faith has a way to alleviate the pain he perceives and his desire for truly mutual engagement, he talks about “Christian witness.” I don’t grasp the nuances of this concept (“We are called to show that the Church is the home of all” – er, no thank you), but I do appreciate the Pope’s explicit contrasting Christian witness with “bombarding people with religious messages.” Rather, he says (quoting his predecessor), it’s about
… our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”
Since that seems to imply (I think) a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing, the new Pope explains that
To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.
The Pope is dancing here. He’s dancing, I believe, because he is adopting the language of communication. If the role of the Catholic is to engage in dialogue, then we are plunged into the problems of the world’s plural beliefs. We western liberals like to think that in an authentic dialogue, both sides are open to change, but the Pope does not want to suggest that Catholics put their faith up for grabs. So, the best he can do is say that the “other’s” viewpoint be “entertained” and treated as worthwhile…although apparently not worthwhile enough to be adopted by the faithful Catholic.
There are two points important for me to make right now. First, I’m not carping about the actual content. This sort of pluralism (or whatever label you want to apply) takes the pressure off a world that simply cannot survive absolutism. So, thank you, Pope Francis! Second, I personally think it’s bunk to insist that for a dialogue to be “authentic” both sides have to be open to change. Such an insistence comes from a misunderstanding about how understanding works. So while I personally would prefer that everyone carry a mental reservation that appends “…although I might be wrong” to every statement,* I don’t have a problem with the Pope’s formulation of what an authentic Christian dialogue looks like. *[I simply don't know the Catholic Church's position on faith and doubt.]
I find this all gets much simpler – you get a nice walk instead of a dance – if you stick with the program announced in the Pope’s post’s subtitle: dethroning communication and putting it into the service of neighborliness. I believe the Pope’s vision of the Net as a place where neighbors can help one another lovingly and mercifully gives us a better way to frame the Net and the opportunity it presents. I assume his talk of “Christian witness” and becoming “a true point of reference for others” also gets around the “dialoguing” difficulty.
In fact, the whole problem recedes if you drop all language of communication from the Pope’s message. For example, when the Pope says the faithful should “dialogue with people today … to help them encounter Christ,” the hairs on my Jewish pate go up; if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s to dialogue with a Christian who wants to help me encounter Christ. Framing the Net as being about communication (or information, for that matter) leads us back into the incompatible ideas of truth we encounter. But if we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.
Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.
That I can say Amen to.
I apologize for I am forcing the Pope’s comments into my own frame of understanding. I am happy to have that frame challenged. I ask only that you take me as, well, your neighbor.
In a note from the opposite end of the spectrum, Eszter Hargittai has posted an op-ed. You probably known Eszter as one of the most respected researchers into the skills required to succeed with the Internet – no, not everyone can just waltz onto the Net and benefit equally from it – and she is not someone who finds antisemitism everywhere she looks. What’s going on in Hungary is scary. Read her op-ed.