Social Significance

Sitting in a hospital room for several days as a patient companion in forced isolation from routine activities affords one boundless opportunities for interaction with electronic devices. I caught up with the lives of people I once saw frequently, but now because of distance and circumstance I know only vicariously through images and interaction with “likes” and snippets. It makes me feel connected on one level but more distant on another. On one hand I love being able to know what is happening with far off friends, their pictures and posts depicting the high points of life. On the other hand, it seems the recent adversarial atmosphere of our society has prompted more shares of cute videos and innocuous drivel, sprinkled with a few statements of opinion (which must be carefully considered so as to be ‘safe’). There seem to be more posts and reposts that are seeking to persuade me about a particular issue and less thoughtful and polite sharing of ideas and opinion about said issues. I myself also post and repost ideas that seem profound to me, hoping that they will be helpful to my ‘friends’ as well, but I often feel rather mercenary, using others to promote ideas. And it is like a snowball rolling down a hill – the more you interact the more you “need” to check likes, responses, etc. Rather than stimulating the mind, my emotions are now engaged to see if I have support. There are now news stories reporting alarm about the negative social effects of this obsession. While social media does serve a purpose and opens avenues for interaction with people, virtual interchange is demonstrably addictive – a concern for even those in Silicon Valley. They invent and facilitate the very medium that they limit for their own children. It is artificial, and I cannot help but think that we are being programmed socially to increasing isolation and entrenchment in our own opinions. I wonder if there is a connection to this and the extreme polarization of our society. Power is seductive, and media is used to procure it.

Observe that at a point in history which has enabled information and instant communication, the pervasive popular application of said technology has been to “social” media, which promotes the fantasized version of one’s reality. Behind the keyboard you can be whoever you want. Anonymity emboldens. It disguises. And it deceives. Your e-companions interact with your ideas and perceived opinions without any idea whether or not these reflect your actual behavior. What we depict might be worlds away from what we live, and without a trusted person-to-person community as a reality check, we might begin to believe we are that fantasy image of ourselves. So even on a personal level the effects are profound! It is easy to adopt a web persona, be validated for it with endorphin-inducing ‘likes’, meanwhile atrophying as an actual human.

Our time is cancered by mindless checking, rechecking posts – measuring our opinions and worth by the movement of the herd – which is being chuted like cattle into group think. “Significance” morphs into “selfies” and we trade individuality for conformity. But what’s not to like? Posting something that the algorithms have promoted as important can get you the positive thumbs up that makes you feel good about yourself- whether or not you are merely a pawn to promote an approved narrative. If somebody makes you feel bad about your opinions you can hide their posts or just defriend them – all legitimate options in certain situations – a non-verbal rebuke in a difficult situation. A far cry from “Go to them…” as prescribed by Jesus. It is such a seductive superficiality and yet we participate to stay connected. Responsible communication is possible, of course, but there is significant danger of a false measure of our substantive value as a person. We love to compare!! And our lives usually don’t seem as glamorous as others’ – especially their fantasy portrayals.

One measure of the effects of this kind of superficial society is the anger and defensiveness that has become the hallmark of our culture. There seems to be such a short fuse and disagreements go to the extremes. Associations define us more than our true individual identity. You can make one ‘wrong’ post, and you are now a horrible person because that cause, person, organization (or even dress) is not on the approved list. What kind of person must I be to think about something a little differently? Horrible I guess!

The struggle for all of us is to embrace who we are, not depending on being validated by the opinion of others (which also prevents me from being a servant of Christ). As a believer, I can turn to the One Who formed me, and let Him affirm my worth and correct my missteps. This is not an easy, painless task. But if more of us were satisfied with ourselves and dependent on God’s ‘likes’, there would be less aggression that insists on uniformity and less intimidation accompanying our differences. For this radical endeavor, we need to do the hard work of tuning in to One Who can not only validate us, but dignify us with eternal significance. That is certainly a better use of our time!!

“The thief comes with the sole intention of stealing and killing and destroying, but I came to bring them life, and far more life than before. I am the good shepherd.” –Jesus

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