July 1, 2016

A Society of Sight-Seers

(The below is intended as a lengthy ramble - enjoy, and feel free to comment! )
Supposing himself strong enough to despise whatever he saw and to conquer it, he opened his eyes. He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator in his body, whose fall had caused the roar. The shouting entered by his ears and forced open his eyes. Thereby it was the means of wounding and striking to the ground a mind still more bold than strong, and the weaker for the reason that he presumed on himself when he ought to have relied on you. As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were  riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in the murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure.  - St. Augustine, Confessions, Book VI
Acedia creates a void that we try to fill with transient rushes of pleasure—primarily venereal pleasure—to ward off the ennui of life bereft of its very center. But the simulacra that promise the rushes of pleasure we seek betray us. They cannot fill the void created by the loss of our transcendent calling to the love and friendship of God. Rather, they only increase the craving to fill the void we cannot fill, breeding compulsion and intensifying spiritual apathy, thereby encouraging acedia’s most dangerous shoot to spring forth: despair. - Reinhard Hutter, Pornography and Acedia, First Things
Acedia may, in fact, be THE deadly sin of our modern times. Hutter, after Aquinas and others, notes that:
This roaming unrest of the spirit takes initial shape in another vice, one hardly recognized as such anymore, because modernity all too often confuses it with intellectual inquisitiveness: vain curiosity, or the lust of the eyes. Fueled by ennui and ressentiment and elicited by the roaming unrest of the spirit, vain curiosity takes the first allegedly innocent step that all too soon leads to the regular, then habituated, and eventually compulsive practice of pornographic voyeurism.
However, while Hutter focuses specifically on pornography, his article carries broader implications for our entire society. Recently, on the First Things blog, Mark Movesesian posted on "The Smartphone and the Virgin" - his thoughts on a giant advertising poster attached to the back of the Santa Maria dei Miracoli church in Rome. In doing so, he mused:
For the Smartphone suggests infinity: infinite connectedness and infinite possibility. There is always another email or text, another person whose status we can check, another subject we can look up....There is always another app to download, another site to check for updates, another game to play....The Smartphone represents the limitless potential for escape. No wonder it seems, in its way, a kind of drug....The Smartphone doesn’t offer real access to eternity, only a distraction that allows us to avoid focusing on eternity. Yet, as Pascal observed, we are always on the lookout for such distractions, and the escape the Smartphone offers us is extremely attractive.
Movesesian references a post by Patricia Snow, in which she relates another woman's struggles with autistic children and the overweening use of smartphones. In what must be a classic portrayal of the effects of acedia and technology in our lives, Snow relates the results of an experiment:
Inevitably, in some of our young people especially,we are reaping deficits in emotional intelligence and empathy; loneliness, but also fears of unrehearsed conversations and intimacy; difficulties forming attachments but also difficulties tolerating solitude and boredom. In an already famous experiment conducted at the University of Virginia in which student subjects were asked to sit alone for a brief time without a device or a book, many students—though they insisted at the outset that they would not—chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan, in a hilarious bit on McDonald's, mocks those who mock those who eat at McDonald's. "You may never have set foot in McDonald's," he says, "but you have your own McDonald's. Maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read US Weekly."

Given all of this, it does not require much additional imagination to see that much of our modern lives, from pornography to online dating to the "Internet Outrage Machine," is driven by acedia, and by the desire to avoid the loneliness for God that is at our core. Witness a quick sampling of Yahoo! "news" and "opinion" stories which seem (an almost laughably) obvious listing of things which are simply distraction. For instance, this list from today:

  • "The Day My Husband and I Got Divorced Was One of Our Most Romantic Moments"
  • Women Crowned "Miss Hitler 2016" At Disturbing Neo-Nazi Pageant
  • 5 Reasons People Share Way Too Many Details of Their Personal Lives (Ed: Ironic!)
  • Taylor Swift's Style Changes with Every Guy She Dates
  • Kristin Bell Supportively Opens Up About Husband Dax Shepherd's Addictions
There are, of course, what one might consider "legitimate" news stories interspersed here, but the feed is set up to encourage voyeurism - to encourage the addiction to spectacle and distraction. St. Augustine's report on the effect of the games on Alypius, excerpted at the top, applies equally well to the catching of the eyes and distraction via modern technology.

This is not to say that all technology use is negative. Facebook, for instance, provides both a stimulating distraction in scrolling through friend's activities (and other people who are not friends), and a good way to keep up with one's own community, family, and friends. However, quite often, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, YouTube, etc., provide an escape from dealing with the loneliness inherent in life, from focus and attention to God. C.S. Lewis, even prior to the introduction of much technology, noted the tendency of modern society to encourage idle chatter and distraction. He noted in The Weight of Glory that: "We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” Similarly, in Christian Reflections, he noted that the best way to avoid God is to:
Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you'd be safer to stick to the papers. You'll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal.
How much truer now, when the entire focus of distraction tends to be the creation of grievances - if not one's one, then one is encouraged to take up the grievances of others, and to express outrage at real or manufactured ills. Witness the woman who posts about a rude comment which was made concerning her attire - immediately, articles about the problems of "fat shaming" in society, designed to stir outrage and anger, cropped up. The anonymous rude commentator has, interestingly, been turned into a scapegoat. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, discussing the theories of philosopher Rene Girard, states in this regard:
Girard calls this process ‘scapegoating’....The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships. However, Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat...; rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.
Scapegoating is the mechanism by which much of the internet outrage machine works, I think. People feel upset or lonely or self-conscious, and, lacking the mechanism to meditate and reflect on their own feelings, seek someone else to blame. Anonymous or "internet" people work the best - it is simultaneously someone to blame for one's own feelings, and be safe in saying whatever one wants to "vent." Occasionally, this takes the form of destroying another's life or livelihood (witness the Brendan Eich fiasco), via name-calling, shaming, or otherwise targeting an individual in some fashion. It almost takes the form of a cultural disease - a sort of emotional co-dependence, where one's worth is defined by the amount of outrage one can muster about some occurrence, often one which does not actually affect the outraged individual directly - only gives a sort of feeling of emotional superiority.

One can witness this at work in the way our society treats believing Christians in the public square. Increasingly, laws and rulings are aligned in such a way that one cannot be a believing Christian in certain fields, and expect to be employed and permitted to follow one's beliefs. The recent Supreme Court refusal to grant certiorari to a Washington state pharmacist who did not wish to dispense burth control, but would be forced to do so by Washington law is an example. The pharmacist will likely be forced to choose between employment and belief. This was the case even though the State concended that the belief was no impediment to a woman receiving the contraception elsewhere. Christians, similarly to when Augustine wrote "City of God," are viewed as scapegoats for the failure of modern projects (such as perfect birth control / family planning) and thus, must be targeted and removed. That this is the case is shown in that the Courts uphold such laws, even though the effect of permitting the Christian to act in accordance with believe is minimal or nonexistent. So long as Christians continue to act in accordance with belief, they will prove scapegoats for secular societies' failures.

Such scapegoating will keep society from civil war for a time. Those who cheer such actions such as the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the Washington State case view it as an instance on the march to "complete equality" of the sexes...the march of progress. However, what happens when Christians are completely forced out of the way, and progress still doesn't materialize? Strife will have fewer and fewer outlets, and fewer and fewer people will be available to blame for one's own feelings. In that instance, society will finish the process of dissolution, and violence will break out.

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