“One of the salient features of the modern world is the growing interdependence of men one on another, a development promoted chiefly by modern technological advances. Nevertheless brotherly dialogue among men does not reach its perfection on the level of technical progress, but on the deeper level of interpersonal relationships. These demand a mutual respect for the full spiritual dignity of the person. Christian revelation contributes greatly to the promotion of this communion between persons, and at the same time leads us to a deeper understanding of the laws of social life which the Creator has written into man’s moral and spiritual nature.” – Gaudium et Spes (December 7, 1965)
Reading this document, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t written a month or two ago. The understanding that dialogue isn’t improved by technical progress but by deeper interpersonal relationships is a frequent discussion in news articles and blog posts. In this time of text messages, emails, and social media, we can certainly say we have progressed in terms of technology but have we progressed in interpersonal relationships? I’m not so sure. I see many people who engage in monologues on social media, whether it be for political or religious purposes. People spend more time defining and defending their views than listening to others, which essentially eliminates the social from the term “social media.”
This climate of the monologue can lead people to surround themselves with only likeminded followers. The danger in this is that such behavior has the potential to amplify selfishness, racism, classism, homophobia, anti-religious attitudes and xenophobia. I’ve seen families and friendships torn apart by political arguments that started online. I’ve seen religious apologists who, rather than offer education and/or gentle repudiation of error, choose to condemn and demean those who have differing views, thereby all but guaranteeing they will win few new followers to their cause and more likely will alienate many.
At the same time, social media has the potential for good. I’ve seen GoFundMe accounts raise money for cancer treatments and other medical bills. Acts of kindness campaigns have taken off. Grass roots campaigns that would have had a much harder time spreading the word now grow overnight. I’ve also seen religious figures use social media to educate, encourage and start open discussions. The Slate Project’s #SlateSpeak is a personal favorite of mine for asking tough questions, sparking social justice discussions and encouraging action.
So how does all this digital interaction impact the dignity of the human person? It is possible to use social media to build the kind of interpersonal relationships that deepen our appreciation for other points of view and for social groups other than our own. This is the kind of deeper understanding that can overcome discrimination in all its forms. This is what can lead people to move beyond online posturing to actually working within their communities to meet the needs of the most vulnerable amongst us. Online connections can lead to in-person connections. In this way, the barriers, both real and imagined, between “us” and “them” can crumble. Granted, that is a hopeful, some would say idealistic, outlook. The same digital interaction can deepen paranoia and radical views of all types. It can spread hate and violence just as easily as love and understanding. It will depend on whether we choose to deepen the sense of brotherhood of all mankind or dig trenches for our own like social group. If we’re going to reach out to others, we have to put down our shovels first.