June 29, 2010
Plato warned that books posed a danger to his culture. Dead words would replace the living presence of a teacher and separate information from the informer.
His worries were not groundless. Changes in technology are good, but the way we do something can also impact the message. Though I could have listened on my iPod with greater convenience, yesterday I went to a theater and heard Bach's funeral mass in B minor. Being there, sitting in that London hall, produced an authentic and intense experience that is not ear-buddable.
A good teacher can adjust his presentation to his students, but a book cannot. A wise mentor can fit the information he gives to the capacity of the student, refusing to give out data that his protégé cannot bear.
Books could not replace the intimate attention that Plato himself had received from Socrates.
Of course, books preserve information in ways that personal education could not. Texts allowed for a community of scholars to exist over time . . . without as great a loss of information and experience. Books are not bad, after all, but different.
The problem is when we don't recognize the difference.
This same problem applies to the use of new technology to disseminate information. If all we wish to convey is information and our immediate reactions, then new tools, such as blogs and twitter, are blessings.
I am glad that World Cup scores are delivered to my phone while I travel. My phone cannot match being at a match, however, for good and bad. The sun of South Africa, the joy of fellow fans, and the deafening sounds of the vuvuzela are all missing. When all I want is the result, my phone is good enough, but sometimes a fan has to go.
This is even more true about the biggest human events. Humans cannot be baptized with online water, because we are not just minds, but bodies. Only a coward breaks up with an email, because some news deserves eye-to-eye contact.
Death is such an event. It is physical and spiritual. A man created in the image of God has passed through the greatest and final challenge. Cultures that debase this event, debase their own humanity. The death of any human being is an awful thing. It is momentous and sacred. Reporting on it requires thought, compassion, and a human touch.
This is why it was wrong for a government official to "tweet" the news of an execution. Twitter can convey information and the writer's immediate feelings, but any death, especially one sanctioned by the state, demands more seriousness.
Dostoevsky wrote a novel on crime and punishment, but evidently Utah could not muster three hundred words. The convict and the community deserve the best thoughts our officials have on these topics and not the raw unfiltered data alone. The moment of death is too momentous and the readers are too various to allow for such broadcasting without greater care than a twitter feed allows.
It is not that the technology is new, but that this use of it is inappropriate. Older cultures could have produced public hangings with play-by-play from the hangman, but few were barbaric enough to do so.
There is a reason that Lincoln hand wrote letters to many widows in the Civil War. Shouldn't the awful announcement announcing a death in battle always come from and with a serviceman? Newspapers could publish casualty lists with names sooner than they do, but they know that no human should find out about the death of a friend from the same paper that will soon line the bird cage.
Twitter is worse . . . rawer and more thoughtless. The executed man had relatives and a right to dignity, even at the end. This was stripped from him as a state official gave us not his best, considered thought, but raw information and emotion stripped of reflection.
The problem with twittering a death is evident in one foolish reaction to the Utah case.
A few extreme secularists, of the Know-Nothing sort, worried about the use of religious language in the tweets about the execution. Evidently the fact that an American in Utah is likely to think about God when he witnesses the death of another human is shocking to these folk. Centuries of Western prayers that "the Lord God have mercy on the soul of the condemned" are evidently soon, any time now really, going to lead us to theocracy.
Of course, the United States has always allowed its religious majority freedom to practice civil religion and the Dawkensian fears are groundless. The problem is not the use of civil religious phrases in tweets, but the incivility of twittering a citizen's death. A brutish public religion is dangerous, but because it's practiced by brutes and makes men more bestial. The strength of our civil religion has been its civility. In the hands of great men like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and King, the words of our civil religion called on our better natures.
They embedded calls for divine mercy in careful arguments. Twitter embedded those words in discussions of Lady Gaga.
Twittering man's death using the grand old phrases created with care in English courtrooms and American practice debases the language and the ideas behind them. There are words that should be used with care by our officials and twittering them "live" is a kind of public blasphemy.
One should not use the Hallelujah Chorus to sell soap, the David to sell jeans, or the grand phrases of our civil religion for personal tweets. Of course, any American has the right to do so, but that does not mean he is right if he does.
Every technology has temptations, but the problem is not the technology, but men too unreflective, too inhumane, and too badly uneducated to use it well. Let's leave twitter for that which is tweetable, such as American Idol. When it comes to life and death, we demand our public figures reflect, process, and use language with care, in a manner suitable to the event. Tweeting our great events? Washington couldn't, Obama wouldn't, and American officials shouldn't. A culture that debases its language and its sacred things, whether flag or rhetoric, risks becoming a culture for which no sane man would die. It is difficult to ask a man to die for Twitter nation.
This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.