So: Are We Hypocrites?

by Susan McWilliams on June 16, 2009 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Front Porch Technology

Claremont, CA. A student has confronted me about Front Porch Republic. So now  I’m writing the post that I’ve known I would have to write someday.

“It just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that you would do,” she said. “You don’t like technology or online communities.”

She’s fairly right about that. I do a good impression of a Luddite.

My students know that I value face-to-face interaction, neighborliness, locally owned business, and strong place-based communities. I do not value these things because I have a simple nostalgia for the past. I value these things because I believe that the health of any political community – and the health of any political community with commitments to democracy and self-governance in particular – depends on them. I value these things because I believe they contribute to individual flourishing – and not just because people with more in-person friendships tend to live longer, although they do.

And I believe that in a society dominated and mediated by screens, a society in which we communicate through an unfathomable grid of cables and airwaves, it is all too easy to lose appreciation for these things. When our lives operate in such vast latitudes, it is easy to discount or disparage things that are smaller scale. It is easy to mistake the Internet’s illusion of intimacy for the real thing. Staying glued to screens and plugged-in to soundtracks makes it easier to ignore the people who live with us and around us.

I also believe that the constant din of technology makes it harder to think. I liked the way Bob Herbert made that argument in his commencement address at Pomona this year: “One of the essential problems of our society is that we’re losing sight of what is human in ourselves. We’re quick to go to war, and quicker to attend to our technological imperatives, and quickest of all at forgetting the truly human needs that are all around us. And that includes our own individual needs–those very special, mostly non-material things that would fulfill us, give meaning to our lives, enlarge us and enable us to embrace those around us.” He went on:  I don’t think we can stay in touch with our song by constantly Twittering or tweeting, or thumbing out messages on our Blackberries, or piling up virtual friends-trophies–on Facebook. The time wasted sending a hundred emails about nothing could be time spent holding one person’s hand.”

These kinds of commitments put me right in line with most of the people who write for Front Porch Republic. But that fact raises the very serious questions: Why on earth would a bunch of people committed to place and limits and local communities choose as their venue the Internet – the placeless, seemingly limitless, global Internet? Isn’t there a fundamental duplicity there, or at least a troubling pretense? Couldn’t we dismiss Front Porch Republic - on those grounds alone – as the theoretical blather of an intellectual elite that wants people to do as we say, not live as we live?

Some people think so, and I’m glad they’ve said it. (For the record, I have special fondness for one line – “no time to Xerox your syllabus when the hogs need to be slopped” – issued in criticism of a post on this website.)

I won’t try to answer those broader questions and criticism here, although I encourage others to do that tackling. In the meantime, I do think that I should speak to my own participation as a contributing editor of FPR.

The truth is that I joined FPR because friends asked me to do it. They convinced me that this was a worthy enterprise, that at least discussing these ideas and questions among people who spend time on the Internet was better than not discussing them at all.

I’ve tried to come up with more than that, but nothing else strikes me as true. Reminding technological people in a technological age that technology can’t do everything – including some really important things – is probably a worthwhile task. And my friends asked me.

Any explanation beyond that would be, for me, too much rationalization and blather. So I stop there and take temporary leave from the Internet, which probably we should all do, at least from time to time.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Nicole D June 16, 2009 at 6:52 am

If there is a bit of hypocrisy implicit in this enterprise, I thank you for doing it anyway. I know that my own thoughts about the relationship between the online world and those around me have been enriched by what I’ve read on FPR. Also, people who desire to think and act locally are hard to find sometimes. Having a place like this to stop and read and think makes me feel like I’m not so crazy to be spending my time and money trying to be financially and socially present in my community.

avatar Bob Cheeks June 16, 2009 at 7:41 am

Susan, delightful essay.
The question of technology might be settled, in this instance, by the utility of this particular application to, at the very least, help determine the nature of the modern polis in the face of the possible collapse of civic order.
One of the purposes of the FPR, as I understand it, is to engage in a rigorous dialectic in the hope of determining the form of governance best suited to man.
Given the recent rise of pro-statist essays/blogs, as well presented as they always are, prompts the question: Is this merely an example of free speech, which is highly commendable, or does this indicate the philosophical trajectory of this delightful website?

And, I truly miss the acerbic observations of the beloved misanthrope, D. W. Sabin! Dude……..!

avatar Carolyn Steele June 16, 2009 at 7:43 am

In this day and age, the places to gather with like (and unlike as well!) minds for long discourse are hard to find. To actually have discovered people who politely discuss deep and often conflicting points of view, ethics, and responsible morality is a wonderful thing. But no need to feel that the Internet as that forum is hypocritical – merely use it as the tool it is to help people expand their conversations. I am a lurker on many blogs, not so much for the initial post setting out a single point, but for the comments that open up consideration of differing points, and as the debate goes back and forth, I am given knowledge to help me frame my own position. That’s the true gift of this medium.

avatar freddy June 16, 2009 at 8:53 am

If you believe the Internet is the Fruit Of The Beast, you’re a hypo. If you think the Internet has some utility that ought to be subject to personal limits prescribed by The Good Life, what’s the problem?

avatar Empedocles June 16, 2009 at 9:35 am

It certainly seems you can read books written by people in other places and still be for localism and still have real friends and family. I don’t think FPR is much different than reading a book. The only difference is the comments system. I think that the virtual networking and virtual friends aspects of the Internet is different though.

avatar JD Salyer June 16, 2009 at 10:44 am

I’m afraid I have little patience with the “You’re A Hypocrite!” argument myself.

For defenders of the status quo, it is strikingly convenient: “We make a world in which it is increasingly difficult to survive without e-mail, Blackboard, and other such technologies; you should either A.) accept that world and shut up, or B.) crawl off into a hole somewhere so we don’t have to listen to you.”

Not being a Luddite, I am inclined in the end to agree with freddy. The problem is not technology itself — human beings have *always* had technology — but the utterly uncritical enthusiasm with which our culture greets technological innovation.

To ensure we use our technological power wisely as that power increases, our cultural & spiritual restraints which determine how that power is used should grow stronger as well — along with connections to the wisdom of the past which tells us who we are and how we got here.

The current trend, however, seems to be in the exact opposite direction. As we grow more powerful we have grown more careless and deranged.

avatar Anthony June 16, 2009 at 10:48 am

“Why on earth would a bunch of people committed to place and limits and local communities choose as their venue the Internet – the placeless, seemingly limitless, global Internet?”

Certainly you can send letters or write papers and so on which people who aren’t in your local community read, and vice versa? Isn’t the point about coming to a healthy balance in terms of local versus distant and so on?

So I second Freddy and Emp’s comments.

avatar Shannon June 16, 2009 at 3:52 pm

As a staunch hypocrite, I think this is an excellent website and applaud your efforts.

avatar Mark Shiffman June 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm

My reasons for participating in this venture are basically the same as Susan’s, and I think she and I have been the two contributing editors most prone to skip a week here and there.

For me there are two main questions. One is whether choosing to use this medium undermines the message that we all want to communicate. One of the effects of spending time on this site ought to be a desire to spend less time on the internet and at the computer. But at the same time we want the site to be something people want to spend time reading, and we want the writing to be substantial and intelligent enough to make it worth spending time reading. So in some degree we are necessarily at cross purposes with ourselves, while hoping that the overall effect will be salutary.

The other question is whether the time we authors invest in this site is detrimental to our own lives and souls. Again, I know that in my case I am torn between an engagement to contribute content weekly as much as possible and the feeling that by doing so I have been sucked into the blogosphere and out of my contemplative habits and concrete human engagements more than I like.

I suppose my conclusion is that, for the sake of carrying on an often very good conversation and discovering new sympathetic characters and learning from them, we (or at least I) are enduring a certain amount of inconsistency. But consistency has been called the hobgoblin of small minds. Readers must decide for themselves whether that is a realistic response or a cop-out. I have to read my children their bedtime story.

avatar MIchael Morrell June 17, 2009 at 10:35 am

Mark Shiffman said:

“The other question is whether the time we authors invest in this site is detrimental to our own lives and souls. Again, I know that in my case I am torn between an engagement to contribute content weekly as much as possible and the feeling that by doing so I have been sucked into the blogosphere and out of my contemplative habits and concrete human engagements more than I like.”

Here is one of the issues I have with FPR. I really enjoy many of the contributions and the insightful comments. I also appreciate that the postings are not simply link-filled sound bites or simple off-the-top-of-the-head rants. Yet to actually read every post and the following comments would demand a great deal of time away from other, more direct human engagement as well as contemplation.

Why do the editors not consider limiting the number of posts per week? This might benefit both regular readers and the contributors themselves?

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl June 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Susan and others who contribute to this site….

I have enjoyed all of the articles that I’ve read at FPR. Without the website I would not have discovered a wonderful group that shares many of my values. I don’t always respond with a comment.

In centuries past, people joined literary societies or clubs such as the Masons to interact with people of similar interests. Some of these organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.) survive because they are vehicles to carry out the group’s mission statement. This mission of an on-line magazine is to exchange ideas. What better way than the internet?

Perhaps without the internet, a group like the FPR founders, would have created a newsletter or magazine. This endeavor would require a constant influx of money to survive. Much time and money would have been spent and one (dare I say “unlucky”?) person would have the responsibility of editing, transcribing and mailing out the product. The internet has made it possible to have those who participate to do so with a minimum of time and expense.

The internet is a tool available to our generation; nothing more nothing less.

Can we become slaves of our technology? I suppose that is a topic for another article/essay. :)

avatar D.W. Sabin June 22, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Don’t stay away too long, you might catch a dose of that ennui that characterizes the age. One wonders, what happens when the people of the planet ennui run out of ennui ?

Hypocritize at will. If you exhibit a contradictory philosophy, you at least have a philosophy to contradict. I make it a point to contradict myself on a regular basis if for no other reason than to be roundly hooted by my kids and wife …and dog. The King needs to know he’s an asshole as Canute so ably demonstrated…pardon my indelicacies.

As a teacher, you are regularly near students whose chief pleasure in life is to point out hypocritical actions or words and the key is to listen to them, perhaps defend yourself within the bounds of reasonable discretion but to never fade out without a good brawl. If you didn’t surprise them , they’d be Twittering on their little twitterphiliac gadgets instead of listening to you.

Then again, a hiatus from this seductive pox is most conducive to all manner of free-range thinking….and the planting of little seeds of hypocrisy that can grow up into big giant Redwoods of Effulgent Contradiction in the fullness of time. A person who does not contradict themselves is either not saying anything of merit or is too cautious or maybe altogether too damned agreeable to attain any worth of note……

Enjoy your hiatus.

avatar Chris West July 23, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I think that Rousseau confronted this kind of dilemma a while back in his famous letter to d’Alembert. There he confronted the question of whether or not introducing the theatre to virtuous, republican Geneva would be healthy or not. In short, his answer was that it would be corrupting to Geneva but possibly useful for already corrupted Paris. This particular use by you of a technology that has attenuated our relationships is commendable because it is constructive relative to the corruption already taking place. We are definitely in a “Paris” situation, and as they said after the War, “It’s hard to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paris.” We need people to show us Parisians the way back to Geneva, to retrace our steps.

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