by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ
Pope’s Prayer Intention, November 2018.
In the Service of Peace. That the language of love and dialogue may always prevail over the language of conflict.
This is an intention well-suited to the age of Twitter and other forms of social media. There seems to be evidence that these new technologies somehow encourage people to verbalise their coarser, less worthy thoughts, often with disastrous consequences for relationships. Maybe it’s because we haven’t got used to them yet. We haven’t developed ways to bite our tongues, as it were, when we are on our devices. Hence, the language of conflict can get out there more easily and be widely disseminated in viral fashion. Careers can end; people can self-destruct; relationships can collapse because of a few words which are harsh or vulgar or racist and which were tweeted in a moment of loss of self-control.
Young people, who are unable to envisage a world without social media, can be the victims of cyber-bullying in which the language of extreme violence can crush their young and delicate souls at a time when they should be shielded from such realities of our human condition. I frequently thanks God that I grew up in a world without Facebook.
One doesn’t want to blame technology for all our interpersonal failures, but unless we make positive efforts to become aware of the pitfalls that come with their use, it seems to me that we will continue to put ourselves in danger of serious conflict. A less obvious example is motor car technology. Some people are almost another person behind the wheel of a car. Why is it that when I am cut off from my fellow road-users in my private car that I can become so enraged with them in a way that would rarely happen if I was on foot and meeting them face to face? But all the time one reads of otherwise perfectly respectable people completely losing it in a road rage incident and sometimes the shouting and screaming and rude gesturing leads to violence and even death. It does seem to be the fact that one is shielded in a shell of steel and that the meetings with others are probably going to be superficial and fleeting that is the dangerous factor here. In this way the problems are not so different from the smartphone – isolation and superficiality.
With the car we don’t even have the excuse of it being a new technology that we haven’t yet got used to. The problem is a problem of the awareness of ‘the occasion of sin’ that this isolation and lack of proper human contact create. Do we get this? The fact is that driving a car, especially today in our heavy and stressful traffic, requires a level of awareness and self-control that strikes me as being of a spiritual order. Perhaps one has to be a bit of a saint to drive today. Food for thought for drivers given to irritation with their brothers and sisters on the road.
The dangers for individuals with their devices or behind the wheels of their cars are hugely magnified when it comes to politicians and the geo-political order. The American President has become a byword for intemperance in the Twittersphere. If the stories of him watching different new channels into the night and firing off comments about world events and world leaders, and firing very much from the hip and without consulting his advisors, is a cause for real concern. The international shouting match between Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un is very much the language of conflict. The fact that the Twitterstorm became so personal and that both countries have nuclear weapons made the world a jittery place last year.
Commentators frequently say that our discourse is becoming rougher and more violent today. I am not sure about that or whether one can even make a judgement about it. What is fairly clear is that the technologies which are now simply part of lour lives may make it less easy to restrain ourselves from letting fly with violent language. The good news is that we can use the same technologies to communicate with the language of dialogue and love. Tweets can be positive and uplifting, and often are. Courteous drivers can make way for one another and signal their appreciation for each other’s consideration.
Where sin abounds, grace does even more abound.
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