A couple of years ago I wrote a blog entry for my employer’s website entitled Why I am Slightly Uneasy About Social Media. In it I argued that social media has a habit of playing on our desires for self-disclosure with the other without bringing about the fulfilment of these desires. Whilst, yes, this does make me uneasy, (and does perhaps constitute the foundation for what I am about to discuss) the real reason for my distaste of social media is this:
That is me, in 2010, having put on blackface to a youth event which was “T” themed. I decided that it would be funny to go as Tiger Woods about a year after the scandal surrounding his infidelity. This was uploaded to Facebook shortly after the event by someone else’s account and has, since, then, permanently been on the internet for (pretty much) all to see. Whilst the intention wasn’t to be racist and offensive, an older, wiser Anthony now realises that blackface is traditionally considered both these things, particularly in light of its history of denigration of black people. Whilst it wasn’t intended to make fun of black people and rather was meant to be a surface level display of absurdity as appearing to be a poor imitation of another race (particularly in the light of the plainly obvious fact that I am not black), it was certainly a poor choice.
Was it funny at the time? People seemed to think so (including, to my recollection, various individuals of African descent who simply thought it was silly). As such the audience of my activity didn’t seem to indicate that it was offensive – but of course my contextual awareness was incredibly narrow as a 17-year-old. Would it have been funny to a different audience? Probably not. Do I wish I had done it? No – I wish I was a bit more aware of how taboo this sort of activity is, and I wish someone had told me beforehand. Would I change it if I could? Sure. It does function as a permanent blot on my record, and will forever be associated with my internet presence. I think that, however, there is a valuable lesson to be learned in here somewhere, something which I in particular have to be reminded of.
The lesson, I think, is this: humility found in the remembrance of one’s past sins.
Social Media as the Public Archive of my Sinfulness:
In my short time in Orthodoxy I have come to learn that we place a great emphasis upon remembering one’s past sins, not in the sense of being crushed by the guilt and iniquity of the bad things we have done, but as reminders of what we have been saved from in Christ’s mercy. St John of Kronstadt writes, for instance,
“Remembering a sin we have committed does not mean that the sin has not been forgiven. This remembrance of our sins is only a warning to us lest we become proud and sin again.”
Likewise, in the Orthodox funeral service, the prayers said within prayed on behalf of the recently reposed and for the congregation present. In them they ask for mercy and the forgiveness of sins of for both parties. Repeating a refrain from Psalm 119 (118 in Orthodox Bibles), the chanters say:
“Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes.
You Who of old did fashion me out of nothingness, and with Your Image divine did honor me; but because of transgression of Your commandments did return me again to the earth where I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness.
Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes.
Image am I of Your unutterable glory, though I bear the scars of my stumblings. Have compassion on me, the work of Your hands, O Sovereign Lord, and cleanse me through Your loving-kindness; and the homeland of my heart’s desire bestow on me by making me a citizen of Paradise.”
The idea here, of course, being that the sins we commit are in some sense akin to semi-permanent disfigurements of our being. Though the wounds are closed and healed over, they evidence of their damage still remains. A line such as this no doubt conjures images of our own sins and its effect on us to this day, no matter how distantly committed in the past. Our sins, though through the grace of Christ in the life of the Church are healed and mortified, they stay with us in a permanent sense – as reminders of the pain and damage that they caused. They are visible to the individual who committed them and to those who were affected by it.
I think, then, the images of scars serves as a double metaphor in the context I am discussing – particularly as it pertains to social media. What may have traditionally been seen as relatively private, isolated perhaps to a local community, the social media revolution has publicised comments, photos and actions, which though made in a particular context, are now available to the whole world to see. It means my stupidity from years back is now broadcast to the world, and I will have to live with everyone seeing me at, perhaps, my most shameful. If my earlier suggested thesis is correct, that we are stuck in a positive feedback loop of making content, being commoditised, and pursuing the dopamine hit of electronic social acceptance, we have the makings of either a self-destructive and crippling cycle, or the beginnings of a way through to repentance. In the former, we have now created a generation of individuals who, seeking connection, have been incentivised to stupidity – to amplify their self-interest and self-obsession in a way that all can see, only to have their stupidity to come back and bite them at every turn, professionally, personally or otherwise. Particularly considering the phenomenon of virtue signalling – the showing of one’s moral bona fides through public condemnation or appraisal of certain movements, people or ideas on social media or other contexts in order to gain approval (which in and of itself is a move brought on by the amplification of self-interest) – this is certain to happen.
Of course, the converse side of that is that people are forced to repent. The sin which normally would only have been seen in the eyes of God (or by very few) has been made available for all to see because public sinning has been incentivised. Once the world has turned on you, it seems that ones only remaining hope might be to turn to God in repentance, over and over – to develop and continue to develop humility as a result of one’s past mistakes. Of course, not all will genuinely be humbled or repent as of a public outcry (after all, insincere Hollywood apologies do exist). But perhaps there is some good in having one’s own faults on display for all to see. I have been incentivised to think myself as funny as possible, as intelligent as possible, as “Christian” as possible, and to publicised this explicitly or implicitly, all as an act of stroking my own ego and pride, and to reassure myself of my own worth, and wrongfully I find myself believing it. In its reality it is simply an act of self-deception, an attempt to convince myself that I like myself more than I do, pandering to the masses to gain their acceptance, and to manipulate them into viewing them how I wish to be perceived. And these thinly veiled attempts of mass delusion – these cries for attention – are public and plain for all to see for what they really are: the online postings of an idiot teenager and eventual young adult who thinks he is funnier than he is, smarter than he is and more profound than he is. The emperor has no clothes, and all can see your embarrassing glory. I would hope this would make me humble. Perhaps not just yet – if this blog is evidence of anything, it is that my self-aggrandisement knows no bounds. After all, this whole write-up could well be the very selfsame activity in self-promotion through the aforementioned virtue signalling.
And so, to draw my musings to a conclusion, perhaps social media can be a good thing, provided I am granted mercy. My sinfulness has been exacerbated by it, but it seems in hindsight that the public record of my youthful embarrassment is available for all to see, and my own foibles are plain for all to see. I realise (at least to some degree) that all can see through me for who I really am – someone wanting attention and love like anybody else but looking for it in the wrong places.
Lord have mercy on me – though I bear the scars of my stumblings, have compassion on me and return me to the image of thine unutterable glory, O Sovereign Lord, and cleanse me through Your loving-kindness; and bestow on me the homeland of my heart’s desire by making me a citizen of Paradise.