A few years ago, a student said to me, “Dr. Coverston, I want to show you something I created. Do you want to see it?” Of course, I always do. “Great, you have to go to Facebook to see it.” So I did, for the very first time only to find out that what the student wanted me to see was protected behind a wall of membership. I had to get a Facebook account to see it.
And so, against my better judgment, I did get a Facebook account. It was worth the trouble. The students’ art was particularly well done and worth seeing.
Then the avalanche of requests to be “friends” arrived.
Frankly, the notion of constructing an online friendship with someone you are unlikely to actually see with any kind of regularity struck me as a little bizarre to say the least. Even more bizarre was the idea of creating a friendship with people you’ve never even heard of whose requests for friendship began to arrive immediately after I created my account.
Now four years down the road, I find myself regularly engaged on Facebook. While I am hardly a true believer in social media, I do appreciate the ability to discover what has happened to long lost real friends as well as the ability to begin getting to know people in far away places that I may never actually meet but benefit from their wisdom in socially mediated doses.
So, Why *Am* I Here, Anyway?
This past week I’ve done some reflecting on why I engage in social media and what needs and desires I bring to that process. This is a partial list and a beginning of that reflection process.
1. Information – Between the posts submitted by various “friends” on Facebook and the sites which I have “liked” and thus from whom I receive regular posts, I am made aware of a great deal of news that I otherwise would not know about. Frankly, I’m so completely put off by the largely vapid infotainment that has displaced news and the steady pounding of consumerist advertising one must endure to obtain even nuggets of useful information that I don’t watch much television news anymore.
I don’t need local anchors to tell me how I should respond to a given event through their subtle and not-so-subtle presentations. I am unlikely to be whipped into a frenzy to engage in shopping orgies or to mindlessly support wars in which militarism is confused for patriotism. And while talking heads shows often insist that they are “fair and balanced,” what inevitably follows is anything but.
If I want news, I have to go find it. While Facebook is hardly the only source of news I read, it does provide a number of sources which regularly present challenging ideas, provocative quotes and figures from history. I benefit from considering them and thus that is one of the reasons I come to Facebook.
2. Communication – I not only hear from but I hear about my family, friends, former students and colleagues on Facebook. It has been a joy to watch my former students blossom in their lives, families and careers after graduation. It has also been an unexpected pleasure to hear about and from classmates from public school and my own college days, many of whom I had not thought about in years. I love the pictures of their children and grandchildren, I pray with them as loved ones fall ill and I mourn with them as a loved one dies.
3. Entertainment –I am not a person who needs to be entertained. I find the world around me fascinating. I am a consummate reader with a whole home library, a former garage, full of books to show for it. I love to watch people and often ponder why they do the things they do. And I can never get enough of the natural world, either digging in my garden or walking by the lake at the top of my street.
I watch some television but I spend more time at my computer either writing or viewing online sites. Facebook provides a hell of a lot of schlock and even more commercial advertising that I have to sift through to get to the funny pictures of cats, the naughty cartoons and the many videos of everything from newly discovered working class people with professional singing voices to clips from Monte Python films. One never knows what they might encounter on Facebook. And to the extent it proves amusing or enriching, I am grateful.
4. Bench, Pulpit and Lectern – I am a lawyer by training and experience. I often use Facebook as a place to advocate ideas and causes I hold dear. I comment on posts from others in the same vein. What is particularly gratifying for this visual learner is the wide array of visual representations of ideas incorporating art, photos and various forms of typography. It’s a wonderful combination of left (ideas, arguments) and right (symbols, images) brain approaches and makes for consideration of ideas at several levels.
I am also an ordained Episcopal priest now approaching 20 years of ordination. Facebook is a place where I am able to mark the seasons of the church year, to present images and ideas from my own take on the faith tradition (which I readily recognize is but one possibility and hardly normative for everyone else) and to post my occasional sermon by linking it to my blogsite. Facebook is a means of expressing my faith and exercising my ministry and for this priest who has not been allowed to function in a parish for most of his ordained life, that is a privilege.
But most of all, I am a teacher. Fourth generation of educators in my family, great grandchild of progenitors named Reed and Wright, I have either been a student or a teacher (or both) for virtually all of my life. Facebook provides a forum for ideas and I use that forum regularly. My goal in doing so is to try to present ideas for people to consider, hopefully to prompt them to think further and deeper, maybe even to reconsider things they thought they already knew.
As has always been my approach to teaching, I am more concerned that people think than with what they think about. Clearly I am more than willing to argue with people about ideas.
Remember, I’m a lawyer and was always an argumentative child by nature. My Dad said my third word after Mommy and Daddy was “Why?” He said I almost drove him crazy once I learned that word: “But, why Daddy, why?” Thank G-d for parents able to deal with inquisitive children unwilling to accept common knowledge on its face.
It is my observation that most people are not prone to think about the world around them and even less are prone to reflect on their own understandings of that world. But I agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not really worth living. Hence, my submissions to Facebook are often provocative in content and presentation. Some readers will simply ignore those posts, others will shut down and default into foregone conclusions, yet others will agree and “Like” my post. While I find it mildly gratifying to have my posts “liked,” (I am a Feeling type on the MBTI) I don’t really post these things in search of affirmation so much as I seek to follow my prime directive as the quintessential teacher – prompting people to think.
Small People Talk About Other People
What I am unwilling to do is argue with contentious people. That is particularly true of those who devolve almost immediately from ideas being presented to character attacks on the individuals involved in the stories themselves or on posters involved in the discussion on Facebook. I think Eleanor Roosevelt was absolutely on target when she said that great people talk about ideas, mediocre people talk about things while small people talk about other people.
I also find myself increasingly impatient with inveterate stupidity. There is a major difference between ignorance, which can always be cured through learning, and stupidity, which I see as a volitional state.
I also do not confuse disagreement for stupidity. People will hold various understandings of any given issue and they are entitled to form, hold and articulate them. But the right to an opinion does not include an expectation to have that opinion automatically respected. While the person of the maker of the opinion always must be respected, the opinion itself is respectable or not depending upon its content, its expression and the ability of the offeror of that opinion to adequately support and defend it.
A couple of years ago I found myself saying “Life is too short to argue with stupid people.” Increasingly I find that to be my modus operandi in dealing with Facebook. I either ignore contentious posts to the extent that I can or I simply delete posts that pursue that pattern. I do that for two reasons. One is to remove postings that reflect poorly on me and could cause people to associate ideas with me that do not reflect who I am. The second is to encourage people to interact with my site, something they are often unwilling to do when they fear being bullied by other posters.
I am unwilling to unfriend people as a matter of principle. I am a believer in hearing a wide range of views. Life within the echo chambers of the like minded is stultifying and stagnating. We need others to remind us of the breadth and depth of possible understandings of those things we think we know and the weak spots of our own understandings. My friends online reflect my friends in real life, representing a range of philosophical positions.
That doesn’t mean I am willing to endure attacks on my person confused with reasoned discussion. I did not come to Facebook for group therapy or a confessional. I am pretty aware of my shortcomings as a human being and as the psalmist said, “My sins are ever before me.” I also know I have my blind spots like everyone else. But my person or the person of anyone who comes to my site is not an appropriate subject for discussion there. Facebook is simply not the right place to talk about such things. Indeed, it is marginal for discussions of ideas of substance generally as it must compete with all those dancing cats videos and political ads.
While I may well have been unfriended by people for any number of reasons, I have only unfriended one person in these four years. He was an evangelical Protestant computer science student at Berkeley who had asked me to friend him out of the blue. I agreed and found out a lot about his immigration from South Korea, his marriage and his faith. He was quite an interesting young man.
Sadly, he proved to be one of the many conservative religious people of all traditions who get social prejudices confused with religion. Having dealt with enough homophobia dressed up as Christianity for several lifetimes, I endured a couple of days of diatribes before cutting off that discussion only to find new posts in the same vein being added to my site. After asking him to desist several times to no avail, I finally unfriended him. I still hear about him on LinkedIn but am able to avoid the same kinds of confrontations there that occurred on Facebook.
“Your site, your rules.”
A friend of mine sometimes remarks “Your site, your rules.” While I am not a particularly rule-driven person by any stretch of the imagination, I guess there is some advantage to forming ground rules for any kind of social interaction to allow people to know what is expected of them. I have few rules but here they are:
1. Treat other people with respect. The ideas someone offers are always fair game for critique, the persons of those offerors never are. Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim.There is a lot to be said for the exercise of common courtesy. Or as my saintly mother would have put it, "Now, don't be ugly."
2. Don’t confuse critique with bashing. President Obama does a number of things I oppose from the ongoing war in the Middle East to his policies on education even as I continue to support him as president. That doesn’t make him or his family appropriate targets for attacks. Ad hominems, no matter how cleverly disguised, have no place on my site or in civil conversation generally.
I also adhere to a stream of tradition within the Christian faith. It is quite possible to draw into question tenets of that faith even as one stands within that stream of tradition. I see few things in black and white, all or nothing terms and generally see such thinking as rather undeveloped. My site will not be used for bashing even as critical discussion is always welcomed. I realize that what constitutes either or both may itself be a point of contention.
3. Speak for yourself. Don’t purport to speak for Americans, for Christians or for G-d. You don’t and you simply can’t. Speaking from one’s own perspective and taking ownership of that perspective keeps us accountable and aware that there are other possible perspectives besides our own.
I think if my “friends” can adhere to just these three rules, our interactions on Facebook will go smoothly. I will make every effort to adhere to my own rules as well. I do not expect this statement to resolve or prevent every possible conflict. But if nothing else it has provided me a reason to begin reflecting on my presence on Facebook and what I seek there.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++