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I’m Thinking It Over

Just before Christmas, I posted to my personal blog an account of my year in tech; it’s largely the story of how I strove to simplify my life in 2015. That post had only been up for a few hours when I got a long email from someone I don’t know telling me (among other things) that I was wrong to leave public Twitter, that without Twitter the only people who can give me intellectual feedback will be my students, that I should consider whether it’s un-Christian of me to “stop engaging,” and that if people who want to respond to my ideas have to go to the trouble of writing emails they might not respond at all.

My first reaction to this was sheer bemusement: I simply can’t imagine writing to someone I don’t know to tell him (in detail!) how he should and should not use social media. Is that any of my business? But before I could think further, another email showed up. This one was also from a stranger, and was also in response to a post on my personal blog, a brief one in which I explained why I had not commented on the current controversy at Wheaton College. This person told me that my plea of ignorance was unconvincing and my failure to respond was “weak and timid.”

This second email, coming so soon after the first, clarified some things for me.

There’s a famous Jack Benny routine, one he used many times over the course of decades, in which he’s confronted by a mugger. Now, you need to be aware that the chief personality trait of “Jack Benny” — the character Jack Benny played on radio and TV — is a compulsive miserliness. So:

Mugger [pointing a gun at Jack]: Your money or your life.

Jack: [silence]

Mugger: I said, Your money or your life!

Jack [exasperated]: “I’m thinking it over!”

The internet is also a mugger, but what it demands is not my money but my attention and my reaction, and it wants them right now. And “I’m thinking it over” isn’t an acceptable response.

When the leadership of Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on leave, it was not clear to me precisely why. Several weeks later, and after considerably more communication from the college, it’s still not clear to me precisely why, though everyone agrees that it had nothing to do with Hawkins’ wearing of a hijab. Moreover, even her statement that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” seems not to have been definitive: other faculty have made similar or identical statements, but (says the college administration on the webpage just cited) “In those instances, the individuals rapidly and emphatically explained their opinions and affirmed their full consistency with the theological identity of Wheaton College.” This lack of clarity has not stopped some people from demanding that Hawkins be fired, nor others from confidently declaring that Wheaton’s leaders are bigots motivated by religious intolerance and Islamophobia. How the latter are able to read the minds and hearts of people they don’t know, I can’t tell you; maybe you could ask them.

Anyway, a great many people are going off half-cocked on this issue; and what those emails I got remind me is that going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice. Moreover, that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of Your Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet — and according to my first protestor either directly on or accessible to Twitter — or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

I want to suggest some alternative ways of thinking about these matters, and related ones:

  • I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  • I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  • I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  • I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  • If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  • Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  • Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  • Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

In short, peer pressure is always terrible, and social media are a megaphone for peer pressure. And when you use that megaphone all the time you tend to forget that it’s possible to speak at a normal volume: thus my first protestor’s apparently genuinely-held view that if you’re not talking to peers on Twitter you can’t possibly be talking to peers at all. (We must all have been trapped in our silos of silence before 2006.) But the more general view of both of those who wrote to me — that rapidity of response is a virtue, and therefore that technologies that enable rapid response are superior to ones that enforce slowness — is the really pernicious one, I’ve come to believe.

I keep thinking about my first protestor’s complaint that if people can’t respond to me via Twitter or blog comments they might not respond at all. Given my experience of both public Twitter and blog comment threads, my thought is: feature, not bug. Indeed, I should probably have an auto-reply on my email featuring my postal address and encouraging people to write me letters. That might enliven the daily mail deliveries, which have for me, as for all of us, grown so gray and wan over the years. And maybe I would be doing my correspondents a favor also: if typing, printing, and mailing a letter is too much trouble for you, then it could be that the things you have to say aren’t that important, even to you, and you’d be better off using your time in a different way.

Well, that may be too extreme. I’m not a big fan of printing and mailing either, though I use those technologies when I need to. So perhaps email is slow enough, provides enough of a buffer between people and their immediate impulses. Still, I can’t help thinking of the great computer scientist Donald Knuth, who famously doesn’t have an email address. He explains why: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” My work may not require the same intensity of concentration that Knuth’s requires, but it requires more than I have been accustomed to give it for the past few social-media years.

It won’t be that long before I turn 60, though I struggle to keep that inescapable (and highly unpleasant) fact clear in my mind. I have ideas I want to pursue, stories I want to tell, and friends and colleagues I want to interact with. Things are happening in the world and on the pages of books that I want to meditate on.

I spent about seven years reading replies to my tweets, and more than a decade reading comments on my blog posts. I have considered the costs and benefits, and I have firmly decided that I’m not going to be held hostage to that stuff any more. The chief reason is not that people are ill-tempered or dim-witted — though Lord knows one of those descriptors is accurate for a distressingly large number of social-media communications — but that so many of them are blown about by every wind of social-media doctrine, their attention swamped by the tsunamis of the moment, their wills captive to the felt need to respond now to what everyone else is responding to now.

Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent. I’m trying to turn my mind towards the longer term, striving to get a little closer to the bottom of things. I’m thinking it over.

Happy New Year, everybody! And Festina Lente!

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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