by Fr. George Washburn, Orinda CA
About forty years ago, when I was not only still open to new ideas, but actually sometimes understanding and getting some good out of them, a philosopher named Marshall McLuhan hit the big time with some avant garde theories in a book entitled Understanding Media. To the best of my increasingly dim recollections, the key idea for which he was/is known has been summed up in the phrase “The medium is the message.”
At the time many critics of t.v. and movie entertainment were focused exclusively on the content of the shows: critiquing gratuitous violence, the exaltation of physical beauty and humor, the unremitting glorification of romantic love and extra-marital sex, etc. By contrast, I believe, McLuhan was telling people to look at the medium itself, because the very “nature” of any method of communication was in and of itself a, and in his mind even the, message - even more than what the actors or presenters were saying or doing.
I believe that it might do us good to consider McLuhan’s idea in the context of this site and the role it purports to play in the shaping of Orthodoxy in North America. In short I would like to suggest that the nature of the medium, in this case the internet and blogosphere, is itself the message we get here even more than the content that people purport to communicate and consider.
If we can imagine for a moment that McLuhan may have been at least partially right, then what is the inherent message of this medium (again, regardless of ostensible content)?
1. It is democratic in the extreme, and fools who know little or nothing about what they are discussing or how to discuss things effectivelywith others get basically equal time and treatment with wise men and experts. In most spheres of value above public playground level - a university lecture hall or a sporting contest, for example - we distinguish very readily between people who know what they are doing or saying and those who don’t, and give the latter short shrift indeed. Here they are welcomed back to give more any time they like, and even set (misdirect) the tone of much of what goes on.
2. It is participatory, and much of the time here the actors and audience are virtually indistinguishable.
3. It is virtually instantaneous in the case of some blogs, and pretty much so here if Mark is not on overload or the “news” isn’t too “hot” and the resulting volume of incoming fire too high. This lends itself to participation that is reactive and non-reflective, and to domination by people who seem to have the most time on their hands, the least responsibility for the other things, and the least self-restraint. And boy don’t today’s Americans love the instantaneous in almost all possible forms! Truth be told one’s immediate stream of consciousness, at least mine, is not that pretty or edifying, and judging by what the Saints of old have taught (and some of the “saints” of today write here), neither is most people’s!
4. It is essentially un-refereed, as Mark himself admits, although to carry the wrestling event analogy just a step further, it suits some of us and Mark for him to wear a black and white striped shirt and carry a whistle (i.e. the title “editor”) even if virtually nobody ever gets “edited” or penalized.
5. It is largely reactive in character, existing and fueled to a great extent by a back and forth dynamic in which a few skewed participants’ excesses will tend to dictate, or at least strongly shape, the repartee for a good while. And repartee it is in large measure. Now to a generation of Americans raised on sit-com dialogue, this may seem perfectly normal or desirable, but when has Man ever done his best on tough issues in the form of instant reaction? Never. And how much has it produced man’s worst? Often.
6. A lot of what is said here is unverified and essentially unverifiable. In terms of the current discussion of the Antiochian parish in Troy, the downward spiral of the discussion, which on good evidence we can suppose has not hit bottom, recently reached the trading of jibes over what someone in the choir supposedly did or did not do on certain Sundays. How could we possibly really know? How do we know any of the participants in this unedifying exchange are who they say they are, were even there, or close and wise and dispassionate enough to understand what individual x did or did not do or say, let alone what he did or did not mean? Do we want to create and participate in an exchange in which people are encouraged to ignore what is supposedly going on in church services, let alone reward those who do with a stage and a world wide audience to trumpet their fruits of their inattention? Did x do or say something good or bad on such and such a day? Maybe, maybe not, but we will never really know based on competing missile fire here.
7. It is largely, although by no means exclusively, anonymous. I get it that anonymity is useful in a few situations, like an AA meeting for example. But when people’s lives and reputations, the peace and good order of the most important of institutions, and fundamental and competing policy ideas are supposedly under deliberative discussion, history has shown that anonymous participants usually do not make constructive contributions. Instead they wear masks or sheets, burn crosses on other people’s lawns at night, spray-paint swastikas on walls, and throw rocks, or even explode vests and cars. How many times did “Candid Camera” and other such programs show us what silly, mean or venal things ordinary people would do when subjected to temptation under conditions where they were sure nobody was looking?
8. It is intrusive and inclusive by nature, and seems to invite all and sundry to believe that anything knowable, believable or assumable about anyone else who is part of the Orthodox world is the business of anyone with time, access to a computer and the ability to send in a comment.
So if a medium at least to some extent is its message without particular reference to the ostensible content, do we dare entrust a medium with these characteristics, which I submit is the kind of message summarized in the eight points above, with something as important as the stability and future direction of what the proprietor and participants here, theoretically at least, say is the Church of God? I submit that the clear answer is - or should be - “no.” Unlike my anonymous brother clergyman (or at least someone purporting to be an anonymous brother clergyman) who posted here a week or two ago, I do not believe that we simply have to bow to this manifestation of the internet as inevitable and useful tool for purposes it manifestly cannot well serve. Does he really believe the Church established on 7 Ecumenical Councils spread out over several centuries must now embrace these 8 Characteristics as the fundamental driving force of its modern manifestation? I hope not, or we can kiss Tradition, liturgy, doctrine, etc. goodbye. But other than saying in my feeble and curmudgeonly way that the participants have to find some wisdom and self-restraint, and calling out the hypocrisy of avoiding accountability and transparency while purporting to advocate for the same, I’m not sure I can offer much of a solution.
I can readily acknowledge that there were some good results in the OCA. And that there was a positive contribution earlier this year (at least I hope and believe there was, time will tell) to the process of seeking the proper balance of power among diocesans and the Metropolitan in the Antiochian Archdiocese. Must/should there be change? Yes. But I see few signs of the ability among the self-anointed to distinguish between the limits of what is beneficial and helps build, and what sows discord among brethren and tears down. And I do not believe that at the current stage, as we hopefully try to build cooperatively and well for the future of Antiochian North America, this medium and its inherent message is liable to do nearly as much good as ill.