Plus, St. Aquinas on justice, and big tech as an extension of the state
Our Politics Will Improve When We Turn Off Our Phones
In a recent essay, I cited French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville and a warning from his 1835 essay Democracy in America: “The habit of inattention is to be regarded as the greatest defect of the democratic character.”
Inattention, observed Tocqueville, contributes to ignorance, making us less capable of performing our civic duties. Inattention fosters more emotionalized discourse, as we lose the ability to follow complex arguments or appreciate nuance. It also makes us more susceptible to manipulation by those who perceive our weakness of distraction.
In that same article, I also cited eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift, who joked: “I never knew any man cured of inattention.”
It may not be possible to prove Swift wrong, but I can think of a few ways we can overcome our inattention and become more engaged, responsible contributors to the American public square.
Defeat the Digital Demon
Half of American teenagers admit that their handheld digital devices distract them from looking up and talking to people right in front of them, according to a 2018 study. A majority of American teens also say that they prefer texting to talking to other people in person, and that various smartphone apps wake them up at night and distract them from homework. In fact, many digital companies acknowledge that their goal is precisely distraction, so that consumers of their products will become addicted to them.
During a 2017 interview on 60 Minutes, former Google engineer Tristan Harris declared that Silicon Valley is “programming people.” Technology “is not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money,” Harris explained to interviewer Anderson Cooper.
As research is proving, devices and social media are psychologically, sociologically, and politically degrading us. Employers complain about millennials’ poor social skills. When human interaction transitions away from face-to-face encounters, we become less capable of listening or exhibiting empathy, two qualities essential to productive democratic dialogue.
Americans engage in self-congratulatory, pseudo-civic activism on social media simply by clicking the “like” and “share” buttons or changing their profile picture—activities that amount to little. “Men travel faster now,” observes a character in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, “but I do not know if they go to better things.”
We must stop these digital demons from destroying us and our social fabric. One way to do this is what author Cal Newport describes as “digital minimalism.” Newport offers several helpful suggestions as part of this reclamation of one’s autonomous personhood. The first is intentionality, meaning we stop being passive recipients of technological advancements and instead evaluate if the tool, or app, will actually contribute to our betterment. Recently I observed some teenagers playing tennis. When they stopped to rest, rather than talk to one another or consider their surroundings, they pulled out their phones and ignored each other. They had become subjects to their tools, rather than the reverse.
A second principle of digital minimalism is alone time, both from other people and from the digital world. This hermetic seclusion can certainly possess a spiritual component, in which the individual prays or meditates, but it doesn’t have to. The objective is to disengage from technology and its endless agitation in favor of focused intellectual activity on one specific thing, be it a book, a magazine, or even God.
This bleeds into Newport’s third principle, which is leisure, but a particular type of leisure that involves “activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.” Such leisure should prioritize active over passive consumption (contra digitalism) and require “real-world, structured social interactions.”
Digital minimalism isn’t simply about gaining freedom from the addictive tendencies of the devices and social media that manipulate and infantilize us. It is a conscious effort to “reprogram” ourselves to participate in activities that are authentically human.
French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously asserted: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” This is simplistic, but there is a real human need for silent, separated contemplation. The same is true of a type of leisure that has no other aim than enjoyment of the activity, because it facilitates a sort of intellectual and emotional recharging.
Prioritizing Civic Duties
Resisting the negative effects of the digital age isn’t just about defeating addiction and restoring authentic personhood. It is also about renewing the kinds of essential civic responsibilities that digitalism obscures.
Our age of distraction tends to orient us away from our immediate duties in favor of distant, often inconsequential content, such as the lives of Facebook friends who we haven’t seen in years or, worse, those of complete strangers. Yet we have more pressing obligations to our immediate family members, our neighbors, and our communities. Tocqueville explains:
It is therefore by entrusting citizens with the management of minor affairs, much more than handing over the control of great matters, that their involvement in the public welfare is aroused and their constant need of each other to provide for it is brought to their attention.
The favor of the people may be won by some brilliant action but the love and respect of your neighbors must be gained by a long series of small services, hidden deeds of goodness, a persistent habit of kindness, and an established reputation of selflessness.
Following the May 26 death of Minneapolis man George Floyd, millions of Americans took to social media to debate the topic of police reform, whether that is “defunding” the police, limiting police access to military hardware, shifting responsibilities away from police to other professionals like social workers, or many other various proposals.
Some of these policy ideas are probably good, and likely overdue. But few of those participating in these conversations will be involved, in any way, in that reform, whether at the national or local level.
The kinds of civic duties that contribute to limiting the need for police—tutoring underprivileged children or running sports programs that lessen the likelihood of later criminality, volunteering in charitable organizations that serve lower-income families, or participating in charitable or social community organizations—remain largely ignored.
Tocqueville reminds us that preserving society requires an active civic engagement at the local level. Rather than reading (or debating) social media memes, we need to be spending time with, communicating with, and collaborating with our neighbors.
This neighborliness results in an additional civic benefit by reversing the “silo” effect of the digital age as we foster relationships with people who are different from us and think differently than us. You don’t as quickly demonize or name-call the neighbor with whom you are volunteering or coaching a youth baseball team. Tocqueville explains: “The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed is through the reciprocal influence of men upon each other.”
Sharpening the Civic Sword
Commensurate with Tocqueville’s concern with democratic indifference was a fear that Americans would become increasingly dependent on government and thus less self-reliant.
It is simple to see the time is approaching when man will be decreasingly able to produce alone the commonest necessities of life. The tasks of government will therefore constantly increase and its very exertions must daily extend its scope. The more it replaces associations, the more individuals will need government to help as they lose the idea of association.
In effect, there is a direct, reciprocal relationship between increasing citizens’ reliance on government and decreasing citizens’ local civic engagement. Moreover, Tocqueville feared that the materialism so ingrained in American capitalism would distance her citizens from their point of origin, an Anglo-American ethic that prioritized virtue and appreciated the redemptive, transformative nature of suffering. He warned of “the love of comfort [that] has become the dominant taste of the nation” and what he called an “honorable materialism” that “softens” men and “silently loosen[s] the springs of their action.”
How do we combat this acedia? Perhaps firstly by counteracting increasing reliance on the government with a renewed sense of self-reliance.
I’ve written of the joys of hunting and fishing, which not only provide our own source of food but also get us out into nature, away from digital technology, and into a more contemplative state. Similar things can be said of gardening or really any kind of tactile or kinetic engagement with the world that involves building or making things on one’s own. Man was lost and saved in a garden, wrote Pascal. These kinds of activities also curb our consumerist tendencies by perfecting an art or craft that is productive rather than acquisitive.
We also need to be intentional in developing a plan of action for how we will become more virtuous, engaged citizens. Part of this can be a “civic reading plan”—what important books or thinkers are we ashamed to be ignorant of? (This is actually why I first read Tocqueville!) We can consult those whom we view as intellectually rigorous, proactive citizens for suggestions.
Also related to this is developing a plan for what newspapers, journals, and magazines we will readily consume to stay informed. We should be sure to read across a variety of ideological spectrums and not only publications with whose editorial policies we agree. I would also suggest subscribing to a print newspaper and reading all the sections (especially local news), even if only cursorily.
Finally, we should educate ourselves in rules of logic and rhetoric so that we are better trained for less emotionalized arguments. I would suggest, among other texts, Mortimer J. Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes and How to Speak, How to Listen, W. Ward Fearnside and William B. Holther’s Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument, and R. E. Houser’s recent Logic as a Liberal Art: An Introduction to Rhetoric and Reasoning.
Tocqueville sagely cautioned:
When the taste for physical pleasures in such a nation grows more speedily than education or the habit of liberty, a time occurs when men are carried away and lose self-control at the sight of the new possessions they are ready to grasp.
Our digital age is certainly one defined not only by indifference but also by a consumerist overindulgence in pleasure and a materialist, undisciplined obsession with novelty. Thankfully Tocqueville, and many great American citizens since, has provided us the tools to rehabilitate our distracted democracy.
It’s up to us to put down our devices and get to work.
About the Author
Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.
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