Alone Together: Can Moral Reflection Survive in a Media Age?

By Scott Stephens, ABC Religion and Ethics, December 13, 2014

The media's servitude to "the new" means it cannot help but sneer at any institution or system of thought that does not melt away before the demands of fashion and fickle rule of individual choice.

A few years ago, I formulated a working hypothesis that has guided my professional efforts as an editor ever since. It goes something like this: The more widely reported the remarks of a significant religious leader are, the less consequent they are likely to be.

I've since come to the conclusion that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true increases exponentially if the religious leader in question happens to be the pope.

Just take Pope Francis's remarks concerning the compatibility of evolution with the Christian understanding of God's role in creation. There was nothing particularly original or even interesting about what he said. After all, did not the Blessed John Henry Newman write in 1869, "It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter"? And was it not the Belgian Jesuit Georges Henri Joseph Edouard Lemaitre who first advanced the "hypothesis of the primeval atom" in 1931 - a thesis (now more popularly known as "the Big Bang") which was itself widely ridiculed as a form of pseudo-scientific theism? And did not Joseph Ratzinger state quite bluntly back in 1986:

    "We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God ... does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the 'project' of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary - rather than mutually exclusive - realities."

That the media should have deemed the pope's remarks as being in any way newsworthy - that is, as confirming the putatively progressive agenda they've assigned to him - says more about the media's religious illiteracy than it does about the substance of Christian belief (as if confessionally orthodox Christians were, by necessity, crass literalists or closet creationists).

But the inverse of my working hypothesis also applies: statements that truly are significant rarely receive the public attention they deserve. Consider the pope's recent address to the European Parliament. The media's coverage, such as it was, fixated on his admittedly impressionistic, rather cliche quip that Europe today seems "somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion." Meanwhile, his more urgent appeal for European society to reforge the bond between human dignity and transcendence was passed over as a perfunctory nod to certain "hot button" issues.

Yet the media thereby spectacularly skirted the theological heart of Pope Francis's address, in which he gave us the clearest display yet of his own peculiar appropriation of the vast tradition of Catholic social teaching and his undeniable debt to the thought of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Consider the following emblematic passage:

    "Today there is a tendency to claim ever broader individual rights ... [U]nderlying this is a conception of the human person as detached from all social and anthropological contexts, as if the person were a 'monad' (monas), increasingly unconcerned with other surrounding 'monads'. The equally essential and complementary concept of duty no longer seems to be linked to such a concept of rights. As a result, the rights of the individual are upheld, without regard for the fact that each human being is part of a social context wherein his or her rights and duties are bound up with those of others and with the common good of society itself."

Not coincidentally, Francis goes on to cite Benedict's encyclical Caritas in Veritate, in order to underscore his fundamental contention that "it is vital to develop a culture of human rights which wisely links the individual, or better, the personal aspect, to that of the common good, of the '"all of us" made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society'." The pope then adds the prescient warning that, "unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence."

It is not surprising that such remarks would be ignored, given the media's high-priestly role within our "current Kingdom of Whatever," to use Brad Gregory's felicitous phrase, in which "men and women in larger numbers prioritize the fulfilment of their self-chosen, acquisitive, individual desires above any social (including familial) solidarities except those they also happen to choose, and only for as long as they happen to choose them." By warning that any society that mistakes rights for competing individual interests and freedom for mere licence will inevitability descend into resentment and violence, Francis was effectively storming the West's holy of holies, the sacred centre of liberalism as such. Far easier to grant blanket coverage the pope's off the cuff "Who am I to judge?" remark, which poses no challenge whatsoever to the effete sensibilities of liberal individualism, than to wrestle with a thoroughgoing challenge to the sustainability of liberalism itself.

Nor is it surprising that the media would be drawn to a broad-brush characterisation of an ageing, listless Europe, made by a pope who has graced the cover of Rolling Stone, no less! Once again, this says rather more about the media's slobbering servitude to "the new" - which cannot help but sneer at any tradition or institution or system of thought that does not melt away before the ineluctable demands of fashion and the fickle rule of individual choice - than it does about the pope's open-handed invitation to join together "in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values ... a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present."

On both counts, the media conceals its ignorance, its arrogance and its incurious disregard for whatever does not fit within its unavowed agenda behind the threadbare alibi that it is simply reporting what is newsworthy - as if that were an objective category which the media is duty bound to serve, and which it itself has no role in shaping.

Doomed to banality?

Now, it would be a mistake to think that this is somehow all about Pope Francis, that he has received unfair treatment at the hands of what his predecessor less than affectionately termed "the tribunal of the newspapers." In fact, strictly in terms of publicity, this pope has benefitted tremendously from the media's inattentiveness and its predictable, almost Pavlovian, response to any seeming departure from Church teaching. (I am not suggesting that this is a good thing, mind you. At best, the pope has - intentionally or not - entered into a kind of Faustian pact with the media. To what extent this will have a corrosive effect on the public witness of the Catholic Church remains to be seen.)

There is more at stake here than the popularity of the pope, or the fortunes of any particular church or religious community. But the specific examples I have selected from Francis's public remarks are not merely illustrative, either. They go to the heart of what I take to be the most pertinent issue: Is the media able to provide a forum in which serious ideas are treated seriously and made available to all - even those ideas that run counter to its ideological creed? Or, as Hilaire Belloc claimed as far back as 1929, can the media do little more than confirm "the Modern Mind" in its imbecility, plunging liberal individualism "lower than it would otherwise have fallen" by insulating it against every serious suggestion that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be?

I think there is little doubt that the media is too intellectually impaired, or simply too feckless, to perform the task of fostering sustained self-critical moral deliberation. This is due, in no small measure, to the fact that after Watergate and with the rise of digital social networks, the media was emboldened to conflate a self-righteous brand of "gotcha" journalism with brazen whoring after audience share. And then there is way that the astringent scepticism of the likes of H.L. Mencken or the disciplined curiosity of Ben Bradlee have been replaced by a cheap and all pervasive cynicism, which attempts to legitimate its nihilistic insouciance by crowning disbelief as the chiefest of journalistic virtues. Not even the emergence of so-called "ideas journalism" and the ever proliferating "ideas festivals" can disguise journalism's steady descent into what David Bentley Hart has rather ungraciously, but not wholly inaccurately, described as "the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose."

But is this really such a new phenomenon? It was Soren Kierkegaard who, in 1846, argued that the rise of the "popular press" converted the mass of "actual human beings" that comprise society into "a kind of colossal something, an abstract void and vacuum that is all and nothing" - what he called, the public. "The public," wrote Kierkegaard, "is not a people, not a generation, not one's age, not a congregation, not an association, not some particular persons, for all these are what they are only by being concretions." Rather, the public is characterised by anonymity, somnolence, passive non-engagement; he tellingly describes the public as inhabiting a state of "indolent laxity": "That sluggish crowd which understands nothing itself and is unwilling to do anything, that gallery-public, now seeks to be entertained and indulges in the notion that everything anyone does is done so that it may have something to gossip about."

According to Kierkegaard, the role of the popular press is effectively to inoculate the public against serious ethical reflection by peddling a placebo called opinion: a form of irresponsible speech which in no way obliges the speaker to act upon his convictions, but which can nonetheless shown off as a kind of fashion accessory.

    "The great mass of people naturally have no opinion but - here it comes! - this deficiency is remedied by the journalists who make their living by renting out opinions ... Gradually, as more and more people are wrenched free of the condition of innocence in which they were by no means obliged to have an opinion and are forced into the 'condition of guilt' ... in which they must have an opinion, what can the unfortunate people do? An opinion becomes a necessary item for every member of the enormous public, so the journalist offers his assistance by renting out opinions."

It is not surprising, then, that Evgeny Morozov regards Kierkegaard as the first and most perceptive critic of what he calls "slacktivism": the rather dubious modern practice of incorporating political causes or one's ethical bona fides into a carefully constructed online persona. As Kierkegaard recognised, not only does this corrupt moral sentiment itself, it also produces inconstant, ultimately exhibitionist forms of quasi-morality.

But it is not clear to me how it could be any other way under the conditions of liberalism. In her book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Martha Nussbaum acknowledges that the most considerable challenge confronting the West is how to sustain the moral imagination of the "public culture of a nation that repudiates all religious and ideological establishments." How, she asks, can such a public culture "have enough substance and texture to be capable of the type of poetry, oratory, and art that moves real people?" It cannot, concludes Nussbaum, which is why liberalism tends to "doom the public culture to banality or silence."

A culture of immunity

This brings me back to the working hypothesis with which I began: what tends to be widely disseminated by the media will almost certainly not be the most worthy, the most consequent, the most eloquent, most beautiful, but rather whatever provides passing satisfaction to an ideological palate which has lost the ability to distinguish between the true, the trivial and the blatantly manufactured. This might be in the form of political reporting, or celebrity gossip, or whatever is trending on social media, or inspiration porn, or coverage of some calamity, or sound bites from a popular religious figure, or sound bites from a loathed religious figure, for that matter - but they are all accorded the same status within this debauched medium.

The effect of allowing incongruous elements indiscriminately to mingle within an "orgy of pictures and headlines" (Belloc), is to trivialise them all. As Aldous Huxley claimed with an eerily prescience, the greatest threat to truth in the age of "a vast mass communications industry" is not that it would be censored, as Orwell believed, but that it would "drown in a sea of irrelevance."

And this, I would suggest, is the unacknowledged and rather more base reality behind the oft-made claim that a free society depends on the existence of a free press. Perhaps a better way of framing the relationship between liberal society and modern media is to say that while the presence of democratic elections and an independent judiciary, along with the absence of a planned-economy (I am reluctant to use the term "free market"), are the external conditions of liberalism, the spirit of liberalism, its affective core derives almost entirely from the media.

After all, like liberalism, a key ingredient of the media's legitimating myth is the claim that its function is purely descriptive, that it imposes no ideological program on the public but just gives people what they already want. However, this is surely little more than a desperate alibi, a shrug of feigned resignation; for, insofar as the media actively fosters the kind of audience that will continue to consume its product, it cannot help but be prescriptive of a particular kind person, and thus of a particular kind of political order.

Just to the extent that liberalism assumes the possibility of a "war of all against all" as competing interests - which cannot be adjudicated, and so must simply be conceded - jostle with one another in their bid for recognition and realisation, the notion of discrete rights becomes necessary in order to maintain civic equilibrium by dismantling every seeming discrimination that might impede one's desires.

To put this another way, liberalism is the first political order that does not grant the possibility or even the desirability of some common good, which might be discerned through a patient and mutually chastening process of moral deliberation, but rather accepts that everyone will simply act in their own self-interest. As Jean-Claude Michea argues in his extraordinary essay The Realm of Lesser Evil, the liberal "solution" to the problem of self-interest has a kind of "biblical simplicity" to it:

    "It rests on the conviction that it is possible at any time to spirit away the war of all against all, and give birth to a free, peaceful and prosperous society, even on the hypothesis that individuals act only as a function of their self-interest. All that is required is to channel the energy of 'private vices' to the benefit of the community by delegating the harmonizing of individual behaviour to the neutral and impersonal mechanisms of Law and Market. This solution implies, in exchange, that moral values - from which the various civilizations of the past have drawn part of their raison d'etre - are from now on expelled from the public space."

But while liberalism may seem modest insofar as it accounts for human frailty and simply requires that humans do what comes naturally - namely, act in their own self-interest - the vision of the human upon which it is predicated is not "natural" at all. Rather, the Romantic image of "'natural man' existing as an untrammelled individual prior to the social order" emerged in the eighteenth century out of the intellectual and political ruins of the Protestant Reformation, and does itself belong to the project of liberalism. Hence, whereas liberal individualism purports to be merely descriptive of the human condition, its determinative role within liberalism's political edifice means that it cannot but be normative. The seemingly modest "realm of lesser evil," Michea suggests, thereby reveals itself as the "best of all worlds."

The normalisation of liberal individualism as a form of protection against one's neighbour belongs to what Luigino Bruni has brilliantly described as the "grand 'immunizing' project of modernity" (or what John Rawls, less poetically, called the "mutual disinterest" that is constitutive of the social contract). But this project does not simply clear the ground, as it were, of those messily cloying social obligations and thereby return individuals to themselves, as if to a natural, pre-social condition. Instead, as the word suggests, the safety afforded by such immunity involves the deliberate renunciation of the munus: an obligating gift which we do not choose, which is then expressed and renewed through repeated demonstrations of solidarity and reciprocity.

The munus, in other words, represents a fundamental good which forms the basis of the social bond that is at the heart of communitas. In his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II captured the essence of this gift in a simple sentence: "God entrusts us to one another." Once this munus is sacrificed, the result is a hollowed out form of society, in which:

    "Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail."

It is no wonder that John Paul II described such a society - in which the good of mutual obligation and reciprocity (communitas) is usurped by a perverse freedom from one's neighbour as threat (immunitas) - as a "culture of death."

How does this "culture of death" continue to be reproduced and reinforced through the media? That will have to wait for the second instalment ...