How Do You Map Near Absolute Conformity On A Graph?

Who’s rearing your children? Do you know where they are? Are they worshipping Satan while playing Dungeons and Dragons? Are they learning magick on World of Warcraft? Is that them in the other room playing a game … of MONOPOLY where they are socialised into disregarding the fundamental cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching – the universal destination of material goods – and instead learn to love the twisted and perverted pursuit of profit without any regard for other humans or the created environment?

THE WORLD IS FULL OF FEARFUL THINGS OF WHICH YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID!

Or at least that is what this article by Breda O’Brien, a woman with a lovely voice, has had published in the Irish Times this morning. The Irish Times is the newspaper of record in Ireland, not some kind of clickbait, publish-anything sort of internet endeavour. And yet here we are, gathered as a nation sitting over our Aldi-brand cornflakes of a Saturday morning, enduring sentences like this:

If you want to experience blistering hatred, try posting content on Tumblr as a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian.

As a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian, I can honestly say that in any given week I am the recipient of far more aggression on the streets of Aberdeen while driving my little Yaris than I have received in my entire life on the internet, which began in 1994.

I have dabbled in this “Tumblr” over which O’Brien wishes to start a moral panic. It is true that there is a vast amount of smut available on there. I’m not just talking about porn where people dress up as polar bears and pretend to be, I don’t know, politicians, or whatever. People on Tumblr seem to spend way too much time on animated gifs of Dr. Who and reposting trite lists that basically find innumerable ways to enumerate the importance of self-esteem and other vague ideas.

For O’Brien, the “biggest worry is not that young people are more narcissistic, but that social media functions as a giant mechanism for conformity.” Yet for me, Tumblr has been a place where I found a surprisingly vibrant little culture of very thoughtful Christians sharing a rich variety of interesting things. Like out in the bricks-and-mortar world, there is conformity and strange cul-de-sacs of culture and there is also diversity and disagreement and complicated overlaps.

O’Brien writes of the alleged liberal consensus on Tumblr:

“If you spend enough time on Tumblr or other such sites, you may begin to believe that this is only way to think, unless you have very strong, real-world social networks to act as a corrective.”

There is so much wrong with this sentence taken on its own. When you factor in that O’Brien is writing as some sort of Christian ethicist (!), it is catastrophic thinking. To begin with, the corrective to thinking there is only one way to think is… to think. Strong real-world social networks are wonderful, but they are barely even necessary for the low bar of ethical empathy that O’Brien is calling for. The internet is the real world for one. It doesn’t reside in clouds, but in actual hard-drives sitting in actual servers in actual buildings. The task of delineating what a social network is has been made more complex since the world-wide web, but Christian ethicists are meant to have some what of a head-start on that conversation since their entire activity takes place within and is directed towards the social network called church.

But let me not wander off on some Hauerwasian adventure. Instead, let me keep talking about a trivial social media network operated by the Yahoo corporation, which is listed on the NASDAQ and is in the business of returning profit to shareholders, not advocating for some kind of cultural revolution. If there is money in maintaining a platform that exchanges Anchorman memes, Tumblr will keep doing it. If it suddenly became lucrative to exchange Patristic poetry, then Tumblr would start doing that.

O’Brien argues that “These young people have been socialised to believe there are some opinions that are so shocking they should not be heard at all.” Are we still talking about Tumblr, where pro-ana sites are commonplace, porn is traded freely and I presume racist bile is spouted without censure? Does this pass for informed Christian comment? Why am I not a columnist for the Irish Times? I’ll tell people how brilliant things can be found on Tumblr, which is surely a better theological beginning than strange warnings about being “cool with the internet raising your kids.”

For example:

Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos reminds you how dangerous it is to leave your child unattended with Monopoly, lest they become a real life profit-seeking landlord in adulthood.

Even worse, they could become very bad architects and design houses in Belgium or get addicted to 20th Century ideologies and re-start a Brutalist phase.

While Breda might be slow to admit it, the old-skool print and telly media do a hell of a lot of damage to the socialisation of our young ‘uns. If we aren’t careful, our kids might end up being so astute with photoshop and so deft at media studies that they produce something like an entire gossip page dedicated to superheroes.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows hasn’t been updated in six months, which deserves a word all of its own because it is a haven of humanist beauty.

Breda is a member of the Iona Institute think-tank, which among its many theological mis-steps places a huge weight on natural law thinking. The only fittingness that a good Barthian like myself is willing to get behind is the fittingness of things fitting into other things. Thankfully, there’s a tumblr for that.

Nutella biscuit. Mmm.

There is a social network that has caused serious disruption to the Irish economy that probably has never been criticized in the pages of the Irish Times. Amazon. And there is a very amusing Tumblr that collects the worst Amazon reviews together for your delighted perusal.

Flannery O’Connor has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic think-tank!

Francis Spufford has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic apologists?! And also, tell Francis, who is a white, straight, male, middle-class Christian. He might not know that he is hated.

Finally, I have some “friends” that I made on Tumblr. I have never met these people but I think of them as friends because when I read their Tumblrs I had that realisation that the “secret thread” that runs through my interests and loves and fascinations runs through theirs as well. This is what a social network does best. It crosses divides and connects people who otherwise would never meet. Breda and I are part of the only generation in all of history who will have had the experience of both living with and living without the internet. The future generations will be socialised the same way that previous generations were. By living in society. The idea that we face some horrendous threat of a “liberal agenda” or a “PC brigade” or whatever other bankrupt and tired trope of conservatism you prefer because now we have http:// is beyond the pale of what is reasonable.

Naming Animals, Irregular Theology, Bogwitch, and Invisible Foreigner are among the people I look forward to having coffee and beer with in the future, who I initially encountered on the internet. They are part of what it means for me to be socialised. Not one of them conforms to the pattern of this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of their minds. If only to account for the brothers and sisters in the mix, O’Brien and similar Christian cultural critics should be much more careful.

What tumblrs would you send Breda to, if we wanted to help her revise her opinion?

Your Correspondent, Found a social media page that has that full C.S. Lewis quote.

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