PUBLIC DISCOURSE AND PLATO: BEWARE OF “COMMUNICATION SHORTCUTS”

As the lawyers and Congress sort out the many issues of great concern regarding Facebook, and as we see increasing misuse of Twitter and other social media platforms to further divide Americans, I urge Catholic-Americans to take this opportunity to evaluate whether America’s common good is better or worse as a result of our penchant for communication shortcuts in public discourse – at least when it comes to communications relating to the theological, political, and social dimensions of our American society.

As a preliminary matter, there are admittedly many societal communication shortcuts which are enormously beneficial:  texting shortcuts, acronyms, etc.  Similarly, we all benefit from appropriate use of social media to alert us at the events, celebrations or other events worth noting, etc.  In fact, we appreciate the efficiency in which such short, succinct communications help us live as a connected society.

But we Catholic-Americans should lead the way in pumping the brakes on the increasing use of “communication shortcuts” in our public discourse about fundamental and complex realities of the human condition.   I submit that these trends in communication shortcuts painfully remind us that the alacrity in which we communicate does not reflect the depth of our understanding of reality.  Indeed, we were warned of the dangers of such communication shortcuts from Ancient Greece.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, there is a dramatic moment in which the god of inventions presents his newest discovery, “letters,” to the Egyptian god king – an invention which presumably utilized the writing tablet to enable students to shortcut their communications by use of symbols on the tablet.  He boasted to the god king about this prized invention.   But the god king rebuked him and pointed out the pitfalls in such a communication shortcut.  As if anticipating the precise folly we see today, Plato has his king of ancient Egypt ominously warn us all:

Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own    memory within them . . .  you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard  to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

In this regard, although we laud and embrace modern tools to assist us in communicating updates as to people, places, events, etc., we must acknowledge that our American society has becoming increasingly anti-intellectual, egotistical, and pitifully polarizing.

Thus, as we assess the carnage in our American humanism in the era of partisan politics, cable news aimed at ratings at the expense of transmitting truth, and social media usage which is simply not worthy of the language of Shakespeare, maybe we should assess whether or not we can make better use of social media and promote more meaningful public discourse?    At the very least, perhaps we need to think about whether Plato’s wisdom from Ancient Greece should give us some pause before we tweet or post on topics of consequence?