By Fr. G. Corwin Stoppel
“To hold the pen is to go to war,” said Voltaire. Since we’ve replaced quill, fountain and even ballpoint pens with handheld communication devices, perhaps we can update the French writer’s maxim to, “To hold the smart phone is to go to war.”
Having seen the vitriol, nastiness, and waste of time and energy that result from over-exercising our thumbs, I am declaring myself Switzerland, i.e. neutral. I refuse to get involved.
Writing a letter takes time. Ideas have to be formulated, committed to paper, checked and double-checked to minimize the errors, folded, put into an envelope, stamp applied and mailed.
Two of the world’s wisest men, Lincoln and Bismarck, could write scathing letters to adversaries but had the hearts and brain power to put the letter in a desk drawer, sleep on it, then look at it again in the morning.
More often than not, they decided not to mail it. They’d gotten their anger out of their system by writing the letter and, when they reviewed it later, believed it would do more harm than good. The letter would get crumpled, torn apart and/or burned — sometimes all three.
One of the great modern tragedies is our ability now to write something, no matter how hurtful, and send it zipping through cyberspace to at least one recipient, sometimes many more. The result is like whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick, it agitates everyone.
People who do so have a pathetic, maybe even pathological, need for drama in their lives. If they can stir up enough, they don’t have to do any real work to improve the world.
The lack of civility may literally be the death of us. You never know … some idiot holding the pen/smart phone might start a war no one can stop.
Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame observed, “We are creating a new citizenry. One that is very selective about cereals and automobiles, but we won’t be able to think.” The question now hovers around “able.” Does it mean have the capacity to think or allowed the freedom to think? I’m putting my money on the latter.
It’s a modernized version of the old practice of applying litmus tests. Oliver Cromwell used it when he created the New Model Army: Any soldier who didn’t get perfect marks on theology and doctrine was discharged and sent home. Tyrants and dictators long have done them.
The difference now is such purity tests are applied to friends, colleagues and organization members.
The bullies clasping communication devices demand more than marching together in lock-step. They want to inhibit what we think, gasping in mock horror and outrage should we dare disagree. They’ll bluster and fume, perhaps threatening to unfriend us or never speak to us again. It is tempting to ask, “Promise?”
It’s time to resurrect Voltaire, who said, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
We grow by listening to diverse ideas and disagreements. If all we do is hear or say repetitions of what we already believe, we’ll never learn anything new.
If we don’t challenge or face challenges to our beliefs, the day will come when Serling’s last phrase will be our reality: We won’t be able to think.