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Marshall McLuhan and Pope Francis Call for Dialogue Over Hate

October 8, 2021


According to a study by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, a large percentage of the American population no longer thinks that despite our ideological differences we should stick together as a country. Whether because of faith, the pandemic, social issues, political candidates, or cultural trends, people are expressing the feeling that they are living in different worlds, and their worldview is unquestionably superior. Most of us have had many a frustrating dialogue in the last few years, both with anonymous internet people and with loved ones. Someone else (not ourselves) always seems to be wrong, and while there may be times when it is appropriate and just to shake the dust off our feet and each go our own ways, more often than not, the Lord is still calling us to build bridges instead. Sadly, social media can be our biggest stumbling block in understanding each other and sticking together.

Anticipating problems of our digital age, the Catholic media scholar Marshall McLuhan said in 1977, “The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.” He continued, “Ordinary people feel the need for violence as they lose their identities.” How then do we navigate divisions and differences, fractured selves and a broken society, for the sake of Christ, his kingdom, and the peace and well-being of our families and communities? As I try to figure out a way forward in my own relationships, as well as in my evangelistic work, McLuhan’s prophetic analysis has been helpful.

McLuhan reminds us that in radio, television, and most other forms of communication, “we don’t have any physical body. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you.” He distinguishes types of media into “cool” and “hot,” demonstrating how a disembodied presence works differently depending on the particular medium. Radio, McLuhan claims, is a particularly “hot” medium, exploited by demagogues, geared to the stoking of tribal fires, and preying on people’s fears and insecurities. He believed that “Hitler was a radio man” and thought the German dictator would have been a disaster on the much cooler medium of television, which diffuses tension more easily as the viewer faces the speaker more fully in his humanity.

In our own day, most social media platforms are hot media like radio. A curated, disembodied presentation of oneself may empower demagogues; but perhaps more dangerously, it allows each of us a voice without requiring people to see our true selves in our human complexities. It’s easy to forget that there is a real person on the other side of our monitors. It permits complete self-construction and requires little to no self-effacement. Accordingly, there are few Pollyannas left out there claiming that social media are merely neutral tools. (As I write this, my Twitter feed is full of celebration that Facebook is down. Clearly, most people hate this stuff, even though we can’t seem to break free from it.)

But evangelists cannot put their head in the sand. At least some of us should be on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, but never of it. (I’m not so sure about Tik Tok.) We are not looking to raise the temperature, hide behind anonymity, or distort appearances. Rather, while the internet lasts (by no means a guarantee), we use it to bring light to the darkness, raising at least some of its users up to Christ and into his Church. And despite all the complaining about social media’s toxic nature, real evangelistic work and human connection can happen there. I wonder, for example, if I would be Catholic today without Twitter, as I moved over the course of a couple of years towards a virtual Catholic community there that encouraged me to obey the Lord’s command. I am grateful to the people who put themselves into a risky, “hot” medium to meet me where I was. I am also grateful, dear reader, that you clicked on this online article. As with everything I publish, I pray it builds you up.

McLuhan offers one other helpful insight about how to proceed in a dehumanizing and divisive media landscape. Hot media, he argues, are particularly well-suited to moralizing, since “moralists never study the effect, so much as the content of the situation.” The evangelist, on the contrary, is never a moralist. We propose, we ask questions, we challenge; but we never manipulate, coerce, or command. As we see in the words of our Lord, St. Peter, and St. Paul in Sacred Scripture, everything a Christian does is about both the content and the effectas McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” St. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 got him executed not because he was trying to make people angry, but rather because similar proclamations had the power to bring three thousand people into the Church in one day. The evangelist in these difficult days must reject a persecution complex, bear true abuse with dignity, and never use her platform to complain. St. Paul asks, “Why not rather be wronged?” than be a scandal to another’s salvation (1 Cor. 6:7). I admit, this is an aspiration rather than a lived reality for me right now!

When asked what the answer is to the problem of self-expression through hot media leading inevitably to violence, McLuhan answered with one word: “Dialogue.” Dialogue is a word that is easy to ridicule, as we can all summon images in our heads of one version or another of “Can’t we all just get along?” But real dialogue is opposed to self-expression. It upends the dominion of disembodied communication, and it presents the opportunity for the same long-term transformation that is inherent to the work of evangelism. It requires patience and vulnerability, a willingness to be misunderstood, cancelled, or even killed. It is Christlike.

A good first step toward real dialogue is imagining a world without our perceived opponents. If given a direct but nonviolent opportunity, would we simply make them disappear? On one episode of Mike Judge’s show King of the Hill, an animated version of Jimmy Carter asks Cotton Hill (who is irate at his son Hank), whether he would push a button to eradicate Hank from the world. Although he thinks about it briefly, Cotton finally and humorously decides he would not push it. Would we push the button to eliminate Antifa members or Proud Boys or Woke Scoldsters or Conspiracy Theorists or Retrogrades or Integralists or Liberals or Postliberals or contrarian loved ones? Cancel cultures driven by hot media sayquite sinfully“Yes, push the button. Make them disappear.” But if we answer “No,” what do we do with them instead?

Pope Francis shows us the way from here. In his 2020 encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, he uses the word “dialogue” forty-nine times. Many of his critics, mostly without reading him closely, dismiss his emphasis on dialogue as namby-pamby secular globalist jargon. In fact, Pope Francis is offering the way of the cross as a substitute for the inflammatory rhetoric of today’s public square. He tells us,

Together, we can seek the truth in dialogue, in relaxed conversation, or in passionate debate. To do so calls for perseverance; it entails moments of silence and suffering, yet it can patiently embrace the broader experience of individuals and peoples. The flood of information at our fingertips does not make for greater wisdom. Wisdom is not born of quick searches on the internet nor is it a mass of unverified data. That is not the way to mature in the encounter with truth. Conversations revolve only around the latest data; they become merely horizontal and cumulative. We fail to keep our attention focused, to penetrate to the heart of matters, and to recognize what is essential to give meaning to our lives. Freedom thus becomes an illusion that we are peddled, easily confused with the ability to navigate the internet. The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters. (§50)

Pope Francis steers us away from thinking that dialogue means the abandonment of one’s principles, or an “openness that spurns its own richness” (§143). Additionally, he commends dialogue as an alternative to “ephemeral consensus” (§211). The world wants us to subsume our differences and therefore keep open a wound that is bound to fester in time. The evangelist brings her true self to the table and asks you to bring yours, scars and all.

Finally, Pope Francis takes account of what McLuhan foretold, describing how social media accelerates the loss of identity and works against true community. He writes,

Dialogue is often confused with something quite different: the feverish exchange of opinions on social networks, frequently based on media information that is not always reliable. These exchanges are merely parallel monologues. They may attract some attention by their sharp and aggressive tone. But monologues engage no one, and their content is frequently self-serving and contradictory. (§200)

It’s time for Christians to insist on real communication again. This may be a naïve way of thinking, but at least we have Marshall McLuhan and Pope Francis to show us both the risk and the reward. And we have our Lord’s command to take up our crosses.

Worth a shot anyway, don’t you think?