Playing to the Cameras

Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was on the Daily Show. She shared her view that oral arguments before the court should not be televised because the temptation to play to the cameras would change the nature of the proceedings.

Sotomayor believes that partisanship in Congress started to grow when cameras were allowed in. Since then senators have been standing on the empty senate floor speaking “to the camera not to each other… Many senators told me that they felt much of the collegiality died when they stopped getting together in that room and were forced to listen to each other and were forced to sit next to each other and talk to each other.”

Bloomberg today shared a clip of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg who has invited a press pool to travel with him on his bus. This is something, they note, has not been done since John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” in 2000. The candidate pointed out that this means that campaigning hasn’t been done this way “since the social media era began.”

Why have a bunch of journalists, who might not present you as you’d like, follow you around when you can reach the public directly with a tweet?

In both cases, the Senators speaking directly to the camera, the presidential candidates tweeting directly to the public, you’re bypassing confrontation and pushback, and also bypassing the natural empathy that tends to come with face to face conversation. It is much easier to caricature someone’s position and use it to your own ends when they’re not sitting beside you.

It’s not just the politicians though. Voters play to the cameras too. Buttigieg observed that instead of shaking hands, the people who meet him want a photo with him.


A handshake is just between two people. It can not be shared with a wider audience. We’re more focused on having something to show to the people not in the room than on the quality of the interaction in the room. The unobserved moment may as well not exist.

It struck me that in the social media age we’ve all become adept at playing to the cameras. We have more outlets than ever to share our views with the world, and at the same time, our desire to have two way conversations has dwindled.

You see the result in a lot of disputes where people do not even think to talk to a person directly before going to an authority or the public to complain. “So and so said/did this and it made me uncomfortable and he/she should be fired…” And in response, the problem the organization seeks to solve is often the PR disaster rather than the interpersonal conflict between these individuals. They, too, play to the cameras.

We have an entire attention based economy, where we try to “build platforms” and get clicks and likes. (Chris Hayes had one of the best observations about social media, he called it, if I remember rightly, “weaponizing our human need for affirmation.”)

As I previously mentioned here, Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed.

Because there is nothing everyone agrees on we form little safe zones online where we assume most people will look at things as we do. Within these tribes the range of discussion and thought becomes homogenized.

Is it possible that the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of broadcasting ourselves and that we’re due for a shift back to a culture that values community and face to face interaction over being known to a large impersonal audience? Have we all used our proverbial 15 minutes and gotten sick of it? Time and Twitter will tell.

Cathedral Thinking

Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris fire aftermath, France - 16 Apr 2019A quote in a story reported in Positive News made me happy. It comes from 16-year-old climate activist  Greta Thunberg.

It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.

Cathedral thinking.

As you know if you’ve followed this blog, I became depressed in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I’ve been giving thought to why the criticisms of repairing the cathedral had such an effect on me, and I think the answer might be found in the phrase that I found so uplifting.

When you are invested in a cause, or are enthusiastic about a political candidate, there are two ways to react when you see people pouring their energy into a different effort. You can identify with that enthusiasm and take inspiration from what they are doing right, or you can resent them and view their enthusiasm as energy that is being siphoned away from your own project.

The second version sounds like “Why are we spending money on a building when we are ignoring climate change?” The first says, “If we can rebuild the cathedral, there is nothing we can’t do if we pull together. Let me tell you about something that needs that energy.”

Cathedral thinking.

We have more means of communication than ever, and yet we have never felt so unheard. We act as though concern, compassion, empathy and respect are finite and we’re in competition for them.

There are two ways to put your issue on the same level as others. You can either lift yours up, or tear others down. Tearing down is easier than building. You can do it with a few keystrokes. You can do it with sarcasm or a sneer.

Incidentally, in the first edition of Trevor Noah’s new podcast “On Second Thought,” he and his guest David Kibuuka talked about the backlash to the effort to rebuild Notre Dame, and they suggested that the reason people responded so quickly to that cause rather than something like world hunger or climate change is because fixing a cathedral is finite. It is something that you can contribute to and see the problem solved, whereas poverty or climate change are much more complex. People like to be part of something were they can feel like they achieved something. A moon shot.

Arlo Guthrie said of the 1960s, “I came out of that time thinking I’d only met two kinds of people–people that give a damn and the people that don’t. And the truth was that you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue. In the long run I thought I’d had more in common with people who cared about stuff than people that might’ve sided with me on an issue or two.”

It can be hard to find the commonality in “giving a damn.” Sometimes people’s eyes need to be opened to the way their causes rhyme. But I can tell you the worst way to persuade anyone of anything is to criticize their enthusiasm and to tell them what they ought to care about instead.

Instead of grumbling that people were not paying enough attention, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said, “Let’s make climate our cathedral.”

That gave me hope.






“You Love Them Anyway”

From time to time an older post I’ve forgotten about pops up in the list of articles someone read today. Sometimes I click on it to see what it is. Back in 2011, when I was mostly writing things that related to my first novel, Angel, I posted something called Unlearning Not to Speak.

The title came from a poem I read when I was in college, which, as far as I remember, was about a woman learning not to fear her own voice. It resonated with me today because I had just finished reading an article that suggested that reduced civic engagement means that today there is “a severe lack of places where people can feel like they’ve been heard.”

With blogs and Twitter and all manner of new ways to express ourselves, we are sharing opinions left and right, but we’re not connecting, learning or solving problems together.

The premise of my old article was that we have much less to fear from speaking our minds than we believe.

You probably have friends of your own who are totally different from you. You say, “My friend is this crazy hippie,” or “My friend is kind of over-the-top about religion,” or “My friend is into all this New Age stuff,” or “My friend is obsessed with finding a man and I’m happy being single” or “He watches Fox News and I campaign for the Green Party…” You love them anyway.

Somehow this sentiment feels like it comes from a bygone era. Today differences in identity category, interest, opinion and affiliation feel like unbridgeable chasms. How did this happen? How do we fix it?

A Post-Cathedral World

I have edited this post a number of times over the past couple of days because something has been eating at me. It has taken me a while to process why I have been feeling so dispirited and to put it in words.

Today I did some reading of articles posted on blogs by other people who were grieving over the fire at Notre Dame de Paris– fortunately the damage was not as devastating as we feared it might be, but it was a loss none the less.

“There are few events these days that garners the same response from everyone. In a hyper-polarized culture, there are often several interpretations of events and even tragedies rather than a collective response,” wrote Karina Reddy-Brooks. “When the 850 year old Notre Dame de Paris caught fire Monday night, we saw one of these events that united us in our grief.”

It reminded us, wrote Brendan O’Neil, of the importance of human legacy.

What the widespread humanist concern for the fate of Notre Dame spoke to is people’s continued attachment to the ideal of legacy, to what is in many ways the founding principle of human civilisation: that we transmit culture and knowledge and art from one generation to the next. We recognised that the flames were consuming more than wood and stone; they were consuming tradition, the past itself. And for all of today’s cult of the new, most people recognise that our societies and our lives only make sense as a result of the gains of the past transmitted to us by our elders, which we then transmit to the next generation.

It was, wrote John Pavlovitz, “a reminder that we belong to one another.”

This, I think, is the crux of my ennui.  If we did have that feeling, I wish we could have held it longer.

For most Americans, Notre Dame is distant. It is a vacation destination. And perhaps this is why a burning French cathedral didn’t pull us together for as long as it might have. The feeling of unity lasted a few hours, maybe, before we went back to our regular causes and narratives and made the fire at Notre Dame a symbol of them.

Inevitably, these kinds of posts emerged on Twitter and Facebook from people I follow because I value their diverse points of view.

“Why are you grieving Notre Dame when you didn’t grieve… the burning of African-American churches, the victims of colonialism, this mosque that was destroyed, the victims of the worst crimes of the Catholic church…”

If you feel a connection to that place, to Paris and to Notre Dame, and if you have a long time interest in history and preservation, and the “angels in the architecture” of churches, (see my earlier article on the damage to the steeple of a Detroit church) then of course you grieve the loss of irreplaceable art, architecture, places of cultural and historical significance. Of course you do.

But suddenly in the funhouse mirror, being  moved by something outside of your daily life and concerns becomes evidence that you are not sufficiently compassionate or deep.

I am not the only one who has expressed this feeling.

A fellow Unitarian Universalist who I follow on twitter, Adrian L.H. Graham wrote:

“I can, and often do, hold many sadnesses within me in any given moment. I don’t share all of them; that would be tedious and exhausting. Some of my sadnesses are numbing. Some of them so sudden and unexpected that they cannot be contained and they pour out from me. I am not going to apologize for being sad about the fire at Notre Dame; and I’m not going to be bullied into feeling shame about it, either.”

Kim at Traveling with Books also felt compelled to defend her grief and to post a list of other tragedies and destruction of artifacts from other cultures and recognize that they also matter.

Ironically, Kim and Adrian and I are probably feeling this way precisely because we have tried to fill our feeds with diverse voices. It is because we actually do care that we are feeling shamed for caring about this particular thing.

And to be quite honest, while I am horrified whenever I hear about the destruction of an irreplaceable object from some other culture– a statue, a library, a Mosque, a Buddhist shrine–I do not experience it as the same visceral gut punch because I am not as close to it. I lived outside Paris for a short but significant time in my life. Notre Dame was the first place I experienced that sense of the mystic nature of places. Even though I am not Catholic, those European works of devotional art are part of my own cultural heritage. I experience the loss of it in a different way. How could it be otherwise?

This issue came up before in the wake of terrorist attacks in France and this is what I said at the time:

I am saddened when someone in my city dies. I am more saddened when someone in my neighborhood dies. I actively grieve and mourn when a friend dies. And when a member of my family dies, a part of me dies with him. How would you feel, then, if someone told you your mourning for your friend was misplaced because you were not equally mourning for everyone who had died that day in a similar fashion?

Today it seems clear that the damage at Notre Dame was not as extensive as we originally feared, and as the hope of what can be rebuilt starts to displace the grieving over what was lost, I find that I am mourning something else.

I am mourning the sense that the cathedral united us.

“…modern people are disinclined to pay for the past,” wrote Steve A. Wiggins, “and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone…Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.”

Today we live “in a post-cathedral world.”

I wish we’d held on to that sense of common purpose a little bit longer.