A recent news story from the Los Angeles Times tells of a multi-level tragedy that reveals once again the the depravity of fallen human nature in its technologically-enhanced destructive ugliness. In brief, a teenage girl who was subject to depression was befriended by a sixteen-year-old boy online. After the six-week Internet friendship had developed to a point of apparent emotional attachment, the boy turned on the girl, terminating the friendship in a particularly cruel and vicious way. The girl killed herself.
Later it was discovered that the sixteen-year-old boy was in fact an adult woman, a disgruntled neighbor of the poor girl. The deranged woman had a petty ax to grind because of a lost friendship between her daughter and the victim.
The Times trenchantly summarized things: “Cyber-bullying has become an increasingly creepy reality, where the anonymity of video games, message boards and other online forums offers an outlet for cruel taunts. But it can be difficult to draw the line between constitutionally protected free speech and conduct that is illegal.”
Doubtless, there will be extreme solutions proposed. Doubtless, the old saw, “there oughta be a law!” will press big government to fix things via the statist solution. The helping hand will strike again, as new draconian legislation, enforced by a new bloated federal bureau with new unconstitional powers, seeks to protect us from ourselves. As we have learned post 9-11, freedom can go out the window for the sake of security, only the ones most often “secured” are the bad guys.
Of course, this solution is worse than the problem. In theory, the laws we have on the books regarding harassment, libel, and other crimes can be applied to their Internet counterparts. But regardless of how the authorities deal with cyber crimes, the faithful need to guard themselves and their children, not only from criminal and civil victimization, but also (and more importantly) from moral corruption. This they must do by disciplining their use of a dangerous technology that acts as a powerful catalyst to human iniquity.
Note that I did not say an evil technology; I said a dangerous technology. This is an important difference, and from it we can make some valuable observations concerning the moral order. In the context of recommending celibate chastity to the Corinthians, St. Paul broadens his scope to consider how the faithful ought to interact with all the stuff of this world. He says that Christians should “use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away” (I Cor. 7:31). Herein, the Apostle gives us a valuable lesson concerning our interaction with persons, places, and things — each of which can aid us in our salvation, and each of which can occasion our ruin. St. Paul’s is an attitude of what might be called “Christian circumspection,” one that avoids the excesses of Manicheanism on the one hand (“matter is evil”), and hedonism on the other (“if it feels good, do it”).
Those who have ever been targeted by bloggish harassment know that it is not pleasant. One’s intimate life (real or fictitious), all one’s foibles, even all one’s irreproachable words and deeds, can be subject to distortion, ridicule, mockery, and savage taunting. It can and does often far exceed incivility, as in the terrible case reported by the Times.
In exploring this subject, we can employ a literary figure to help us grasp the Christian concept of how to deal with — or avoid — the seductive cruelties of the blogosphere. That figure comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world: It is the palantíri, or “seeing stones.” (Those who saw The Return of the King will recall poor Peregrin Took being nearly roasted by the one that was taken from Saruman.) These devices allow their users, crystal-ball like, to communicate with each other and to see far-off realities. The seeing stones were not bad things. Seven of them entered Middle Earth when the Dúnedain of Númenor came to found their kingdoms there, receiving the stones as a gift from the Elves whose craft produced them. (Aragorn, “the King,” in Return of the King, was descended from the royal line of the Dúnedain.) The High Kings of men distributed the seven stones among themselves and their lieutenants in order to see far-off dangers and to communicate with each other.
For all the convenience and helpfulness of the technology, the palantíri were not immune from a perverse use. And here is Tolkien at his best, showing his readers the effects of the fall and original sin. His books make up a fantastic laboratory where we can easily observe what is often too close for us to notice in real life, and “the fall” (whether of Elves or of Men) is a theme whose depth he sounds with surprising thoroughness. A related theme that Tolkien brings into his work is the abuse of technology (or “craft” as he most often calls it). The rings of power are the most notable example of this phenomenon. In addition, industrialization is the target of much of Tolkein’s lore, as we see with Saruman’s hewing down of Fangorn forest. (Tolkein was protesting the destruction of England’s beautiful countryside.) Further back in the history of Tolkien’s universe, the Silmarils — three elven jewels of great power and beauty — caused the fall of a great part of the Elves.
Except for the “One Ring” of power, made for evil purposes by Sauron, all of these inventions are good in themselves. Yet, when they fall into the wrong hands, they can be used for great evil. Further — and here is where we must pay attention — they can be used by the wicked to corrupt the good. Because a palantír is a device of audio-visual communication, it is not too much of a stretch to compare it to a computer connected to the Internet. The faithful can use the Internet for good, but the Saurons and Sarumons out there can use it for their corrupt purposes.
Saruman himself went from being the head of the White Council to being a useful pawn in Sauron’s service by a combination of his over-fascination with the ring-lore and his “chatting” with Sauron through a palantír. Another character who is corrupted by a palantír, though very differently, is Lord Denethor. His tragic end was exactly that of Megan Meier, the MySpace suicide case. The movie only hints at it, but the book is much more explicit: Lord Denethor was using the palantír to collect knowledge of his enemy’s activities. In the film, Denethor boasts to Gandalf of his knowledge: “Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind? I have seen more than you know.” Denethor thinks himself better for knowing what he knows, but he does not realize that the Enemy, who is subtle and skilled in deception, is intimidating him with graphic propaganda, slowly perverting his mind, much as the Ring perverted the mind of Gollum.
And now we consider Blogs — or “Blogses” in Gollum’s idiom. Blogs are quick, easy tools of cyber-communication. In an instant, we can say what we want to the world, or just to grandma. Pat Buchanan can inform us about politics and the economy; Catholic mothers can enlighten us with some intelligent advice about modesty or femininity; while satanists and pornographers can peddle their filth on the very same bandwidth. Recalling that we must “use this world, as if [we] used it not,” the children of the Church must recognize that blogs — and “social networking” like MySpace — provide an easy-to-use technology that can quickly corrupt us. The corruption can be explicit, as it was for Saruman, who came to envy the Enemy and desire his power; or it can be subtle, as in the case of Lord Denethor, whose nobility of mind was slowly dissolved by a knowledge at once seductive and tormenting. In Denethor’s case, it was the constant assault of an enemy bent on his destruction that forced him to despair.
Most of us, thank God, will not likely get the Sauron treatment on the Internet, as poor Megan Meier did, but we might be harassed in other ways. What should we do? Having a thoughtful, prudent friend give advice might help. Seeking legal counsel may prove advisable. But above all, we should avoid subjecting ourselves to it, especially alone and at night, when shadows are long and creepy, and the mind is more subject to disturbances of all sorts.
And, for the sake of their souls, do not give your children or teenagers unsupervised use of the information superhighway. The “Dark Lord” — and not the one of fantasy — has many snares laid for them there; for in the end, evil webheads are only his useful idiots.