Friday, October 08, 2010

Twitter, Thomas, and the Tipping Point

I love when my dissertation topic makes news.

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism:

"Um, Sarah? It doesn't mention you or your dissertation anywhere in that article."

I know. Malcolm Gladwell probably has no idea that he's talking about my dissertation topic (or one of them) in the above piece, but he is.

The above is a wonderful explanation of the difference made in social activism by the quality of social ties among participants. "Weak-tie" connections--that is, your acquaintances, casual friends, and those third cousins you only see every couple years at funerals and such--are great resources for the kind of social change that depends on large numbers of people doing very little. When all one is changing is fashion, one only needs large numbers of people to create a tipping point.

The kind of social activism that requires genuine sacrifice, that depends on well-organized and well-trained members, that risks grave danger, that drives substantive, long-term change cannot make use of these "weak-tie" connections. The Civil Rights Movement, Gladwell says, could not have happened without "strong-tie" connections--genuine friendships, the kind that foster trust, mutual encouragement, and solidarity in the face of challenge. The kind of leverage required to "tip" centuries of injustice toward something different does not come from a mass of loosely connected people doing nothing more substantive than throwing their spare change at a problem.

Twitter, Facebook, and other emerging social media cannot create the latter kind of ties, and only where such ties are maintained by many other means can they participate in the strengthening of them. (My parents love seeing pictures of their grandchildren on my personal blog, but if that was all they had of their grandchildren, it would be a severely attenuated relationship.)

Gladwell probably doesn't know it, but he is thinking right along with Thomas Aquinas.

For Thomas, there is a difference between the passions and the virtues. The passions are immediate, pre-rational responses to the world: the instinctive cringe when the hand encounters a hot object, the smiling warmth when a mother sees her beloved children after a day apart, the burning tension when a co-worker's insult is overheard. These passions can be misguided, of course (as when a new neighbor prompts the breathless energy that ought to be reserved for one's wife), but they can also be entirely wholesome and good (as when a stranger's distress prompts an easy gesture of assistance).

Passions are entirely different than virtues, however. Virtues require reasoned intentionality--they are the deliberate and conscious analogues to well-ordered passions. The mother who smiles at her sleeping child is instinctively recognizing the goodness of her offspring; she loves him with all the ease and warmth that the passions inspire. The mother who speaks gently to her tantruming child, who changes the third set of vomit-stained sheets that night, who haunts the cold and impersonal principal's office until the bullying is addressed, who cooks her nine thousandth family meal with the same care she did her first, that mother is loving her child with something more morally significant.

That kind of love is harder. It takes determination; it takes reflection; it takes character. In some cases, it requires intentionally resisting the passions. Only the mother who knows what is good for her child can do it; only the mother who wants to do good for her child will do it; only the mother who consistently chooses to do the good for her child will find herself capable of doing it even when her instinctual responses are to scream, lash out, give up, or chase happiness elsewhere.

That is the difference between the passions and the virtues: the one is easy, immediate, and instinctive; the other is difficult, sustained, and achieved only with deliberate, long-term intentionality.

And friends--real friends, not the kind that "like" your status updates or "follow" your tweets--are a crucial part of the process of forming the virtues. Good friendships with good people struggling to form the same good virtues ease the journey. They commiserate, they correct with gentleness and persistence, they offer concrete assistance, and they gratefully receive one's own offers of assistance.

Those are the kinds of friends you want with you when you're sitting out on your front porch every evening so that the drug dealers will stop coming around. Those are the kinds of friends you want with you when you file the police report against your corrupt employers. Those are the kinds of friends you want with you when you're trying to find just one more reason not to pick up that needle again. Those are the kinds of friendships you need more of.

"Oh, Sarah, you are so right! I'm going to forward this to all my friends on Facebook!"

Please don't.

Well, okay--yes, do. I like watching my hit count go up.

But then turn off your computer. Go.

Go take your extra zucchini to your neighbors. Or call your mother. Or have coffee with your college roommate. Or make cookies for your children or your co-workers or your grandmother. Or make cookies with your children or your co-workers or your grandmother.

Go do stuff with real human beings. The cyber-beings you've been hanging out with lately won't hold your hand while you're facing down real trouble. Go find the ones that will.