I’ve been on the internet for approximately 15 minutes.
In the space of a few scrolls, I have already seen a handful of tear jerkers. Heartbreaking images of abused children, the burnt body of a courageous father who saved his children in a fire, and an adorable newly-wed couple posing with a link to their heart-warming proposal.
An inspiring video, blog post, or image can cut right through our indifference towards our fellow man and touch us, making the very tissue of our hearts tender, soft, and penetrable. But for how long? What do my smile, my laughter, or my tears truly say about me? Am I a caring, moral or good person because I can empathize with the homeless man on my computer screen? For some people, this may be true. Some people may have a genuine and deep response to every image they encounter. This kind of response is likely due to their noble predisposition as a value-centered individual, a person who recognizes objects’ true value and worth. Unfortunately, not everyone who watches the video of the homeless man is converted, and therefore, transformed into a more generous neighbor, a more grateful child, or a more loving spouse.
Truth is, it is easier for me to tear up and be emotionally moved by Youtube videos than to turn to my neighbor and treat him with the respect his human dignity deserves.
Emotions can be stirred up by almost anything. A stirring up of emotions, however, does not indicate the value response of a person. Being moved by something does not automatically call a person to action and do something. A heart-warming youtube video of an 80 year old man who devotes his life to taking care of his wife with Alzheimers, for example, can easily move viewers to tears. If the viewer does not, as a result, respond to those convictions and treat his own grandmother more lovingly, than the compassion stirred up by the video was, unfortunately, shallow.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: how have videos and images impacted me...changed me...transformed me? Or have they at all? After being confronted daily with images of the dying and the sick, am I truly a more affective human being or merely more sentimental? Have I seen so much suffering that I can too easily turn a blind eye on my suffering neighbor?
The tears I shed while watching a story of a little girl with cancer do not necessarily make me more morally aware. Unless I can channel my tears towards actively addressing the suffering of those around me, I am no better off. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains my dilemma well:
“When someone feels compassion for his suffering neighbors but fails to help him by almsgiving, or by helping him in one way or another if the situation calls for it, we consider his compassion as insincere or at least as lacking in full seriousness and depth”(pg. 45)
We do not safeguard ourselves from insufficient responses to objects of value and worth by denying the importance of a “felt” affective response. Yes, a suffering human being may demand a call to action but if actions are performed cooly and indifferently then they are lacking an important moral and human element. To put it clearly, we must respond both emotionally and actively to things of value if our response is to be a deep, genuine, and true gift of the heart. How does this affect the way we ought to watch youtube videos, look at images, or read blog posts? When we perceive objects or subjects of value and worth, our response should be both affective and volitional, an act of the heart and will combined.
After flipping through a facebook feed full of touching and inspiring videos and stories, we should make our emotional responses more personal. Involve people. Real people. Reflect on day to day interactions with friends, families, spouses, etc in light of those awakened emotions. Every image and video wants to transform the viewer some way, somehow.
Yet, I wonder, why hasn’t my culture been transformed by this increase in “so-called” value response catalyzed by the social media? Why are my responses to these videos so often so shallow? Because as soon as I notice I have a new notification, I forget all about the homeless man who moments before had demanded my attention...my call to action.
Would it even be proper to attribute such behavior to the term “value-response”? No, a line must be drawn which distinguishes the true affective value-response from sentimentality, the kitsch form of affectivity. Sentimentality disguises itself as authentic affectivity. Sentimentality stands for that which is emotionally false and self-indulgent. The difference between what is sentimental and what is a true affective response, is the difference between a Nicholas Sparks novel and a Jane Austen novel. In an attempt to make the average middle-aged woman “feel” Sparks overwhelms his reader with emotionally provocative imagery and adjectives. Austen does not bombard her readers with emotional fluff, instead she stirs their hearts with the deep and meaningful themes of love and humanity which their hearts were made to respond to.
Unlike the sentimental response, the value-response pervades our indifference, our selfishness, our vices and awakens both our physical and moral senses.
The root of our inadequate responses is two-fold but neither obvious nor dramatic. First, I think we should acknowledge our generation’s desires to “be moved.” This desire, in itself, is a very good thing. Inspirational stories on the internet do restore our faith in humanity. But unfortunately, our feeling-friendly generation has been overexposed to the drastic and the emotional. We are asked to cry so often that we neglect to foster the proper foundation needed for true, deep, authentic compassion. We make the mistake of glorifying our feelings apart from the objects of those feelings.
I am confronted with hundreds of dramatic and meaningful images every time I use social media, but I am no more motivated to change the world than I am to do my homework. Having these daily emotional responses, which are all too easily accessible, has taken away from my responses their depth and intimacy.
Am I watching this engagement proposal solely for the warm and fuzzies or am I watching this because I recognize the subject matter is of great value and it should have a transcendent effect upon me?
A few weeks ago Dr. Roger Scruton, an English philosopher who specializes in aesthetics, spoke at my university and shared his own interesting and somewhat controversial thoughts on photography. He proposed that the mass production and dissemination of images within our culture is not a true form of authentic and transcendent art.
Imagine yourself walking through the streets of New York City, passing hundreds of photos that cover the walls of the buildings you pass. All of these photos depict moving scenes and images of the poor, the homeless, and the unloved. You notice the photos, yet they do not prompt you to stop and stare, think, or motivate you to act.
In advertising, one axiom claims “repetition equals retention” but is this countered by the axiom “familiarity breeds contempt”? “Familiarity breeds contempt” can be applied to God, has been applied to the phrase “Jesus loves you” and now takes its toll on “inspirational” videos and photos. We have turned moving, beautiful, gruesome, and shocking images into cliches. We have robbed the homeless man, the dying soldier, and the newly weds of their intimacy and meaningfulness. In an attempt to increase our humanity, the sheer number and prevalence of these photos and videos has only increased our apathy. We cry and “feel” more, but we move and act less.
A pro-life video may score the desired emotional response from me, making me “feel” as if I have done my part in the battle for life, when in reality I have done nothing more but wet my face.
To be truly motivated by an object of value is to open up our hearts to that object’s worth and priority and to allow it’s meaning and importance to penetrate our hearts moving us to change and to act. But, I’ll let Hildebrand have the last word,
“For it belongs to the nature of true affectivity that certain deep feelings are understood in their intimacy... Their value, intimacy, and depth forbid one's exhibiting them before spectators (44-45).”
Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart, 44-45.