Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk late last month about the lights and shadows of modern means of social communication. In at least one way, the timing couldn’t have been better. Perfectly underscoring his message on this side of the Atlantic was a media frenzy over actor Charlie Sheen’s narcissistic meltdown.
The pope’s talk mostly was upbeat and matter-of-fact about new communications technologies: This is how people communicate these days, so, of course, the Church, to fulfill its mission, will need to become expert at them as well.
But he made another key observation: These technologies are not simply new tools people use to talk as they always have; they are tools that are effecting broad changes in the culture and to the language of communication itself.
How this all plays out has yet to be fully seen. But it is clear that new media is partly characterized by an immediacy and intimacy of communication that used to be possible only face to face.
In communication without that physical presence, the pope said, “The risks are obvious to all: the loss of intimacy, superficiality in relationships, resorting to the emotional, and a general attitude that prevails over the desire for truth.”
Case in point: the Sheen debacle. The star of the No. 1 comedy show “Two and a Half Men” lashed out, in interview after interview, at his co-workers and employer in what at least one psychiatrist said appeared to be an “acute manic episode.”
These were crazy, self-absorbed rants. And yet even respectable news outlets couldn’t seem to get enough of it.
One newspaper columnist had this remark: “If there’s anything that symbolizes the bankruptcy of TV news today, it’s the focus on Charlie Sheen.”
But don’t blame the media (entirely, anyway). They’re just running with what people will tune in to watch.
“It’s a great story,” one NBC television producer told The As-sociated Press. “We don’t have this much interest when we have a big interview on Libya or a powerful, smart series on the brain.”
So television is pandering to the lowest common denominator because it works, and we’re going along with it because we’re titillated and entertained?
How do we break that vicious cycle? I have no idea. Maybe we’re going to one day hit some bottom of bad taste or disrespect for human dignity that will shock media producers and consumers to take a higher road, for a while at least.
In his talk, the pope said believers are called to become media professionals, too, and help open “horizons of meaning and value that the digital culture is not capable to perceive and represent on its own.” That includes, he said, focusing on dialogue and responsibility in communication, and never “linguistic seduction,” cutting off communication ties, or violence.
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