The Internet, the Person and Human Dignity

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on September 27, 2013.

A new poll indicates that 44 percent of Americans age 65 and above have never used the Internet. The reasons cited include "just not interested" and the sentiment that the Internet is too difficult to access.

To the likely chagrin of some 'Net addicts, I find this statistic very encouraging. On apersonal level, I'm weary of constantly having to learn yet one more computer trick to make my life simpler. I don't want to take the time to keep building an ever more sophisticated skill-set in an area (personal computers) where the return on constant re-education is, at least for me, so very modest.

More broadly, older people have the maturity to realize that large quantities of disconnected information are seldom needed with the unsettling urgency the Web gives them, that obtaining yet one more "app" will not make their lives more complete, and that true, personal relationships are much more fulfilling (and real) than virtual ones.

Continuously giving voice to one's thoughts and emotions in real time, and letting others know about one's activities as they are experienced, accelerates simultaneously a sense of disconnectedness and active self-preoccupation. Seniors recognize that the mundane affairs of life do not always mandate instant "tweeting" and,more profoundly, that endlessly writing about oneself (even if with 21st-century irony or faux

self-deprecation) can be little more than self-display.

Of course, tools such as Facebook serve many good purposes: they reconnect old friends, enable us to share photos with family members around the country, serve as public message boards when something significant happens, etc. There's nothing wrong, and everything healthy, about these benefits.

Similarly, the Internet has enabled people and companies from all over the world to connect, share stories, barter, build communities of common interest, etc. Purchasing things online has saved my family and me huge amounts of money, and going to a host of free news sites for information is a political junkie's dream come true. What's often called "B2B"(business-to-business) commerce is essential in the interwoven global economy.

But Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and email (email remains, to a middle-aged guy like me, a marvel) are not substitutes for a face-to-face relationship, one in which persons are present in space and time, not just in abbreviated words and electronic neurons.

In our day, pornography encourages what one writer has called "sex without persons." This principle extends to many areas of the Internet: Online commercial transactions do not involve the dignity of looking another person in the eye and exchanging goods and service. The Internet fosters personal rudeness, even cruelty, and allows the angry and uninformed to give public vent to their ill will. The tragic consequences of some such rantings, e.g., Internet bullying, have broken far too many lives.

Human personhood is not restricted to the body, the mind, or the emotions: these things are integrated and comprehensive. That's why genuine personal relationships count: They involve the whole person, whose character and personality cannot long be hidden, not just the easily fabricated self-presentation of quips and analysis and even lies made possible by a keyboard and an electrical cord.

That whole person is composed of what Paul the apostle described as the "inner man" and the "outer man." Our minds, emotions, and volition exist within a body; the separation of the inner from the outer man at death was never intended by God, as death came only after man had fallen into sin. It is the union of the inner and outer person that makes us whole beings capable of love, pain, thought, and decision. Neither body without soul nor soul without body. Philosopher Arthur Custance has explained it this way: "Materialism with its denial of the soul makes man subjectless and therefore only a half-entity, while spiritualism with its denial of the body makes him objectless and therefore only a half-entity. Either view effectively annihilates man as man."

The Internet, with its detachment of the whole person from relational interaction, might not annihilate the individual but certainly can diminish his humanness. The Internet can also, with its capacity for fostering communication, link people and companies and communities in highly beneficial ways. Let's just remember that texting is no substitute for sitting down with a friend, that your facial expressions cannot be observed in an email, and that you cannot extend an arm of comfort through a glass screen.