US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Do Catholics need a new code of ethics for the digital age?

It's time for Christians to consider how technology impacts our relationships with one another and with God, says ethicist Kate Ott.

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Professor and Christian ethicist Kate Ott had never taken a course on technology or digital ethics when she began to teach a class on the subject. Instead, most of her research and teaching involved issues of gender, healthy relationships, and violence prevention, specifically for teens. But diving into these issues, she found, led to questions about the role of technology in people’s lives.

“For me, it’s about the way in which certain issues in society cause or exacerbate social oppressions,” Ott says. “With the advent of social media, blogging, and Twitter, I began to ask questions about how these media are helping or hindering justice efforts.”

The final result was Ott’s new book, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. The book attempts to provide Christians with a model for how to become more digitally literate and understand the role of technology through the lens of their faith, a project that has never before been done in many faith communities.

“What I hope for is that regardless of the type of technology I address in the book, I provide readers with a process that’s replicable once someone reads the book,” Ott says. “I wanted to give readers a model of how I unpack a digital concept, think about the theological and moral resources we have when we interact with that technology, and ethical practices in relation to that technology.”

Why should Christians care about the ethics of technology?

Who we are as human beings is because of our engagement with digital technology. I can’t assume that technology are these little devices outside of me that do not shift who I am or how human relationships happen: Digital technology is fundamentally changing who I am. 

For me, that raises fundamental theological questions. It suggests that technology also affects how we relate to God or how we understand human relationships and Christian requirements of forgiveness, for example.

I also think technology gives us a way to better understand our historical traditions. Technology is not new: Human communities have always been reshaped by technology. The invention of the light bulb or the clock, for example, shifted the way in which people understood day and night. This, in turn, shifted the way in which they worshiped, worked, and created metaphors for God in the world.

The huge influence of digital technology has had a far more radical impact on our everyday lives. This is just another stage in that recognition.

Given that digital technology is so important in human society, why hasn’t there been more conversation regarding Christian digital ethics?

There are some Christian communities engaging issues of digital technology, but they tend to be evangelical or conservative Protestant, because these worshiping communities were also the first to adopt technology, whether radio broadcasting in the 1950s during the big revivalist movement or the adaptation of digital technology in worship in the 1980s and ’90s in megachurches. Folks in these traditions started to ask questions about digital ethics because it was in use in their spaces.

But Catholic moral theologians, and the majority of Protestants, weren’t exposed to the same kind of technology in their faith communities as often, and they therefore weren’t as interested in digital technology as a whole.

It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that the explosion of digital technology and internet-based platforms made other Christian ethicists begin to talk about issues of digital ethics. And it’s still not a very long or deep conversation, and there’s not many conversation partners for those that are asking these questions. When I graduated with my Ph.D. 12 years ago, for example, I wasn’t taught anything about technology.

What’s wrong with many of the existing approaches to technology and ethics?

Much of what I’ve seen in Christian communities is a rule-based approach to digital technology, with a few exceptions. This can look like limiting screen time or supervising children’s internet use. Even among those who don’t use such a prescriptive approach, many people tend to overlay whatever their Christian theology is onto digital technology in order to make judgments about what’s right or wrong.

As a social ethicist, I try to do the opposite: Instead of leading with a theological premise, I want to look first at what’s happening socially. I believe that if we start by first observing what’s going on with digital technology in people’s lives, we can then better discern the ways in which our theological and values-based commitments can help us interact with technology or shape it in new ways that develop more ethical communities. It’s a more interactive model of how to engage technology and ethics. I’m open to the possibility that both our faith-based ethics and digital technology might be revived or look different in today’s digital world.

Can you give an example of how you approach ethics differently?

One of the things you hear a lot when it comes to mindful technology use is the importance of “unplugging.” Even the pope has come out and urged families to spend less time with technology so that they can spend more time with one another and with God.

But this argument fails to take into account the extent to which our lives have been restructured by digital technology. I can’t just unplug; if I did, I wouldn’t be able to do my work. Likewise, we’ve restructured the way our children are shuttled from one activity to another in their own age groups; there’s no more free spaces for our kids to just hang out in person with one another. That space has migrated online. To unplug, then, actually disconnects someone from their human relationships.

When I talk to parents, I tell them not to imagine that they’re asking kids to unplug from a “social network.” Instead, they should envision the 50 or 60 friends who are on the other side of the connection: all the people with whom we have relationships. In other words, for folks who have grown up in a digital world, as well as for those of us who have migrated into it whether by choice or by force, these are actually relationships. They might look different, but the notion that somehow online interactions are fake and the people I see in the flesh are real doesn’t fit our experience any more. I might interact with online friends differently, but I’m still interacting with them, there’s still a relationship there.

Another argument is that people can feel radically alone online. I was talking with a parent who told me, “I think we misunderstand digital technology, because there are times I go online to interact with my family and friends who aren’t geographically close. I know them, I love them, and I feel close to them even though we aren’t physically together. At the same time, I can go to church and sit with 200 people and feel completely disconnected. Nobody talks to me, and I’m not sure if we have shared values or experiences.”

Being a person in a community doesn’t solve all our problems of loneliness, just as being online isn’t going to solve our problems of loneliness. The problem isn’t the technology itself.

What about people using social media to create fake personas? 

First of all, we can’t speak in absolutes. There are certainly some people who go online and purposely create a profile that is not who they really are, who lie about who they are.

But there’s also been research that shows that when the internet first started, its anonymity allowed people from minoritized communities—LGBTQ folks or young people who were socially awkward and had no friends—to really find spaces to explore who they were and to gain a stronger sense of self-confidence and community.

Over time, with the growth of MySpace and then Facebook and blogging, that changed, and there was a shift to being a “real person” online. Facebook requires you to give your real name, and they were the first to force this necessary connection between offline and online identities.

But even today, like in any in-person interaction, each social media handle or online persona expresses only a partial identity. Take for example my online handle: @Kates_Take. I don’t use “Kate Ott,” but I’m not pretending that I’m not Kate Ott. I’m simply saying that my reason for being in this social media space is to promote the ideas I have as a writer and as an academic.

Just as I’m @Kates_Take on Instagram, Twitter, and my blog, I’m also Professor Ott in the classroom and Mom at home. These are all aspects of my identity. None are false, and yet none encompass the complete totality of who I am in the world at any given time.

We’ve moved to an experience of online identity that is just another aspect of who we are in the world and that contributes to our overall identity.

Does our understanding of God change how we think about social media?

Our belief in the Trinity helps us understand this radical relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. This is a relationship that is purely equal, but also in service of the other, and it gives us a rich ethical approach to being in relationship with other people in our world. I can expect equality in all of my relationships while understanding that this equality grows out of the fact that I am willing to serve the other who is in relationship with me.

Thinking about relationships in this way brings a balance to how we understand who we are online. There’s never a one-sided self-erasure, where I become this fake persona online and fill myself up with what everyone else wants to see. But I also don’t become this perfectly crafted person with no flaws who is not impacted by online relationships with other people. In this way, our faith and understanding of a Trinitarian God leads us to a richer understanding of relationships and their give and take.

I also think the Trinity can help us understand that we’re not just spirit and body, we’re also digital. For me, having this Trinitarian theological understanding that you can be three things at once helps explain how Christians can be digital, spiritual, and embodied all at the same time.

How should people approach digital engagement in a more mindful way?

The first step is to increase digital literacy. How do these things work? Why are they built this way? How do they shape our behavior and reactions? What’s changed in the last three years related to digital technology? Then go a step further. How has today’s digital technology been used or created, how has it shifted the way you interact with others and form relationships? That, for me, is the step that’s most lacking in Christian digital ethics.

The next step is to say, “What is it, out of my Christian faith, that I am longing for?” My overarching question in the book is, “What does God require of each of us to do or be in the world?” If I can answer that question for myself, I can then start to ask whether my engagement with digital technology is helping or hindering that.

This, for me, is the process of digital literacy: asking rich ethical questions about my relationship to my Christian faith and putting it together with technology use. If I think that God calls me to do or be something specific in the world, how is digital technology a place where I can come and do that? And, on the flip side, in what ways do I need to draw back on or change my engagement because it’s not resulted in who I want to be or what I want to do?

Part of what I hope people get from the book is that too often we’re overly reactive to digital technology. Many people fall on one end of a spectrum: Either we say, “Get rid of it, it’s all evil,” or we’re all-inclusive and say, “Technology will fix all of our problems.” Either extreme is really ineffective at dealing with the daily impact of technology on our lives.

I don’t want anyone to feel that they have to know everything about technology to engage with it or to feel so overwhelmed that they don’t react. In reality everyone is making small tweaks to how they engage with technology on a daily basis.

Instead, I hope that we create conversations with our families and faith communities about the ways in which we all make those little shifts and tweaks so that we can have a more concerted effort to bring our faith to the table when it comes to these conversations. 

What is the Christian response to people behaving badly online, especially when this behavior uncovers things like racism or violence against women?

A good example of this is Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia. A photo came out online of his 1984 medical school yearbook depicting him and a friend in blackface and wearing a KKK costume.

Now no one should be let off the hook for behavior like this, even if it’s in the past. But I am concerned that the overwhelming response to incidents like this is moral outrage paired with a complete attempt at erasing that person. While I think it’s important to acknowledge the horrible things people have done in their past so that they don’t continue to do them, I would hope that Christians would do more to hold people accountable going forward.

As long as current and immediate harm is not being done, then aren’t we as Christians required to give people a second chance? Jesus doesn’t say, “OK you are sorry for your sins, now go ahead and do whatever you want or do it again.” Forgiveness requires ongoing accountability. But I worry that our moral outrage increasingly allows us to act as if the problems—racism, for example, which was the issue with Northam—don’t exist among each of us. 

I often do education around sexual abuse prevention in congregations. Many churches think, “As long as we conduct background checks on everyone and don’t let anyone who is a convicted sex offender or has a past of sexual harassment participate, then our congregation will be safe and fine.” But really, there are many people who haven’t been caught yet. Instead, what churches need to do is structurally change the way in which we keep people safe and educate one another. If we just dismiss people, we don’t have to make those structural changes. We don’t have to look at ourselves and say, “How might I be contributing to this problem?” The same is true in many of our responses to this type of online revelations.

If my response to Northam is limited to moral outrage and I can say to myself, “He shouldn’t be governor,” I can act like he’s the only problem and I never have to think to myself, “In what ways am I contributing to racism every day?” 

How do we start building this more structural approach?

In this particular example, I think there needed to be other people with the same public stature to say that what Northam did was wrong. Because absolutely without question it was wrong, and he has admitted that.

The next step is to come up with some sort of social contract. Give Northam a year to prove that he’s actively going to work on issues of white supremacy from a structural and governmental perspective. Give him some goals. If he can do that over the next year, then he’s allowed to continue in the position. If not, the legislature will impeach him.

Too often we fail to allow people to change or make amends. In the book I give the example of Ray Rice, a football player who was arrested in 2014 for assaulting his fiancée. He did everything people asked of him—including the public, the NFL, even Oprah Winfrey. But because of the backlash he never played another game. I actually think that’s the worst message. Why would anyone do all the work to try to change if there’s no benefit to it? If they lose everything either way?

This article also appears in the June 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 6, pages 18–22).

Image: Unsplash cc via Steinar Engeland 

Published: 
Wednesday, May 29, 2019