“…or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: ‘Everyone is entitled to know everything.’ But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” Harvard Commencement Address 1978
What often strikes me when listening to or watching news is that at root it’s an industry. Every turn of phrase, the tone, the urgency. The news outlets need us to tune in, otherwise their business fails.
It’s a very bad model, and it has significant negative consequences in our lives, as we are made to feel that we cannot get by without knowing what is ‘going on out there’—as if the news were somehow presenting what is really going on in the world. Particularly harrowing of late is the obsession with impeachment hearings, and any number of other scandals fabricated or reported to grab our attention.
As is often the case today, we need to learn to look out for ourselves and our loved ones, in this case in defense of our right not to know. I am not going to suggest sticking our head in the sand. Rather, I’m suggesting that part of the problem is the assumption that not lapping up the news is doing precisely that.
But what if turning to the news is actually putting our head in the sand? What if feeding on the news is precisely how we satisfy ourselves that we are keeping up on things, while in reality it both focuses our attention on the wrong things and distracts us from what really matters?
In his justly famous address, Solzhenitsyn suggests we have a right not to know—in the sense of not having our souls stuffed with “gossip, nonsense, vain talk.” If these latter dull and blind our spiritual powers of perception, then we need to consider how to cleanse and purify our vision.
Such a cleansing will be difficult. Surely it will include freeing ourselves—to the extent we reasonably can—from the incessant drone of news and social media, even while finding ways to know what we need to know about politics, business and world affairs. The even more challenging thing will be to find suitable food for our souls.
A right not-to-know the vain and shallow is rooted in an imperative to savor the substantial and enduring. Solzhenitsyn makes clear he is concerned not only about news but also all the other various ‘media’ today. The sources of gossip, nonsense and vain talk have multiplied dramatically since 1978; at issue here is much more than just news. Today our divine souls will get stuffed with what acts as a wall against what’s really real, unless we take action.
It will take a choice—both to say no, and to say yes. The two go together: carving out a space, then filling it with richer fare. Deeper things can seem impractical or even out of place in a media induced hurly-burly.
We might begin by savoring the natural world in some systematic and intentional way; or by turning to time-tested sources of deeper reflection, for instance reading scripture, or the ancients, dusting off or discovering for the first time Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Dante or Shakespeare, or so many other classics, ancient, medieval, modern or contemporary. We can reinvest in good work—even if it’s not our profession or source of income, the kind of work that connects us with people and what’s real: the kind of work which Solzhenitsyn suggests is a source of meaning in life.
We can become freer from and perhaps even immune to the “burdening flow of information.” For the depths of reality are never far away, if we cultivate the native soil of our divine souls.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a major Russian literary figure whose works include The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His 1978 Harvard commencement address established him as a controversial critic not only of socialism and his native homeland but also of the western ‘free’ world.
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Thank you for this reflection. I recently decided to throw away my “smart” phone and start using a “dumb” phone. After reading your reflection, I am doubling down on that commitment. I am practicing my right not to know. Not to anesthetize myself to reality, work, and family. The smart phone is a way for the news, incessant communication, social media, and the rest of it to be with me all the time. I’ve come to realize I am a slave to the apps and content (you rightly judged how this is all an industry) of the smart phone. I am not cultivating fertility within my soul, but erosion and destruction.
It may be possible the smart phone can be used well, but for me, I have not been able to wield its power. No matter how hard I try, I still reach for it like an opioid, always readily available to pull me away from the “depths of reality”.
Philip, This is a powerful testimony. Your self-knowledge and firm resolution are laudable. How can anything but good come from your intentional approach? Thanks so much for sharing.
HOORAY! I am definitely sending this one around cyberspace. Thank you.
Thank you, Mary!
Thanks for drawing our attention to this great quote/insight, and providing a reflection on it!
My pleasure indeed. I was so glad when someone shared this quotation with me!
This article presents a liberating idea- liberating, because it is easy (for me, at least) to treat the habit of “checking in” on the latest news at sometime of an obligation to society, incumbent on my being a citizen. (I’m thinking, e.g., of checking the news every few hours on my phone.) Whereas, this obligation could seem to be fulfilled by simply reading the news in a systematic way once per day. I found the following two sentences of yours particularly potent: (1) “A right not-to-know the vain and shallow is rooted in an imperative to savor the substantial and enduring.” (2) “For the depths of reality are never far away, if we cultivate the native soil of our divine souls.”
In your opinion, what is the “golden mean” in respect to keeping properly attuned to current affairs? On the one hand, I want to leave sufficient time to attend to eternal things; on the other, ignorance about important events would be undesirable.
Brian, You ask a great question. The good news is you are already half-way there simply in how well you formulated the question. The mean will be, as Aristotle reminds us, specific to your particular situation. But you are starting with the right principles: I need to cultivate and make time for attention to higher things, and yet I also need to be appropriately tuned-in to passing realities around me. I like your own suggestion here of finding a good source of news and then visiting that at certain set times. My friend and colleague Christopher Lane shared what he does in a comment on this post I did last year. He gives a specific suggestion about where he gets his news; you’ll see it in the comments on that piece. Also, please see the comment of another wise friend of mine, Tony, which you’ll find below in the comments here. Check out the comment by Paul too. Thanks for asking, Brian.
Thanks, John, for this great reflection. Some of the comments have led me to recall my own past obsession with keeping up with the news, and I thought that perhaps someone might like to hear about my own experience. I undertook an experiment last year: I resolved not to check the news at all, not to read a newspaper, not to listen to news radio, not to check news on the internet. The results were astonishing. First, I found that I had freed up a large amount of both time and mental energy for things that were really important and fulfilling. Second, I found that I missed nothing important in the realm of current events: everyone wants to tell you about something important. In fact, I probably still knew more about current events than I really needed to.
I now allow myself to look at a paper once or twice a week, but my news obsession has been broken and the benefits were more than I had hoped.
I hope that this has been helpful for someone.
Thank you, Tony. It’s helpful to me for starters! That is a very challenging approach, and even if one doesn’t do it as full-bore as you did, this gives good basis for seriously considering cutting back dramatically. Thanks so much for your sage input.
Very wise and said with a simplicity that bespeaks deep thought.
You bring to mind the opening lines of Josef Pieper’s essay “Learning How to See Again”(as well as his many warnings against the vice of acedia):
“Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.”
I’ve found that if I want to keep up with the news, my time is better spent reading longer articles of commentary by people with a knowledge of history that allows them to bring understanding to current events rather than reading the poorly written and poorly digested chit-chat of the standard newspaper.
A recently translated book by Jean-Claude Larchet, The New Media Epidemic, looks promising: https://www.holytrinitypublications.com/the-new-media-epidemic
Thanks for all your good work.
Paul, I love that essay by Josef Pieper. Thank you for referencing it here; it’s very apropos. If you have any suggestions for trusted sources of longer more intelligent commentary, by all means please share it.
Praying regularly throughout the day helps a lot…
Amen to that.
In the USSR nobody believed the media because almost everyone knew it was, almost, all lies.
The Tower of Babel that exists now in the West reduces us to almost the same sorry state.
Solzhenitsyn once denounced the paparetsi who were plaguing him as *worse than the KGB.
A grim and bracing point.
The BBC were once paragons of objective. The Beyond 100 Days program – and its still on – combines the pretense of objectivity with smirking, when reporting on Trump. I’m not his greatest fan but he was duly elected.
I like to refer to TV reporters as “Anxiety merchants.!”
Leo, This is a great aspect to emphasize. Anxiety has such negative consequences. But anxiety is precisely what so often media outlets use in order to get us to be interested and tune in. Thank you.