“…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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