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Commentary: The Tyranny Of The Superficial

By William Lawrence

Dallas, TX –

Facebook last week announced it had passed the 500 million mark in membership. That includes commentator William Lawrence, although he could do without some aspects of the social networking site.

Back in the old days, my wife and I communicated regularly with our children and grandchildren by phone, e-mail, and occasional video visits through a web cam. Since they live nearly a thousand miles from us, we enjoyed such substantive moments with them.

But that was in olden times, by which I mean a year or two ago. Now, we learn about their activities through postings on Facebook. Direct communicating has been supplanted by social networking. On the one hand, these discussions create a kind of instant community, with people from distant places joining in the chatter. On the other hand, such communities are often constructed on silly superficialities among the postings.

And yet, I may have to pore through those trivialities in case something more serious appears, like the posted note about "sitting in the emergency room until a doctor decides whether there is a fracture." I wish there were ways to reduce the superficial and receive only the substantive!

The fact is that our lives have come to be dominated by superficiality. So much of America's political discourse consists of utterances that barely skim the surface of complex issues. Commentators talk about "framing the narrative" in such a way that the frame matters far more than the facts. The superficial crowds out the substance.

Earlier this year as the debate on health care reform wound its way through the Congress, reporters tended to frame their stories around the number of votes needed in the House and the Senate to pass a bill. Americans were treated to mindless speculations about political techniques for reaching a simple majority in the House, or a sixty-vote majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, very few Americans actually learned what was in the substantive legislation.

When a member of Congress shouted that the President was lying about it, the ensuing discussion focused on his shout from the seats, not a detailed review of what the bill actually said. And when an opponent of the legislation said it contained provisions for "death panels," her comment and rejections of it were repeated ad nauseam. But few bothered to read the bill and tell us what was actually there.

The tyranny of the superficial has victimized all of us.

Yet, if there is one thing that we have learned from the last two months watching oil gush from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, it is that the real problems in life are the deepest ones those that lie hidden far below the surface, the ones we cannot solve by skimming a sheen or shouting a slogan. Immigration, for instance, is a deeply complex matter involving economic opportunity, racism, and religion. Building a wall on the surface of the border will not cope with the profound problems that divide us. We have to think deeply, create seriously, and act boldly to build bridges across our troubled ways.

When my next opportunity comes to talk with the children and grandchildren, I want to teach them such things. That way they will know that I love them, that I respect them, and that I really do care about the serious issues forming their futures.

William Lawrence is Dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology.

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