In my last post, I wrote of moral hazards created by privacy, using extramarital affairs as just one example (really, any legal or moral wrongdoing facilitated by secrecy illustrates the point). Privacy, as it happens, also encourages use of networked information technologies for confession of moral wrongs and provides incentives for both wrongdoers and victims to find support from others with similar interests and concerns.
This post explores the use of Internet tools for confession, support, and the cultivation of forgiveness, including the salience of privacy (and pseudonymity) in facilitating those interactions, and also the limitations of information tools in this respect.
Online Support Tools
It takes merely a casual Internet search to discover online self-help groups for a myriad of issues related to moral and emotional crises, including infidelity, domestic abuse, violence, bullying; the list is extensive. These uses of networked information technologies affords those affected both information (admittedly, of various types and value) and personal connection with those with similar issues. This can help provide perspective that one is not alone, and help those impacted address complex issues of self-blame, guilt, responsibility, and anxiety that can come with such a crisis.
Internet tools provide simple and straightforward ways to form support groups, akin to Al-Anon and Alateen. A further advantage of information technology is the wealth and breadth of information available. Thirdly, unlike with in-person support groups, information exchange is capable through many methods other than real-time interactions. Aspects of online support tools include archiving features (where previous conversations are viewable for the benefit of newcomers), hyperlinks to writings, videos and other resources, and, as I’ve noted before, searchability.
In addition to information, online support groups can provide community, an important component of recovery from a crisis, and do so in ways that are more accessible than in-person groups. Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B” effort – a book and program about the lessons of resilience learned after the death of her husband - includes tools for online groups, leveraging platforms such as Meetup.org and (naturally), Facebook. The book observes that “along with shared hope and experiences, shared narratives help build resilience.”
Narratives, in turn, are very often developed and shared over time, asynchronously. The most famous and inspiring narratives with which we are often familiar are those that are written and archived, whether it be in books, diaries, letters and emails, or – more contemporarily - online chats and social media. In this respect, there are advantages in the use of Internet tools for all forms of recovery, redress and response to moral wrongs, personal failures, and other crises, including those where the privacy and secrecy afforded by Internet tools was a contributing factor.
Privacy as Promoter of Transparency
Privacy and secrecy can also play a contributing factor in promoting honesty and transparency. Many an online commentator has relied upon shields of pseudonymity to write a personal confession, and many a psychologist or self-help author has relied upon pseudonymity to publish the narratives received from their patients and clients.
From the reader’s perspective, the pseudonymity takes away little from the value of the narrative – a reader can readily resonate with the finding of similar stories and experiences regardless of the identity of the narrator. And from the narrator’s perspective, pseudonymity is essential to being able to share an experience or aspect of one’s life that one understandably wishes to keep private from professional or other contexts.
Tools for Confessions
Still, use of Internet tools for confessions, particularly for the formal confession that is Catholic practice, raises interesting questions about privacy, identity, and the ultimate quality of the experience. Among these interesting questions is whether the pseudonymity of Internet tools actually limits the full viability of online confessions.
In a typical confessional, the penitent’s identity is shrouded, such as by a cabinet or screen. Yet the priest can hear the voice speaking to him and sense the presence of another human being. And, especially in a small congregation this may be enough to give the priest the ability to identify the person. In any event, the presence of the person may help the priest tailor responses accordingly, while at the same time providing the confessing party enough pseudonymity to break free of shame that would otherwise inhibit a full confession.
In an online context, the app or web service typically has neither the voice nor the emotional vibrations of the confessing party, only the words typed. And it is very likely the recipient has no knowledge at all of the nature, circumstances, or spiritual background of the party confessing, particularly if the recipient is a carefully programmed "bot" - software that generates responses rather than an actual human being.
This illustrates a more metaphysical point: online experiences are notably inferior, or at least less rich and nuanced, than the embodied experience. Online tools may facilitate interactions, but “dating” occurs in person. One can see 360-degree photographs or even VR simulations of famous landmarks, but people still value traveling for a full sensory experience of them. And if a spouse was betrayed, it might well feel incomplete to have the guilty party seek forgiveness by confessing in an email.
Catholic authorities have, perhaps for these reasons, expressed either disapproval or only qualified support for confessions online (the Vatican has expressed qualified support) for a smartphone confessional app. Tools for confession have some value, the church reasosns, but the Catholic canon law provides a qualifying confession shall be heard in a church, unless there is a physical or moral reason why the confessing party cannot appear in person.
A Vatican spokesperson was quoated as saying, interestingly, “[i]t is essential to understand well the sacrament of penitence requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor,” (emphasis mine). If a Catholic confession is a "personal" dialogue, then even if it is pseudonymous there must be personal, unique qualities of the confessor that must be brought to bear on the exercise. None of this is to say the Catholic form of confession is superior or inferior to any others, it is simply to say that in that particular form of response to moral wrongs, authorities concluded an intermediated online experience is not fully adequate.
This then brings up a point I’ve noted in my very first “Tool Without a Handle” blog post: that the only route humans have to apprehending reality is through our bodies. “Cyberspace” is a metaphor for a community with only disembodied members. That’s not to say Internet tools can’t be used to apprehend reality, but it does illustrate that the embodied experience better communicates insights and information to human beings and allows for non-verbal and non-textual clues to improve understanding.
In a support group context, in-person support allows for an embodied experience to better create empathy and even physical touch, which can be an important part of healing from a crisis. And for all that Internet tools can very effectively do to foster access to information, there are real risks and concerns that such tools equally foster access to disinformation.
Ultimately, moreover, what most of us likely seek after committing or suffering a personal crisis is some form of spiritual perspective and healing. And for that, Internet information tools are likely simply a means to other ends. The tolls can be a means to information that is then contemplated in one’s own self, to community and resilience that is then reflected towards one’s own family and community, to narratives that may then be shared (or for which their lessons are lived) in one’s own life. In other words, a means towards enriching embodied experiences.
Richard Rohr writes that “[o]ur inner spiritual world cannot be activated without experience of the outer world of wonder for the mind, beauty for the imagination, and intimacy for the emotions.” The end of this blog post is not the time to begin a discussion of phenomenology, but I do believe that it is through embodied experience that all of us encounter the outer world of wonder - things, people, and situations - as it is in full, and in ways that we do not when reading or watching or listening to information media.
So, Internet tools do have much to offer, but with limitations. In the context of an event warranting forgiveness and seeking transformation, the inter-personal connection should be as rich as it can possibly be. In another blog post, Rohr quotes the prominent Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who noted the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”
“Tool Without a Handle: Privacy and Moral Hazard,” https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2018/01/tool-without-handle-privacy-and-moral-hazard
“Tool Without a Handle: Tools for Art and Politics – Part 1” https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2016/08/%E2%80%9Ctool-without-handle%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%93-tools-art-and-politics-part-1v As I noted there, though, “searchable text still yields rapid accessibility to written materials, much of it framed as journalism or academic studies, supporting wildly inaccurate or improbable propositions,” something which can be of acute concern when one is searching for answers to an emotional crisis.
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Finding Resilience, and Finding Joy,” (Knopf, 2017), p.132.
One should always, especially in the online context (and even more especially in the context of family and relationships), look for other factors and clues to judge the veracity and fairness of these stories, but from the perspective of one looking for community in the face of adversity, shades of truth are less important than the knowledge of not being alone in the circumstances.
See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 1422-1424; for a discussion of Catholic online confession software apps, see “Wanna Confess Your Sins? There’s an App for That,” Fox News, June 16, 2013, online at: http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/06/16/wanna-confess-your-sins-there-app-for-that.html;
In 2005, one authority state confessions could not be accepted online. https://catholicexchange.com/can-i-go-to-confession-online. Changes in societal use of online tools and the deep integration of smartphones into the fabric of ordinary life in the 6 years following, likely had some role in the Vatican’s decision in 2011 to offer qualified support, though the qualifications also noted that an app was not a substitute for an in-person confession (a point with which the app developer stated agreement). http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/09/vatican-issues-warning-for-new-confession-app/
That is to say, inadequate from the perspective of Catholic doctrine. Online confessions may well be adequate from perspective of other systems. One can argue, for example, that privacy of online confessions should be protected under judicial privileges or related doctrines that encourage full disclosure by penitents (a question with implications extending well beyond a given religious doctrine or community).
Chuck Cosson, “Tool Without a Handle,” https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2012/10/tool-without-handle, citing Julie Cohen, “Configuring the Networked Self” (Yale University Press, 2012).
See, e.g., Richard Fletcher, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, “Measuring the reach of “fake news” and online disinformation in Europe,” Reuters/Oxford Institute fact sheet, online at: http://bit.ly/2GC16wT “Report of the independent High level Group on fake news and online disinformation,” European Commission, online at: http://bit.ly/2p4qjZr