Too Much Information

Too Much Information January 28, 2014

Honesty can be dishonest. The over-emotional, tell-all status-update we awkwardly scroll past is a brilliant revelation of this paradox. You know the one. Sandwiched between a crappy meme and a glowing duck-face, listing the miseries of life and the falseness of friends with vague but poignant references to a significant other who has slighted/ignored/left or otherwise hurt the author of the update — it’s a staple of any news feed worthy of its nauseating nature. All of its information may be true. It may be real revelation. The person’s status may have indeed been updated. It seems to follow that we would receive it well, for we desire the truth and welcome it when we find it. But the opposite is the case. Our near-universal reaction to the over-emotional status update is… 

Telling the truth isn’t always truthful.

If truthfulness were merely a phenomenon of fact, then being truthful would amount to a life spent whispering “elephants are mammals” in a continuous, soothing fashion. It is more than this. It is a state of being. It describes a a quality of our existence, not just of our syllogisms. We want more than a life spent saying truthful things — we want to be truthful. Truthfulness is a virtue, an interior disposition, a way of carrying ourselves. It is an intentional mode of being in the world, to the point that we can make sense of Kyle Morton of Typhoon when he sings “I never said I was honest. I am true.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it well, because it is the business of the Catholic Church to say everything well, and make you feel terrible for trying to say it otherwise:

“Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy…Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret.” (CCC 2469)

The mere fact of saying something true is not necessarily truthful, because truthfulness requires not telling and not showing. The Church, typical in wisdom, deepens and ennobles the entire concept. Truthfulness is a mode of being which synthesizes revelation and secrecy, balancing what is offered and what is hidden. Telling-all and revealing-much may be factually true, but truthfulness requires hiddenness. Why? The key (here’s a plot-twist) is in the Church. She says that “it is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons…are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth.” (CCC 2467)

Because they are persons. Excuse me while I throw coffee at the wall with that unique joy of a man who finds a truth that fits. We do not desire truth because we are rational, fact-loving, or even curious — though we are all of these things. No, the primordial reason for desiring truth is the fact that we are persons, that marvelous type of being who wakes up in the morning and finds himself existing as a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity, a hidden interior life expressed in marvelous glimpses through an observable exterior life.

The person is a mystery, a first-person experience we will never have and a subjectivity we can never grasp. Truthfulness includes not telling, because the person, in truth, cannot be fully told.

The Catechism discusses this revelatory nature of the person in its description of the Trinity.

“Theologia refers to the mystery of God’s inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and oikonomia to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologica is revealed to us. God’s work reveals who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works. So it is, analogously, among human persons. A person discloses himself in actions, and the better we know a person, the better we understand his actions.” (CCC 236)

Because we are persons, we desire truth, and truth is more than a correspondence of a statement to the outside world, it is a life of truth, a real correspondence between the oikonomia and the theologica, between our subjectivity and our objectivity by which we reveal it. Because of this, a technical “truth” may be a total lack of truthfulness, for by telling what ought to be kept secret, we strive away from disclosing ourselves as the mysteries we are.

This seems like the root of our awkward reactions to Internet-expulsions of self, dripping feelings and spews of interiority that leave everyone feeling embarrassed. The degree to which information is personal is the degree to which it ought to lead us into an encounter with the person — that is, with the subject. When it does not, all we have is personal information about an object — and this is a felt incongruity.

When we behold the person we behold an inexhaustible mystery, and thus no intimate information is awkward or too-much, because we can always know more about an inexhaustible mystery. When we do not behold the person, we do not behold an inexhaustible mystery, and thus intimate information exhausts, overwhelms, and comes as far-too-much. Intimate revelations of self across the Internet are usually true and rarely truthful, for it is a strange country where people are largely experienced as exhaustible, un-mysterious objects, as objective types and combinations of pictures and information.

For the pornstar to show his naked body to an anonymous public is certainly a factually “true” revelation — but it is not truthful, for by it we reduce him to his objectivity, which no longer serves as an invitation to encounter his subjectivity. He has become all body. He does not disclose himself in his actions. For us to pour our hearts out over the Internet may be a factually true deluge of information — but it is not truthful, for by it we do not communicate the mystery of our inmost being, inviting the listener to encounter our person. Celebrity culture is one of the best examples of truth without truthfulness — we slaver after factual knowledge of people we will never meet, rolling in an oikonomia of images, pregnancy reports, sex-tapes, rants and publicized breakups, constantly entertaining the grand illusion that all we need is more truth about a person — and then we will have encountered their person. Here a plethora of objective, intimate, factual truths masquerade as truthfulness, wherein we are encountered as the particular person we are. I would go on but for the saddening realization that I wouldn’t stop — ours is an age of too much information, masquerading as meaningful encounter.

It is the joy of religion to deliver man from his age by requiring “truth in his inmost parts,” truth that is virtue and that state of being precisely the person you are — in short, a life of holiness. It is the kindness of the Church to show us how.

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