Thoughts on the challenges of being a chossid (or trying) in a modern world.
Fellow Lubs are most welcome to read and share and comment. Chabad-haters and agitators, please find another place to troll.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Selfies and Yeshus

This site is about the challenges of being a chossid in the modern world. The advent of digital social media has changed the world and the way we engage with it (so much so that I'm writing a book about it). A changing world will always tend to clash with a conservative movement and belief system like Judaism. As Chabad chassidim, we believe all of these technological advances can be keilim to help us make the world a better place and to spread the light of Torah and chassidus. The new tools certainly can do that - however they are so powerful that they can be used both for positive and negative purposes, and can cause much good and much bad. The challenge for us becomes how to use them well, and how not to get caught up in many of the cultural ills that they enable and even foster.

The ability to post and distribute photos online is one area that technology has changed in a huge way. Everyone now carries a camera with them because they are a component of every smartphone, and within seconds can take a photo and share it with thousands of their "friends". This has given rise to a new type of photo known as the "selfie" - a photo of ones self doing something or with someone.

Selfies are more than just a photo - they are a social innovation because of the way they have grown in popularity and have attracted media attention. So we ought consider a more sophisticated version of the prototypical question: "Are selfies good for the Jews?"

Still photography is an art form: like drawing or painting, it is able to capture visually a moment in time. We take photos of the things that interest us - things of beauty, things we love, things that stand out where we feel a need to capture them so we can remember them.

In this process, essentially there are three things: the person, the image-capture device (which could be a camera, pencils and paper, an easel, paintbrushes and paint), and the subject. The person looks out on the world at a subject, and the image-capture device sits in between the person and the subject. It is the 'lens' through which the person views and captures the subject. The moments we capture are therefore as seen through the eyes of the artist, and as such, are an insight into how that person views the world. You can look at the picture and seek to understand how that person views the world, but the person themselves are absent from their work.

The selfie changes this dynamic completely. The world is not the subject. The photographer is the subject. It's no longer about how the person sees the world, but rather that the person is at the centre of the world. The selfie channels the classic Australian comedy Kath & Kim, saying "look at me!" The subtlety of how an artist expresses themselves artistically through their work is gone. The selfie is about "me with X", "me visiting Y", "me doing Z". The common factor in all of these is "me".

Social media encourages us to share our lives with our "friends" - indeed to share far more than we used to about our lives. Some people suggest social media tools fuel narcissism. The popularity of selfies is a reflection of how people see themselves in the world, and that more and more people see themselves at the centre of their world.

We approach Pesach needing to do bittul chametz - in chassidic terms this is about nullifying/reducing our yeshus. I'm not advocating that social media is chometz - that we must stay completely away. Rather, we need to develop a greater awareness of how we use these modern tools, and the effect they are having on us (and exposure to social media certainly does affect us). Next time you choose to post or engage, ask yourself: why am I doing this? will posting this feed my yeshus? who is it really all about?

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