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Facebook and the humanities: Pondering what would Oedipus do

Timothy Hampton, professor of French and comparative literature, director of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities | March 21, 2018

“Christ before Pilate,” by Jacopo Tintoretto.

No less disturbing than the recent news that the personal data of millions of Americans was culled from Facebook by the shady research firm Cambridge Analytica and provided to the Trump campaign, has been the behavior of the masters of Silicon Valley.  The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has so far been mostly silent.

This follows a moment last fall when the news of the Russian expropriation of digital media first broke.  Faced with United States’ Senate hearings on the topic, the leaders the top companies, Facebook, Google and Twitter, sent lawyers, instead of executives, down from the heights of the Valley to the lowly Hill where the Congress dwells. They disavowed any wrong doing and claimed that they were in no way implicated in what had happened.  They are, after all, just messengers, mediators, and bear no responsibility for the messages that flow through their “neutral” platforms.   Congressional interlocutors, clearly in over their heads, by and large nodded in agreement.

“It’s a Pontius Pilate moment,” remarked one of my students, in a conversation about the Senate hearings.  She was referring to the iconic moment in the Book of Matthew when the Roman governor to Judea washes his hands after delivering Christ to be crucified.  It’s not my problem, Pilate seems to say.  It’s Jesus’s problem for being such a troublemaker, and it’s the problem of the mob for wanting to kill the wrong guy.

The scene, frequently depicted by Western painters from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance (as well as in Hollywood films),  stands in contrast to another canonical moment in Western culture.  This is in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus.  There we see the blind, debased, hero trying to come to terms with the fact that he has unwittingly killed his father and slept with his mother. As Oedipus gropes his way across the stage, the Chorus tries to offer reasons for what he did, to help him understand it and perhaps explain it away.   After all, he didn’t know what he was doing.  He was a plaything of the gods.

Fables about human responsibility

In Facebook terms, he was just the platform.

But Oedipus will have no excuses.  “What grief can crown this grief?  It’s mine alone, my destiny—I am Oedipus!” he exclaims resolutely (I cite Robert Fagles’s beautiful translation).  He names himself at the moment he claims ownership for what he has done.  He is not building brand identity.  He is embracing the human situation with dignity and tragic courage.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet says something similar when he leaps into Ophelia’s grave to defend his honor and take on the title of his dead father, crying, “I am Hamlet, the Dane!”

All of these moments from literature are fables about human responsibility.  They are moments when actors do—or do not—take on the burdens of selfhood, of adulthood, of duty.  Moments like this are familiar to students and teachers of the humanities.  The study of literature and philosophy, of art and history, brings us repeatedly into contact with scenes at which we are forced to contemplate the mysteries of responsibility and to cultivate the faculty of moral judgment, from the novels of Dostoevsky and Toni Morrison, to the essays of Montaigne and Marilynne Robinson.

An education bubble

Recent events suggest the urgent need for this type of education.  It is of course easy to rant against Facebook, which has clearly made some mistakes.  But the larger problem is the bubble within which many of our current debates about tools and education seem to unfold.  We have, in fact, seen moments like this in the past, such as when business schools suddenly began offering courses in “business ethics” (they had been reading the news) and when medical schools began to realize that “human-centered” medical training was in fact what they were supposed to be teaching.   At the current moment in our political and technological history – as we are faced with mendacity and cynicism in Washington and the strange evasions of the tech sector – humanities education is more crucial than ever.  Perhaps it’s too much to expect a corporate tycoon not to pass the buck.  Surely, however, we should have expectations of responsible citizenship from our leaders in Washington.

The important role of humanities education is widely acknowledged on campus, among  humanists, scientists and engineers alike.  No matter what your politics, it should be obvious that humanistic study needs to be central to how we prepare out students to take on the serious duties of citizenship in a democracy.  A knowledge of the humanities – of literature and language, history and performance – provides the tools needed to make responsible decisions going forward.  We are lucky on the Berkeley campus (unlike many of our peer institutions) to have extraordinary strengths in these areas. We can draw on these strengths to provide our students with a transformative experience that will both train them for employment and prepare them to take on the responsibilities of leadership for the next generation.

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