A Ku Indeed!

Confucius Wouldn’t Dig Facebook

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Values Analysis by Chris on September 16, 2007


So apparently Confucius has a Facebook profile. Putting aside the small fact that he’s been dead for over 2000 years, and so I’m not sure how he set up his account from beyond the grave (what e-mail address did he use?), I’d like to take up the issue of whether Confucius should have a Facebook profile. Over at Useless Tree, Sam Crane (who just got his own Facebook profile, by the way) has argued that Confucius would have been a fan of the new virtual networking utility (I say “networking” because I’m sure that’s what Confucius would call it — and he has little respect for that kind of relationship). I’m not so sure that Sam is right, so I’d like to take a moment to make out a brief case for why I think it is inconsistent with Confucianism to make Facebook a regular part of one’s life (as it is clearly becoming for more and more people).

I think there are two main reasons (there are others I could bring up here, but I’ll stick to these in order to keep this post short) why I think Confucius would be opposed.

1. Rectification of Names. At Analects 13.3, it states (I’m shortening the analect because it is fairly long):

Tzu-lu said, “The prince of Wei has been waiting for you, in order that you administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?” The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” “So, indeed!” said Tzu-lu. “You are wide of the mark. Why must their be such rectification?” The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success…Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires, is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

What is meant here in 13.3 is something simple: part of what is required for “the Way” (the correct path of living) is that brothers be brothers, and fathers be (treated like and act like) fathers, that the distinction between ruler and subject be maintained, and so on. Names must be “rectified,” which just means that in our interactions with others the substance of “names” (our social roles) must be maintained if just the right kind of relationships between people are to flourish and be maintained. Given that having just the right relationships is the core of Confucian ethics, rectification is thus a central thesis.

My concern, however, is that Confucius might feel that Facebook does not allow for this, or that at the very least it creates a climate in which it is threatened. Now, I’m not saying that we all need to dump our Facebook accounts, but I am saying that Confucian would approach Facebook interaction very carefully (if at all). The concern here: does “a friend” really remain “a friend”? Is “friend” rectified? Part of what is required for “friendships” to flourish is that they be close, that they be personal, emotional, that they be face-to-face, and most of all that they be invested in the sense that cultivating one means the devotion of the kind of time and energy that requires cutting off the cultivation of another one with someone else. It is not surprising that we have few friends — it’s just not possible to have many real ones. It’s for obvious reasons that you have to make risky choices about who to make friends with and who not to. So you hope you make the right choices.

This is why making friends is such a risky endeavor that requires trust. When a friend betrays us, we find that the risk we took in opening up to that person, and dedicating ourselves to them, in organizing our lives around them, has turned out badly — our trust has been abused. Facebook friends, however, are just not the same thing. People on Facebook can have 200 or 500 friends (often it appears to be a competition — who can have the most “friends”). Clearly these are not “friends” in the Confucian sense, but the medium seems to make it “easy” to have a friend, so why not? It requires little to no commitment (clicking a button, literally), no risk, no investment, no emotion, no time, nothing. Facebook invites us to not make the kinds of choices that being a friend requires. As I said, when you choose to maintain a real friendship with X, it often comes at the cost of turning away from some person Y. But no need with Facebook — you don’t have to turn anyone away. Heck, you can even be friends with people you’ve never met. On Facebook, you can maintain a friendship merely by posting on “their Wall” every once in a while. Maybe not even that.

If anything, it seems to me, Facebook dilutes the nature of friendship, it changes what “being a friend” means. It turns it into something superficial, turning “friend” into “mere acquaintance”. Now sure, some may argue, people still have real friends, and this hasn’t changed much with the introduction of Facebook. But will is stay that way? What about the next generations, who will be raised with these tools? Will the nature of their “friendships” be different? Will those changes be favorable to the kinds of relationships Confucius thinks we should develop? Will more of our “interactions” with our friends take place through short wall posts instead of in person? Confucius would say that the danger of dilution is clear: so proceed with caution. Essentially, the Junzi is not likely found (or cultivated) online.

2. The Decrease in the Importance of Embodiment

This point is related to the issues raised above, but is a bit more abstract. If there’s one thing that I think is stressed in the Analects, it is the cultivation of an embodied existence. The best way to explain what this might mean is to explain what it entails rejecting — what one might call “Cartesian” identity. What I mean by that is this: many of us think that we have ‘selves’ that are interior to our bodies. We think of ‘who we are’ as housed in a kind of “central headquarters” located inside of our bodies. This way of thinking about how we are related to (and distant from) our bodies allows us to start talking in odd ways about the relationship between ourselves and our actions. Namely, the Cartesian might be allowed to start “fragmenting” his or her life in ways that a Confucius would never accept. For instance, a person might do things at their job that they insist have no effect on their character, or their moral identity. They might say: “I really am a good person, it’s just that at my job I have to be ruthless with others. Inside, I’m still the same old nice guy.” This way of talking assumes that “who you are” is separate from “what you do”. For a Confucian, this is self-deception at best.

Although the Confucian puts a high premium on “being” as opposed to “doing”, for the Confucian if a person is an X kind of person, that will mean that they see the world in a certain X kind of way, and that their actions proceed from this way of seeing and evaluating. In other words, there is no “compartmentalization” possible. You are an embodied agent — you become what you do, it’s as simple as that.

So how does Facebook affect this? Simple — it encourages the development of the kind of thinking that supposes that “who I am” is in some sense abstracted from what I do. People who interact on Facebook are not interacting as embodied agents, they are interacting as cold, distant Cartesian selves. It encourages a way of viewing “the other person” (and oneself) that is consistent with radical compartmentalization. I can even exist (virtually) when my actions are not present. I think a Confucian would find the cultivation of this kind of view of selfhood as highly dangerous to the sort of embodiment that makes real human communities, and relationships, possible. Although the disembodied agent leads to a kind of ‘fractured’ view of the self that would be dangerous to the Confucian, it is clear that it also leads to just the kind of problem that I was talking about above in #1 — people are led to believe that “friendships” can exist virtually; that a real human relationship can be cultivated and maintained when embodied action is not present. Dangerous stuff.

I requested that Confucius be my friend on Facebook, by the way. He never responded. Go figure.


11 Responses

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  1. Mark said, on September 16, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    It seems to me like the first issue is just an issue of semantics. What we might call a “friend” on facebook has different connotations from what we would call a “friend” in real life, and I don’t think the terms imply the same meanings to regular facebookers. I agree that, if they were completely synonymous, we might have some degradation of the social order that Confucius was so fond of, though.

    The second premises I completely agree with. People on the internet are way colder, way more detached, and act in ways that they would never think about acting in real life, creating a compartmentalization of themselves. It seems that in this way though, Confucius would be pretty opposed to all forms of non-face-to-face interaction. Instant messages, emails, even letter writing, would have some forms of impersonality and thus compartmentalization. That’s just what it feels like on the face of things, though I’m sure there is some equivocation here that I’m not picking up on.

  2. Sam said, on September 16, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Great post! I take both your points but, like Mark above, think the second is the stronger of the two.
    I agree that Facebook “friendships” are not sufficient as Friendships, and perhaps a different word is necessary. But I would still contend that Facebook networking can facilitate the maintenance of real-word friendships and that is how the promote Confucian practice. Facebook allows us to keep in touch with friends who have moved far away. For example, I learned, via Facebook, that one of my former students was in mourning for a young child she knew. I sent her a two line note commiserating. Now, that is hardly the stuff of real, face-to-face friendship, it is not sufficient in an of itself, but I would likely not have learned of her situation and feelings without Facebook. It helped.
    The embodiment point is well taken. And that is the stuff of face-to-face friendship. But this does not completely destroy the Confucian utility of Facebook, but simply reminds us of what the full obligations of friendship are.
    I don’t want to go too far in defending Facebook – I do not think all that much of it, really. But neither do I see it as necessarily a corrosive force for friendships.

  3. Swad said, on September 16, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Man. As if I needed any more guilt for spending so much time on facebook. 🙂

  4. Swad said, on September 16, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    Oh, one more thought.

    The second point could be carried over to most virtual discourse, including blogging (and forum posting).

  5. Elysium said, on September 17, 2007 at 6:11 am

    Excellent post!

    In my view, C.P, I would like; even if I know it is not the case, to think that all the facebookers are aware of the difference between these two types of friendship (if you allow me to distinguish them) you successfully elaborates through Confucius ideology.

    Yet again, as Mark said it, it would look like that also letters exchanged between true friends, would be on the Confucius’s hating list of ways of interacting between one an other.

  6. Elysium said, on September 17, 2007 at 6:13 am

    Including Phone calls?!

  7. Nic Z said, on September 17, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    A timely post CP! I liked this discussion. Just to echo what many others have said I think that several individuals that use Facebook have caught on to the difference between the “friendships.” In fact, there is even a Facebook group called “Just Because We’re Friends on Facebook Doesn’t Mean We’re Friends In Real Life.”

    I’d really like to continue this facebook discussion but perhaps in a different direction. You touched on it in your post but I think it important to note that facebook profiles can be used to represent an individual how he/she wishes to be perceived. Very interesting studies could be conducted over this concept. The “profile” also raises some interesting existential questions.

  8. Adam said, on September 17, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    So would Confucius like telephones? It’s funny that in the wake of all the new social networking tools, we don’t look back at the old variety and the criticisms made of them. Certainly telephones can lead to less embodiment, fake appearances, and somewhat false familiarity. Yet I suppose most people would claim these things are the effect of using telephones badly (I was going to say abusing them, but that conjured up all sorts of weird pictures). Perhaps facebook, as Nic Z seems to indicate, has its users and its abusers. That would allow Confucius to take a middle-way answer like, “Don’t make it your social life, but if used correctly it can have community-enhancing benefits.”

  9. Chris said, on September 17, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    It seems as if most everyone had the same general reply to my post, so I’ll just address you all as a group.

    First, if I implied that Confucius would be a techophobe, or a Luddite, or perhaps even living without electricity (or a phone!), then I overstated my thesis. I don’t think I implied that, but if I did, I don’t think it’s true, just for the record.

    Second, to a few of you – I do think the second point is the stronger one. The first point relies on the second one, obviously.

    Third, on all technology (phones, letters even, computers, cars, etc): I think Confucius would respond to the introduction of such gadgets in a particularly conservative way, one that would be very cautious. At its base, I think he would take a quasi-Existentialist perspective here, one that seems best captured by an old Eric Clapton song, “It’s in the way that you use it.” Of course, he’d say, it’s not technology that’s evil, or disruptive, but how community members use those technologies. But when technology becomes an everyday part of one’s life, it’s hard to take a critical distance to that technology, and to be mindful of how it plays a role (for better or worse) in one’s life. We’re in the “halfway” house period now, but that won’t last forever.

    I think Confucius would be happy that Sam connected up with an old friend as a result of technology, and that as a result he could help express his condolences as a friend regarding that person’s loss. But I think he’d be very careful not to allow any of these technologies to replace the basic embodied human relationships that are central to what we are. To use a pedagogical example: is it okay to use a forum board or blog in a class? Sure; but we’re talking a different animal when we convert the whole class to distance education. The online should be a supplement, not a replacement. And we should be careful that our use of those supplements doesn’t unintentionally begin to take over what we are doing as teachers (as I fear it has for some).

    Many have suggested that they are well aware that there’s a difference between an “online” friend and a real one (hence the “we’re friends on Facebook, but not in real life!” group). But this is partially due to the fact that such toys are still new in our lives. So we are mindful of how they “match up” or “fit” in our lives. What will happen to kids in 30 years? Will these technologies become such a regular part of life that the meaning of our relationships will be altered in a harmful way? I think it’s possible. Not inevitable, but surely possible. Maybe even likely.

    An example from my own life: I took a job in the Midwest to teach, when my family is on the East Coast. I convinced myself that it was “okay” because we could still talk by phone. But let’s face it; a phone relationship is not a familial relationship. But the presence of the technology – and its central place in what is “ready to hand” in my every day life – helped me to self-deceive myself into thinking of “family” in a way that was not entirely right.

    I think the Confucian moral is this: you become what you do. The more we use these technologies, the more we will ‘see’ the world, and the people in them, in different ways. I’m not doubting that these technologies can serve some good (they can; heck, I love them!). But…we must, Confucius warns us, be vigilant. We don’t want who we are, and the relationships we have, to be overtaken by online communication.

  10. […] and I pretty much despise it now. Instead of pontificating about it (I already did at some length here), I’ll let the video do the talking. Funny […]

  11. […] and I pretty much despise it now. Instead of pontificating about it (I already did at some length here), I’ll let the video do the talking. Funny […]

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