Stephanie Bennett (Ph.D.) joins Tim to discuss her new book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity: Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age. In this episode, they discuss features of the fallout from digital culture on our communication, including the dangers of immediacy, the prevalence of noise, and other dynamics in our speech that prevent or erode healthy, meaningful, and civil dialogue. They begin to explore practices involving silence, including a media fast, as one antidote. This is part 1 of a 2-part discussion with Dr. Stephanie Bennett on silence and civility.
You can purchase a copy of Dr. Bennett’s book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity: Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age, and use code LXFANDF30 for 30% off the cover price at Lexington Books.
Stephanie Bennett: The more accustomed we get used to talking with computer language and through screens and through shortcuts, the more comfortable, the more familiar we become, the more comfortable we become with non-human communication. And what happens there? We're less good at it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I am the co-host of this podcast as well as a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Today I'm without my partner in crime, Dr. Rick Langer, who is doing some much-needed traveling to visit family. So you've got me, but I'm not alone. One of the fun things about doing what we've been doing for the last two and a half years is you realize that a lot of people are interested in civility and they're doing amazing work. And so, I was fortunate enough to be speaking at a conference, a virtual conference, and the speaker right after me was Dr. Stephanie Bennett, and she spoke about civility based on her book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity: Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age. And it was, quite frankly, a perspective on civility I was unaware of.
I immediately thought to myself, "She has got to come on our podcast," and just talk about some of the things that she was addressing that day. Let me give you a brief introduction of Dr. Bennett. She's a professor of Communication and Media Ecology at Palm Beach Atlantic University in South Florida, where she is going on her 18th year. She's a writer, a speaker, a teacher. She's written the book I just mentioned, but she's also written a fascinating three-part futuristic series, fictional, that deals with the importance of family and community in an age of digital domination. And what really caught my attention is that every spring, she teaches a class on civility and the common good. So, Stephanie, welcome to our podcast.
Stephanie Bennett: Well, thank you so much, Tim. First, I'm truly delighted to be here. Thank you for your invitation. Most gracious.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, I was thrilled to listen to your talk after that conference we did for Robert Woods. So, let me ask a very, very quick question on your bio. Media ecology, can you break that down real quick? I'm intrigued by that.
Stephanie Bennett: Sure. I'm a part of the Media Ecology Association where the kinds of research that we do, mostly historical/critical, kind of focus in on the environment and the context and the channel of the communication more so than the actual discrete message. And so what is the message ... what is the medium really teaching us? What is it bringing to our understanding of whatever subject we're talking about? So, Media Ecology looks at our media landscape in the way that our environment shapes and reshapes our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our experiences, and even our reality.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, I'm so sorry you have such a dated topic. I just wish it was more relevant. And it's only getting worse. So Stephanie, I had a flip phone. I've been at Biola ... I'm going on my 18th year at Biola University.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh.
Tim Muehlhoff: We're kind of on the same trajectory.
Stephanie Bennett: Buddies, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: But I had a flip phone for the first 12 years.
Stephanie Bennett: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I used to love to bring out that flip phone, and my students would laugh, but I would just set it on the table. Then we'd have a great conversation about, why do I need anything more than this flip phone? Well, now, because of my responsibilities at Biola have kind of grown, I now have a smartphone that can launch missiles.
Stephanie Bennett: Ah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Stephanie, this thing is ... And I say to my students, "It is every good thing I thought of, and every bad thing that I feared."
Stephanie Bennett: Yes, yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Both.
Stephanie Bennett: Yes. Yeah. I mean, that sounds like a great conversation. I teach a class called Digital Culture, and those are the kinds of things that we unpack there. I ask the students to go on a cultural artifact hunt each week to find something that is digital and new and advanced in technology that is an anomaly, that's a social anomaly. So, when I was teaching the class Digital Culture 15 years ago, smartphones were the anomaly, that you could speak to someone from ... One young man brought in his anomaly. His cultural artifact was that he was sending his homework in from a helicopter that he was in with his father using his ... So that surely is a social anomaly, especially back then. Now, that's not an anomaly. We're finding deeper into AI and such.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, you know what I don't like, Stephanie, is I just got back from speaking at a conference for Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ. So I'm away, and it used to be that when you're away, you're away, and everybody knew that. But everybody knows with my laptop computer and my smartphone, I can be just as productive in a hotel room as I can in my office here on campus. And we're going to get to that in a second. Maybe listeners are thinking, "Okay, what does this have to do with civility?"
But your point is a brilliant one. It has everything to do with civility. If we aren't creating these reservoirs of silence, contemplation, reflection, then that all is going to be brought into our conversations. Yeah. Oh, we're going to get to all of that, but there's one thing that really caught my attention in your bio, and that was that you teach a class every spring called Civil Discourse And The Common Good. Can you just give us a quick peek into why that class, and what do you cover in that class?
Stephanie Bennett: Yeah. Sure, sure. Well, it's a relatively new class and I had a lot of fun teaching it. It was a challenge teaching it this past spring, because what we try to do there is to have weekly conversations. One of the assignments is, the conversation, and we take a subject that is a nettling subject, something that people are arguing about, something that we don't have set answers for, something that is causing all kinds of civil unrest, if you will. And we dig into it, and three students at a time work in a group to facilitate the conversation, do the research, and facilitate the conversation and create this kind of open space to really have safe conversations, to ask questions. And I keep out of it as much as possible because I have everything to say about it. I keep silent about it on those days, mostly silent, because I need to leave room for them to speak, and if we don't back off, sometimes the students won't speak, right? So, the class is essentially about that.
And you had also said to me, what drew me to this topic? Well, what drew me to the topic of civility, because it wasn't what I started with, and it's not my area of expertise. My area of expertise is in digital media and interpersonal relationships, but there's no way we can't cover civility with that. It's in there. But really, what started happening was I started noticing that as our technologies advanced and the digitality kind of heated up, if you will, basic common decency, it seemed to be evaporating more quickly than any of us could even calculate. And then, I'm watching this and I'm understanding we're in an argument culture, the whole tenet and whatnot.
But what was really difficult for me to understand, and why I grabbed a hold of this topic and started looking at it through the lens of silence, is that ... Oh, gosh, Tim, I'm sorry to say, I didn't see a whole lot of difference between how we see people communicating in the mainstream, whether they're Christian or not. And I thought to myself, "My goodness." When I read the Bible, I cannot help, but see the focus on hospitality, for instance, kindness, generosity, love, uniqueness. And so, we Christians can't even be civil? We can't be civil to one another? I mean, I don't think God calls us to civility. He calls us much deeper. He calls us to love our neighbor, and that love can be and will be a light to the world. But if we can't even be civil, how can we get to love, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's right. That's right. Yeah.
Stephanie Bennett: So, that's what drew me. That's what drew me here. I thought, "Okay, we've got to start making this a focus." It's got to be a focus in our nation to start really teaching again. When was it? I don't know the year that we left off in the United States teaching civics in every high school, but we've got to get back to talking about this and making it a focus, because civility doesn't just happen. It doesn't just happen.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And I love the second descriptor of your class, Civil Discourse And The Common Good. And I think we've lost a vision, Stephanie, of what is the common good? What are the things we can pursue as Christians, but even with non-Christians? What's the thing that brings us together that human beings want? And how is our incivility keeping us from the very common good that I think we all should be pursuing? So man, sign me up for that class. I would love to take that. Hey, very quickly, what were the topics that people were kicking around? What were the topics that you found that these groups of three wanted to talk about?
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, yeah, well, certainly racial reconciliation was at the top. There was cancel culture they wanted to talk about. There was ageism and sexism, and those were just some, and there were different parts of each of those that some students ... Some students wanted to zero in on the common good and why we should care.
I mean, common good, it's a phrase kind of fraught with background, baggage, I should say. I think of the common good as just ... well, not just, but think of all the things, like the road systems, the public schools, the public transport, clean air. I mean, we all want clean water, clean air. These are all parts of our joint life together in this society, so we have to think about each other surviving and flourishing, not just about ourselves. But we've become such a hyper-individualized nation that the common good and the concept of the common good is dissolving.
Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, I agree. Yes.
Stephanie Bennett: I don't want that to happen, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we're going to have to figure out a way of reclaiming a robust idea of what that looks like. And as Christians, I'm called not just to care for those within the Christian community, but I'm called to care for those outside the Christian community, and even those who would attack the Christian community. We're called to not just tolerate them, but to love them. And I really feel, Stephanie, what we need, at the end of the day, is revival among God's people.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: That it's time for us to put aside politics, only in the sense that if the politics is driving our contempt towards one another, that contempt is what has to be dealt with. Of course, we're going to disagree when it comes to political ideologies, but my goodness, we're to love our neighbor, the second great commandment.
Stephanie Bennett: That's right. That's right.
Tim Muehlhoff: And so, oh, my goodness. Okay.
Stephanie Bennett: Well, I am with you a hundred percent on that. We are on the exact same page there, and I love what you said and I love the questions you're asking. Hey, come teach the course with me, friend.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, hey, how fun to have you Zoom into my class. Hey, so Stephanie, I've kind of lost my mind, and this is what I'm doing in the fall.
Stephanie Bennett: Tell me.
Tim Muehlhoff: I have been asked to do a public debate with a man who has a huge YouTube channel for atheists.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh.
Tim Muehlhoff: And he has asked me to publicly debate him on his channel, his YouTube channel, and so I agreed because I'm making it part of my persuasion class-
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, my gosh. That is great.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... the culmination of the class. And so they're going to coach me. We're going use Monroe's Motivated Sequence. We're going to use all of this different stuff, persuasion theory, and then let's actually do it.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, Tim.
Tim Muehlhoff: And they're going to watch me live. So Stephanie, this either could go really well, or if I get destroyed, I'm going to be like, "Are they hiring at your university? Do you have any openings?"
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, yes, we do, we do.
Tim Muehlhoff: But my goodness. Hey, so my goodness, we could do this all day, but I want to get to your book and I have a little bit of a bone to pick with you, because I told you in an email that I just signed a contract with Dr. Sean McDowell, who's just phenomenal, a huge YouTube presence. But they want the book to come out before the election, the 2024 election.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh.
Tim Muehlhoff: So I have the fastest turnaround rate I've ever had on a contract.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, my goodness.
Tim Muehlhoff: So now, I've got all these books that I really need to be looking at, because I've kind of mapped it out. Well, then I get your doggone book in the mail, and I cannot put it down.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, my.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm like, are you ... Now listen, a ton of it is going into the book, Stephanie, and you'll get the biggest footnotes and quoted in the book, honestly. And I say that with all respect, you have found a aspect on civility that I think one, is unique, but two, it is totally needed, because we know everything from emotional contagion, that heading into the conversation, that's all the pre-work. I mean, that's where the hard work really is, is before you open your mouth, how much are you dealing with yourself? Reflection, perspective-taking, all of those things even before it starts.
So I have a chapter, actually, in this new book called Before The Conversation Begins. And I got to tell you, it's going to be like a love fest for Dr. Stephanie Bennett, but here we go. Here's a quote, and I want to break it up into two parts and have you address both, so this is a quote from your book, "The immediacy of our digital age does not allow enough time to process all the information, and the fallout is amply evident. These aspects of digitality are poisoning our public discourse, workplace, and family relationships. The speed and frictionless dissemination with which we are communicating shows no signs of diminishing as an antidote is needed," and that you argue the antidote is silence.
I want to do two things real quick. One, very quickly, tell us what you think is the fallout of the digital age, knowing we're not going backwards. I mean, the genie is out of the bottle. We're here, and in good ways we're here. But what do you think is the fallout as you have been studying this over the years?
Stephanie Bennett: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, gosh. That is such a good question and such a big question. And you used the word quickly in there, and I'm thinking-
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, sorry. Sorry.
Stephanie Bennett: ... I've been researching this topic for almost 25 years, even in my master's thesis, so yeah, my dissertation for my doctoral work was called The Disappearance Of Silence. So back 22 years ago, I was still dealing with silence. Some of the fallout, first of all, there is, can we just say, thank you God, for the wonderful benefits of this technology. Tim and I wouldn't be able to have this conversation this way and share it with your listeners if we didn't have such great gifts in our technology, without technology.
Tim Muehlhoff: And COVID would've been a nightmare.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, my goodness.
Tim Muehlhoff: COVID would've shut down universities.
Stephanie Bennett: Exactly.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right? And so we all pivoted, and did online.
Stephanie Bennett: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: So yeah, I love that. I love starting with the fact that we got through a pandemic.
Stephanie Bennett: Yeah, that's the foundation there, because everything else I have to say is either negative or a cautionary tale. First of all, if we don't care about being human, then we won't care about the dehumanizing effect of our ability to be anonymous and expedient and immediate. But if we do care and prize what it means to be human, we better be aware. This is part of the fallout. As we lay hold of these tools and use them to communicate effectively, we are not thinking with enough critical mind about what they are taking away.
One of my favorites is Neil Postman, who said, "Technology giveth and technology taketh away." Well, we are on the side of technology giveth and we're in this feast and we're just taking it in, taking it in, most of us, everyone is ubiquitous. We're using it. We need to use it, but we're not thinking about what it's taking away. So many of the functions and the dynamics of our digitization are really working against our humanness. And what I mean by that is, the more accustomed we get used to talking with computer language and through screens and through shortcuts, the more comfortable, the more familiar we become, the more comfortable we become with non-human communication. And what happens there? We're less good at it. We don't excel at it.
We've been talking about communication for decades. Since at least the '70s there's been this whole just a kind of uptick, and communication is everything, communication is the panacea. Remember all the books coming out in the '70s and all of the news stories and anchors talking about, well, communication is more than talk, and yet we have been stuck here. We should know better. We should know how to communicate human to human, but the less that we do that, the more comfortable we are with not doing it. That's one thing. That's the main thing. There are specific things that we could talk about, but you did say quick.
Tim Muehlhoff: But oh, I love that. I love the humanization aspect. You quote Henri Nouwen.
Stephanie Bennett: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: And let me read this for our listeners. Henri Nouwen has such a way of piercing right to the soul. He said, "There was a time when silence was normal, and a lot of racket disturbed us. But today, noise is the normal affair, and silence, strange as it may seem, has become the real disturbance." So Stephanie, we're going to talk about a media fast you have your students do? Well, I did it in one of my classes and we had to take three days. One day, you had an hour and a half of social media time, and then it decreased. The next day you had an hour, then you had a half hour, and then you had none. I used to love to just sit and think about things in silence.
So Stephanie, I did it with my students. We have a prayer chapel here and I sit in my prayer chapel, and I went five minutes before I was annoyed. I mean, just annoyed. I was so fidgety, and I thought to myself, "My goodness, if what Dallas Willard, the great late Dallas Willard said, is true, that "solitude is the primary spiritual discipline," then I thought to myself, "My goodness, I bet you there's spiritual battle aspects to all of this." So I felt disturbed because I was like, "I can't go an hour doing this. There's no way."
Stephanie Bennett: Yeah. Yeah. I like what you did, but the students ... well, first of all, that you joined them, but also that you kind of took it little by little over three days. That was very kind of you, prof. Very kind of you. I do a full 24 hours, and I'm starting to think after all these 15 years of doing it, that I might have to stop doing it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, unpack that for me, because that was a fascinating part of your book. But some people even feared that they wanted to instantly reply to things and that some even said this may have bordered on addiction for some of them. But tell us about the 24 hour fast, media fast, and then the reaction your students have towards it.
Stephanie Bennett: Sure, sure. Well, it's an interesting reaction. Okay, I'll tell you that in a minute. I ask them to take 24 hours to just shut down all of their ... It used to be electronic media. Now, it's everything digital, so your computer, your iPhone, whatever you have that you're using, your iPad.
I had one student say to me, "How about my stove in my apartment?" And I just looked at them, "Do you communicate with it and [inaudible 00:22:24]" So anyway, once they get it straight that it's any kind of screen time, I tell them six weeks in advance, because they're going to need to take 24 hours. And eight of which, and for some college students, it's 10 hours of sleep, that's part of your 24 hours, so it's really not a full 24 hours without your media, right? I tell them, "Take it, just put it away. Put it in your drawer and then keep a log for that 24 hours, all the hours that you're up, every hour, jot it down, what's happening? How do you feel? Really, how do feel? What's your perception of things? What have you lost? What have you gained, if anything?"
And it has become more and more difficult for the students. At first, they really ... Interestingly, 15 years ago, I had students saying, "This essay and this experiment is going to be worth 20% of my grade, really? Oh, I'm going to ace this. This is nothing. This is no big deal." Oh, my goodness. Then when they came back with their essays and they shared in their presentations what they found, Tim, it was amazing.
I had one essay that was titled, My Day From Hell, right? And the young man went on to talk about how beyond annoying it was to be without his gaming, without his screens, without his watch. He also admitted that even though he had six weeks to prepare for it, he didn't do any preparation. He didn't prepare with magazines or books or any kind of set up ahead of time, times with friends or whatnot. But he did say, this was one student who called it My Day From Hell, he did say there was something that happened around 5:00, because he got up at 10:00 in the morning, and by 2:00 in the afternoon he wanted to die.
But he said, "Around 5:00, something happened. I just went for a run and I didn't have my earbuds in, and I just went for a run down by the beach. I was all sweaty, and I sat down and I started just listening to the ocean, looking at the ocean." He goes, "I started kind of just ... Something happened, Dr. B. I don't know what it was. It's just, I didn't hate it. I started thinking about important things," and it was just wonderful to hear him elaborate on that.
Another student, another male, wrote an essay that said ... He was so poetic about it too. He said, "I prepared for this. I told my girlfriend of two and a half years that she needed to help me, and so she packed a picnic lunch and we brought the surfboards down to the beach," because we are less than a mile from the Atlantic. "We brought the surfboards down and we left all of our media home, back at the apartment. We brought our journals, our pens, whatnot." He said, "We've been going together for two and a half years, and I love this girl," he said, "but I don't know what happened under that palm tree." He said, "We started sharing things from our journals and talking about stuff and sharing poetry. We have never done that. I feel like I've gotten so much close to her, so much more open. I don't even know what happened." He was raving about it, so I've got all kinds of things that are outcomes from this media fast.
Tim Muehlhoff: That is so good. It made me think of the Screwtape Letters where the chief tormentor says, "Music and silence, how I detest them both. Hell has been occupied by noise. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down in the end." And to think that noise keeps us from the type of reflection that you're talking about, I think, is so powerful.
Now, two quick comments, and then we're going to wrap up this segment. So, if your book was called Silence and Sanity, that'd be awesome, everything we just talked about. But you throw in civility, and you believe that civility is wrapped up in this somehow, and that maybe we need to say "No" to social media when it comes to really difficult conversations. You say this, "In fact, it's probably best to exclude social media from the setting for any hopeful dialogue. While there, use language sparingly and economically. By refraining from contributing to a weighty conversation on social media, we practice silence and remove the risk of sabotaging an important conversation offline."
All right, so I want you to unpack that, but what if what Secretary Clinton said is true, and that social media is the new public square? I'm wrestling with that quote and the fact of, I totally get what you're saying, I think. But the public square may be social media, and how would Christians navigate that? Can you just kind of jump in on that?
Stephanie Bennett: Sure, sure. Yeah, I wouldn't go as far as to say, social media is the new public square. I think we're giving it more credit than it deserves. It hasn't had 20 years yet to morph into the next thing. We keep seeing this happen with Moore's law and with all kinds of advancements in technology that one medium comes in, and the other comes out. Already, social media are changing now that Facebook has become meta and the metaverse and such. So, I wouldn't give it that much credit as much as Secretary Clinton did.
I do think it's important to have a meaningful presence online, but I think it's much more important to have meaningful conversations. We need to have dialogue. It is almost impossible to have meaningful dialogue online. We can have it, but as far as a public square and people just chiming in with their opinions, everyone is so attached to their opinion. I think our opinions are overrated. I mean, my opinion is my opinion. Yes, I am learned. Your opinion is your ... but opinions are opinions.
We need to strive, I believe, for dialogue, and that is the type of speaking that seeks to come to common ground. It's a different quality of speech is what I mean, one that doesn't have to be right, doesn't have to win a round, but it moves the needle toward meaning making, toward the common good, toward a subject that needs to be dealt with. And so, while it's super tempting to just look at social media as the place where we get to say what we need to say, who's charting that? Is change happening? Are positive changes happening from that?
So what I mean about excluding social media from the setting for hopeful dialogue is not get off social media. I'm on social media. I limit my social media. I only have three platforms that I'm on. Could be on 10 right now, but I have purposely limited myself to three. So I mean, it's best, if you want to have meaningful dialogue, you have to start with conversation. If you want conversation, meaningful conversation, you have to be able to talk to people. You have to be willing to talk to people. So, what we need more of, I think, is a more active social life offline, and not for nostalgic reasons. I don't see humanity going online in the evolutionary process. Not only do I not want to see it, but I don't believe that that will happen or should happen. And that gets back to what you kindly mentioned in my trilogy, Within the Walls, I create a whole story for happening in 2071 based on, what if that did happen?
But yeah, I don't think we should get off, but I do think we should critically think about what we say and where we're going to say it. In the same way that if you were going to ask someone to marry you, that you loved and you so much wanted to spend the rest of your life with her, you would not send a little text to say, "Hey, want to get married?" I mean, that could work. That could work, but you would know your audience and know the gravity of what you are saying.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's great.
Stephanie Bennett: So, you would choose a different form. You would choose a different context. I think that's what I mean by excluding social media from this setting for a hopeful dialogue. Work toward dialogue. Work toward great conversations, toward dialogue, but I wouldn't put our hopes in it. No, there's too much room for confusion, not enough meeting on common ground.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, well said, so that's the fallout. Now in the next segment, you don't leave us there. You say, "No, there is an antidote to this," and that is your perspective on silence. So, hey, we'll have you back in just a minute for our second segment with Dr. Stephanie Bennett.
Thank you so much for listening to the Winsome Conviction podcast. We are a funded five-year project hosted at Biola University and you can find our podcast anywhere that you get your podcasts. So, thank you so much for listening and we're going to continue this conversation by taking a look at an antidote that we can incorporate as we have the meaningful conversations Dr. Bennett is talking about. So, thank you for listening. Talk to you soon.