Jews can be pretty proprietary about guilt. We’re almost proud of it. If an outsider, after binge-reading Philip Roth, came to the conclusion that guilt is what fuels our emotional engines, we would experience that particular delight of feeling completely understood. And yet, when it comes to guilt, the thing we might feel most guilty about is not really being as guilty as we think we should be.
With our first step on Ellis Island, European Jewry entered a totally new and all-consuming breed of guilt — a Puritanical one, which is at once unspoken and omnipresent. This particular mix of regret and shame is a product of America’s religious founders, a group of people who are so fearful of human impulse and emotion that they formed a society that deified abstinence. The Puritans are long gone, but their culture of guilt remains.
The latest target of this very American breed of guilt is technology. The rapid ascent of smartphones, tablets, apps and social networking has incited a chorus of fearmongers and naysayers telling us to unplug, or go on digital detox, or recharge by uncharging or cure our digital attention disorders. The Jewish cultural organization Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto,” which aims to put a “modern spin on the tradition of a weekly day of rest,” places unplugging on the top of its list and is encouraging everyone to take part in the National Day of Unplugging, happening March 7–8.
The problem with all this unplugging isn’t that people might use their smartphones less; I think we can all agree that for many, that would be a good thing. Instead, the issue is that we good little Puritanical Americans, Jewish and not, are viewing our relationships with our cell phones in the context of addiction. We are encouraged to go cold turkey, to rinse ourselves clean of the foulness injected into our bodies and souls by our Twitter-scrolling hands. God help us all.
Where is the moderation here? The acknowledgement of self-restraint? [Because many of us, possibly most of us, are not addicted to our smartphones, or have any other detrimental psychological conditions as a result of using technology. Instead of being encouraged to power down, shouldn’t we be encouraged to trust ourselves and our ability to control ourselves around all those shiny white iPhones and the pretty little apps? Maybe we could even learn a few tips on how?