Written with Michael Karson, Ph.D., J.D.
Beware of Tartuffe entering your family
We (MK & JG) were talking about the systemic therapy technique of treating the problem not as an idea or a conflict but as a separate character in the family drama. In this approach, depression, agoraphobia, anorexia, and alcoholism, for example, can all be considered as having their own presence and their own agenda.
We wondered if this might be a useful way of considering the role of the smartphone and social media in some families. Janna was thinking about the pull of the screen—the seductive, almost irresistible pull—that, like a manipulative narcissist at the dinner table, dominates the space, determines the course and limits the scope of conversation, demands attention, turns participants into consumers of his own message, distracts from the boredom of maintaining established relationships, and works to beguile in order to control the available emotional, social, and economic resources.
What character from literature would it be? Michael wondered.
After considering the daemons of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—animal extensions of humans souls, or familiars—and Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula (who, once invited inside a home, can come and go at will; who craves human blood, and who transforms those upon whom he feeds into the undead—a later post, maybe) we came up with Moliere’s Tartuffe.
Tartuffe, a stranger, impresses bourgeois family man Orgon with his show of piety: Orgon sees him praying in a church and, moved by Tartuffe’s goodness and his poverty, invites him to live in his home. Orgon doesn’t suspect that the destitute Tartuffe knows he’s watching when Tartuffe gives some of the alms he has received. A certain emptiness in the lives of Orgon’s family now makes them susceptible to their new boarder’s claims of godliness. Orgon and his mother are both credulous if not infatuated, but others can see that Tartuffe is a hustler, all show, who merely pretends to be a moral guide. He is in fact greedy, gluttonous, and lustful, shrewd and conniving.
In such a way, your smartphone and the platforms it expresses (platforms designed only to operate upon your psyche and to empty your bank account) wheedles its way into your life with implicit claims of relevance and goodness, its admonitions towards self-improvement.
* * *
Consider the family’s complaints about Orgon’s obsession with Tartuffe:
Could not, I think, be loved more tenderly;
At table he must have the seat of honor.
Anyone offering actual human contact who has ever been brushed off—at dinner, say—in favor of a smartphone can understand the frustration. The smartphone’s centerpiece in family life is also echoed in these observations about Orgon’s behavior around Tartuffe:
He’s lost in constant admiration, quotes him
On all occasions, takes his trifling acts
For wonders, and his words for oracles.
It is the nature of obsession to devalue whatever is not engrossing.
Whoever does his [Tartuffe’s] will, knows perfect peace,
And counts the whole world else, as so much dung.
* * *
The false fronts of social media were designed to keep us searching for approval, just as the religious front of Tartuffe was designed (by himself) to make Orgon and his mother feel righteous by following him. Ultimately, the problem with a false front is that it leads us to “pay the self-same honor both to masks and faces.” When we interact on social media, we can forget that (not counting real-time, face-to-face talk on screens) one can see only a mask. We can’t see the spaces between the thought and the post or text or “like,” so we tend to assume that things were spontaneous that were not.
* * *
The difference between the hypocrite and the truly devout is that
They [the truly devout] are not always judging all our actions,
They’d think such judgment savored of presumption.
But Tartuffe—and social media—judge everything they see.
* * *
Orgon agrees to marry off his daughter to Tartuffe, even though she is in love with someone else, someone suitable. The daughter is pretty sure she will kill herself as a result—ironic in light of recent concerns that the suicide rate among American kids has spiked since the invention of the smartphone.
Neither Tartuffe nor a smartphone can meet the real needs of a teenage girl.
* * *
Perhaps the height of tartuffery in social media is its use to generate charitable donations. Tartuffe constantly trumpets his own charity when in reality he is nothing but a sponge. The idea that a social media company generates ad revenue for each click on a charity page is pretty sobering.
* * *
Certain apparent self-reflections on the part of social media moguls—note The Social Dilemma (2020) —may seem to refute the analogy, but think again: when caught at duplicity, Tartuffe proclaims his own wickedness, which leads Orgon to defend him.
Orgon disinherits his son rather than hear any criticism of Tartuffe (even though Tartuffe admits the accusations were true). And when Tartuffe is seen to want too much, his patron offers even more. It’s a way of disproving that one is a slave to idolize one’s master, and that applies pretty clearly to some people’s attitude toward their phones.
During an undergraduate Communication class in which the topics were responsiveness, emotional resilience, and presence in relationships, Janna picked up a nearby i-phone—all the students had theirs on the table in front of them, as usual. This was pre-COVID, when touching someone’s device was not thought to be a health concern, but Janna might as well have grabbed the student by the buttons and ripped open her shirt, so shocked was the reaction.
She used the i-phone (gently and briefly) as a prop, to demonstrate what interpersonal communication can look and feel like when one party keeps glancing at their screen while the other party wants to create a live, present conversation. Within fifteen seconds of having touched it, she laid the device back down in front of the student—who (along with her classmates) were thereafter unable to focus upon the point of the demonstration. Several angrily defended their at-home, in-class, and everywhere use of their devices, using language and tone suggesting that Janna had rudely and personally insulted them. They needed to be reachable by parents, they insisted. They needed their devices in order to take notes. Their phones were not distractions, but tools. If Janna were not old (one student proposed) she would have a different relationship to smartphones and screens. She would understand their benign and beneficial uses, and she would not even playfully call into question their unassailable goodness.
* * *
Google and social media platforms rely upon algorithms that detect pretty much all of our proclivities, our desires, our fetishes. Tartuffe gets the upper hand at last because he knows the family’s secrets. He cons the father into deeding him the house. In pursuing an affair with the mistress of the house, he for once reveals the heart of his hypocrisy.
In any case, your scruple’s easily
Removed. With me you’re sure of secrecy,
And there’s no harm unless a thing is known.
The public scandal is what brings offence,
And secret sinning is not sin at all.
* * *
The play resolves with a deus ex machina—the king steps in and sets things right. Permit us to suggest that getting the deus out of the machine is just what’s needed.
We don’t have a host of suggestions, although an awareness of how media operate—how platforms are designed to both addict us and to commodify our attention—and a real grasp of the relational costs of phubbing (the actual term for snubbing present people in favor of whatever notification or unanswered need demands attention on one’s device) can help. Media literacy, which emphasizes messages and critical consumption, is a good idea—teach critical awareness of how messages are constructed and how we use media, and cultivate curiosity, not defensiveness, about our own media habits—that has gained considerable traction, at least in the Communication discipline and in primary education, over the past twenty years.
Perhaps the lesson is cultivating genuine presence: doing the work and making the investment of actually listening and responding to people in real time who are trying to distract you from your device.
Also, it might be useful to distinguish social screen time (such as playing video games with others or watching movies with others) from solo screen time, which leaves children at the mercy of tartuffery.
Moliere (1664) Tartuffe 1664) Curtis Hidden Page (translator)
Pullman, P. (1995-2000) His dark materials. Scholastic Children’s Books.
Stoker, B. (1897) Dracula. Constable and Co.