Livingstone here. As covered in my last blog entry, I described how Masonry is starting to shift into the internet age and I introduced what that could mean.
Now, it’s time to dive into the moral, philosophical, NSA, Social Network, and transparency aspect of this. Buckle up kids, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Internet Masonry is going to force dramatic changes on the Fraternity. The Masonry of the 1950s-1990s was a form of Masonry that valued the secrecy of the Fraternity almost too much. There are countless stories of Masons who badly wanted to have friends or family members join. But they were restricted from inviting someone based on our rejections of membership solicitation. Except they took this rejection two steps to far and many times didn’t even mention they were even part of the Order to those people. It’s one thing to not want to violate someone’s free will by not asking them. It’s entirely another for someone to not even know that it’s even possible for them to become a Mason. There has been so much misplaced orthodoxy to this that it has seriously hurt the Fraternity. Also considering how much the secrets of Masonry are up for debate, the vast majority of those brothers went to the extreme in trying not to violate their obligation. In a Fraternity that espouses the importance of education and knowledge, many Masons weren’t even telling people anything about Masonry. They acted like it didn’t even exist. Madness!
Yet the internet essentially blows that up. Take a look at the Freemasonry Wikipedia entry. There it is folks. Everything you need to know to get a primer on what Masonry is about, and that still is only scratching the surface. Which is pretty incredible in our digital age. Both that we now can get information on what “is” Masonry…and also how there is so much missing in that Wikipedia entry. But the debate on what is secret or not is now starting to be decided by the internet.
Alright boys and girls, I’m putting in my disclaimer that it’s Livingstone Speculation Time and I only speak for myself (and maybe potentially a new generation of Masons). Many of our old ways are soon going to go. Firstly, our vow to not violate the secrets of Masonry can now be seriously geared back because of the internet. If something isn’t a secret anymore…then you can talk about it! With that said you do have to be specific about what you say. Wikipedia articles and lodge websites are a great guideline for what is secret. Obviously Masons should consult with their lodge and jurisdictional rules, but if it’s there…talk away! Also since we can see the past papers of Masonic writers with the click of a button then we can assume what they’ve talked about isn’t secret. So cut the crap. If what you’re talking about is reasonably easy to find and doesn’t violate your vow, have at it. Our order is all about bringing light to people and fighting ignorance. Embrace Masonry for what it stands for and enlighten people. The internet has now made it clear for how we will approach this.
This all means that Masonry is ripe for another expansion and also another major internal question. We live in a society that doesn’t just value information…it can’t stop consuming it! Yet the overconsumption of information is a real problem. Also the context for what that information means, and who is interpreting it, can mean all the difference. I mentioned in the last entry that the free flow of information will be great for the fraternity. But how you process information is hugely important. There are a number of people who are in full backlash mode for websites like Upworthy, TheChive, The Huffington Post (sorry, it’s true) and Drudge Report (sorry, also true) for their hyperbolic presentation of information. While forums like /r/Freemasonry have become a boon for the Masonic community, the real meat of Masonry is the secretive discussion. We Masons are made very aware of how words can be interpreted, but the human element attached to those words is FAR more important then just the words. An idea written online by someone can be interpreted much differently if that person tells you the very same thing in person. Body language, passion, and how they are taking the argument can speak volumes. And while we have such great access to all this information, we still must discuss in person. It’s one thing to quickly pass around things online, but I argue that it can create a regressive form of communication. While we can be far more exact, there’s a barrier between people that is very real. Look at the comments sections of most article. It’s a hellfire of ravenous opinions. And the majority of them don’t even bother to work with facts or discuss things in a scholarly way. It’s us vs. them. And that does disturb me. The internet and our exchange of information is seductive in it’s ease and exactness, but it loses the human element. And without the human element information will never be complete. We Masons know from our rituals how important our physical presence is to the ritual and it’s imparting of knowledge and Masonic light. The same applies to life.
I haven’t personally felt this type of coldness from brothers online that I do from non-brothers. This has been an interesting phenomenon and it says a great deal about the character of men who have joined the fraternity…and how Masonry has influenced these men. And also how our less than great members haven’t figured out the internet. But our worldwide Masonic bonds, the moral importance and our shared appreciation of light have made our exchanges better then what usually goes on around the web. And this isn’t confirmation bias. I’ve been around and it’s true. Masons don’t let the “keyboard barrier” between them turn them into assholes. Which inadvertently shows the importance of people feeling bonded together as a community for civil discourse in the digital age. I know better transparency is also helping this, but instead it’s using social pressure to suppress the problem instead of people actually fixing the problem inside themselves.
Now our vow to keep our secrets of Masonry is sacred to us. I have found a few times where I have feel that I have been on the wrong side of the obligation. I haven’t violated any secret per se, I do feel like a bad person. While I have said how we’re moving in a progressive direction for Masonic understanding, I also think we’re breaking the spirit of our Masonic promise to secrecy. Again, when it comes to the transparency, the free exchange of knowledge and ideas of the internet…it can be seductive to want to join in as a Mason. I would also say the zeitgeist of the gay rights movement has secretly been a driving force for Masonry’s more liberal turn to showing itself. To watch the Gay Rights Movement is to watch a group of people who have been living in secret, oppressed and victimized all over the world, and yet cheered on by huge sections of society for their success and for revealing themselves. It’s rubbing off on us. Many of us Masons are sick of conspiracy. Sick of living in the dark. Sick of having to conceal our identity. We want what gay women and woman are starting to have…a chance to be ourselves and proud of who we are within society.
Social networking has really driven this as well. We used to live in a world where we wouldn’t know is someone was gay, Jewish, atheist, or whatever. This even applies to more well know groups of people like Christians and such. But if you were from a small group of people most people wouldn’t know who you are unless you specifically told them. But now, you can slap the details of your identity onto your Facebook profile and BOOM, the world knows who you are. And since we can see the status updates of each other even when we aren’t around we can usually figure out who someone really is pretty quickly. But more importantly it’s people now being able to freely decide who their identity is…and then letting the world know. When it comes to identity almost all of human history was about people being given their identity with little choice on their part about it. And if there was an identity that wasn’t accepted by mainstream society you lived in the shadows. Now due to the civil rights movement, gay rights and others, people have come to understand that if someone has an identity that isn’t normal…it’s not a bad thing. For Masons the time is ripe to start to be ourselves, so to speak.
But as things go in Masonry, things don’t always go with the tide. And I would say that most of the time they go against it.
The Masonic transparency camp is one side of the coin…the other side is the Traditional Observance lodge movement. I’m not going to go into specifics but the TO Masons are the fastest growing group of Masons and they are secretive as hell. They have an internet presence for a lodge website, but that is it. They are huge into knowledge and education…but only inside the lodge walls. They are very strict about not violating their Masonic secrets and they are very hard about not revealing their Masonic identity. Now the majority of Masons are secretive about their identity so this isn’t anything special and seems more par for the course. But their rapid expansion is sending a psychological message to the rest of Masonry in this regard. And that is “It’s ok to not feel like you have to tell the world about who you are.”
I can’t always speak about why countless Masons have been secretive about who they are, but I can say that the Masons I have met and the Masons I have read about rarely struggled openly about their Masonic identity. For them, they were Masons and that was between their brothers, God, and themselves. No need to go around telling other people. No need to feel justified in being a Mason by having society accept you. It is ok to be who you are if you know what you are doing is right. Nothing more.
This line of thinking is starting to become controversial today. But it’s a rarely used one and one that I will guarantee will become part of our national psychology at some point.
The secretive nature of TO lodges and most Masons has also taken an interesting twist with the NSA and our growing understanding of their mass surveillance. As the split in Masonry starts to form between the Transparency Masons and the Secretive Masons, how we approach our relationship to the Masonic secrets needs to be addressed. Our phones and our computers are not secure. The exchange of Masonic secrets is being compromised every time we use one of these devices. Yet there are Masons out there who just shrug their shoulders and say the NSA probably already has the secrets so why bother. I’m going to come across as a bit of a hypocrite here and I’m going to say that just because something wrong is happening, doesn’t mean we should keep doing it. Now I’m being specific when I say that the things that are being put on websites that I don’t consider secrets aren’t secrets anymore because I trust the judgement of the Masons that put them there. I’m still on the reserved side but I trust the institutions that work in Masonry to know what they’re doing. The things we say to other Masons that are not widely known are still considered secrets and we should absolutely refrain from trusting ANY form of communication that isn’t person to person. Our ritual insinuates the importance of this if you’ve paid attention. Get off the phones brothers. Don’t touch your computer. Your Internet Lodge is a trap and if you really respect your obligation, don’t break it.
However again, the internet is going to force Masons to decide what the secrets of Masonry really mean. Are they a bond that brings us together in a special shared experience, to serve as an allegory for how knowledge is to be shared and understood? Or is what is happening now the logical and natural progression of Masonry from a rebellious secretive order to becoming the light that fights injustice around the world and seeks to improve all people. For that question, I’ll let you decide.