What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter edition

TwitterI’m starting a new occasional series, entitled What Would a Stoic Do? The idea is to explore, based on actual (as opposed to hypothetical) situations, what the best Stoic response might be to things that happen in everyday life. Some of the examples will be drawn from my own experience, others from friends’ and relatives’, still more, perhaps, from the news.

The idea is that Stoicism is a living philosophy with practical value, not just a theoretical exercise, or a devout reading of ancient authors. As much as I enjoy the theory, as well as the readings, it seems like the point is to get down and dirty with real life, so here we go. Obviously, I very much welcome readers’ suggestions, as I certainly don’t consider myself an oracle (ah!) on what proper Stoic behavior would be under given circumstances. I’m here to learn.

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 4.20)

The first episode of this new series concerns Twitter, the popular social network on whose platform interactions among users are limited to 140 characters at a time. I have been using it since March 2010. So far, I have tweeted 20,200 times, have 11,700 followers, and follow 13 people.

Those stats are a reflection of how I use Twitter: i) as a way to alert people to my own work, or to work by people I think should be read more widely; and ii) to keep up with news in my own areas of interest (I follow a number of philosophers and philosophical organizations).

By its very nature, Twitter is most definitely not suited to discussions. While it is an interesting challenge to be able to come up with something clever and engaging to say in less than 140 characters, there simply is no way that sort of exchange, even prolonged, lends itself to anything thoughtful or insightful. Twitter, in other words, is a great platform to let people know about certain things, but a horrible one to engage in discussions about those very things. (Other social networks do not have that sort of limitation, especially Facebook and Google+, though even there it quickly comes down to just how much time one has or is willing to spend in order to talk to hundreds, or thousands, of strangers across the world, rather than getting on with one’s own life and business.)

I wrote all the above to provide some context and explain why I rarely answer people on Twitter, and usually do so only in response to specific questions concerning additional sources they are seeking. But occasionally I do engage in “twiscussions” (I believe this is a neologism, you’ve heard it here first!). And I usually regret it.

One such case occurred recently, after I sent out a link concerning a petition from a number of academics to world leaders, aimed at having the latter take the issue of global warming more seriously. (The petition was started by my colleague Lawrence Torcello, at the Rochester Institute of Technology.)

Predictably (this sort of thing has happened before), I received a relatively high number of negative, and in some cases downright nasty, comments from climate change “skeptics.” And that’s where things become delicate.

First off, it is easy, all too easy, to get upset or angry (at being called nasty names in public). Second, one is at a loss as how to respond properly (or whether to respond at all, or block some people, or “mute” others, and so on). Third, one gets discouraged by being reminded once more that even mainstream science and a rather mild open letter can be vehemently rejected out of hand by people who are otherwise intelligent and articulate about other topics.

What is a Stoic to do? Let us begin with the first problem: upset feelings, offense or anger. As Marcus, Epictetus and Seneca say a number of times (I’m paraphrasing here), get over yourself. If the insult where hurled at a rock, would a rock be worse off for it? No, it would continue to be a rock (which, admittedly, isn’t that exciting). The point is that negative opinions expressed by others need to be considered objectively, because they might have a valid point of criticism, but not subjectively, i.e., as “insults,” “offenses” and the like. Of course, we are all humans, not Sages, so we cannot avoid immediate emotions. (Actually, even the Sages can’t, since they too are human beings, they just know better how to react to those emotions.) The obvious counsel here, therefore, is to create a space between you and your emotions — say, by getting up and walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes — until you have regained enough self control to inquire about the emotion in question and decide whether you want to give it “assent,” as the Stoics say, or not. This, I’m sure the reader knows, is much harder to do in practice than it sounds like, because social networking lends itself to immediate engagement, usually with regretful outcomes. Still, it seems like the Stoic thing to do (or to attempt to do, at the least).

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Second, how to respond properly. I think a Stoic here would have to reflect on what is the purpose of engaging others on Twitter, given the special characteristics of the medium. As I said above, my purpose is to alert people to interesting material, not to change their minds about any specific topic (for that I write books and blog posts). Seen that way, twiscussions are beside the point, and since they are more likely than not to generate ill feelings, they should probably be avoided altogether. Again, this is easier said than done, partly because the instinct of a teacher is to converse with people, and partly because we all think we know better than our antagonists, and if they just listened to us for a minute… What I try to do — if I absolutely feel like engaging — is to bring up a couple of points that my interlocutor may not have considered, and then explain that Twitter is just not a proper platform for involved conversations and bow out. But I should probably simply establish a policy of never answer a Tweet, even though there is a risk of coming across as rude or close minded. (Hmm, perhaps from now on I could simply respond with a link to this post, or would that be too self-conceited?)

Finally, how to deal with the feeling of discouragement at what one sees in response to one’s Tweet? Here again I think Stoic advise is very clear: we are responsible (at best, according to modern cognitive science) for our own opinions, not for those of others. The first part means that I need to listen carefully to what others are saying about my own opinions, because I may, of course, be wrong on certain issues. The second part means that I ought to internalize my goals, as Irvine nicely puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: again, my aim isn’t to change other people’s minds, but rather to put forth the best material available for public consumption. Whether others read and learn from such material, it is up to them, not me.

“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)

19 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter edition

  1. Excellent advice, Massimo. As you note, easier said than done! Personally I find that one can have positive Twitter discussions with folks who are willing to read and respond charitably given the medium. Any antagonistic discussion is fruitless though. One cannot argue nuance in 140 characters.

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  2. I’m surprised climate deniers follow your twitter! 🙂 I think focusing on practical ethics from a Stoic viewpoint is a great idea. I’d love to see specific precepts or advice on things like love, loss, and so on. It annoys me that there’s no general thematic arrangement in the literature; but I’ll get over my irrational judgement. 🙂

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  3. Thanks, Massimo. Great idea. I don’t have a twitter account to alert you to this typo: “I have been using it since March 2020.”

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  4. create a space between you and your emotions — say, by getting up and walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes

    That explains why sometimes you take quite a while to respond to my comments! I presume that on occasion my comments are the occasion for a long hike! I will persist with my practices in the belief that it is good for your health.

    Hmm, perhaps from now on I could simply respond with a link to this post, or would that be too self-conceited?

    Good idea in principle. You could link to a short page(no one will bother reading more than two paragraphs) that outlines your twitter-policy(twipoli? if you want another neologism).

    because I may, of course, be wrong on certain issues.

    Mainly about God. You are almost always right when you stay away from that subject 🙂

    Whether others read and learn from such material, it is up to them, not me.

    Precisely. Remember also the large, silent majority that read and say nothing. They are the real audience and this audience has no emotional stake in the interchange. They value thoughtful, dignified behaviour. They are listening to you because they value the insights that you provide.

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  5. The point is that negative opinions expressed by others need to be considered objectively, because they might have a valid point of criticism, but not subjectively, i.e., as “insults,” “offenses” and the like…The obvious counsel here, therefore, is to create a space between you and your emotions

    This is the core statement in your post.

    One way to deal with it is to understand the source of one’s feelings. As a species we are exquisitely sensitive to threats of loss of status and social exclusion.These feelings can be so intense that they mimic real physical pain. This is known as social pain theory.

    We feel this social pain in such a real way that the law has evolved to protect us from needless threats and thus there are laws to do with libel, slander, defamation, crimen injuria and hate speech.

    So I suggest, in addition to your points, one creates that space between emotions and objective understanding by reflective considering:
    1. that one’s reaction is an autonomous response determined by one’s internal hard wiring as described by social pain theory;
    2. once identified, the social pain can be examined and dismissed for what it is, a phantom pain;
    3. from whence it comes. Was the other person thoughtful, informed, behaving in good faith and therefore deserving of respectful attention?
    4. the other person has afforded one a training opportunity in resilience and hardiness – be grateful;
    5. and if one is really fortunate, the other person may even have provided one with an opportunity to learn – be even more grateful.

    Gratitude is such a powerful emotion.

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  6. Being an endurance runner I’m partial to the initial Epictetus qoute 🙂

    I think their are a couple of entangled issues here. 1) How to respond to negativity in a constrained environment that limits nuance 2) How to respond in general when some level of personal emotional discomfort has been evoked.

    I don’t have a twitter account and in general try to avoid environments that discourage nuance. That does tend to be pretty limiting in our culture. I think it’s a big reason why I’m pretty terrible at self promotion. If one is going to engage in these environments I think something along the lines of what others have suggested such as referring followers to some general guidelines for what your mode of engagement in the environment will be.

    I think the second question is an important one that I don’t think has a simple answer. Labnut outlined some good questions to ask ourselves. I don’t like the idea of separating emotion and reason, but I agree some space in time can allow those two aspects to work better together. I think it’s tricky because all of our biases lie in the direction of replacing the discomforting emotion with a comforting rationalization. So it is easy to think we have ruled out any legitimacy to the offending comment when perhaps there may be something there that could widen our own perspective moving forward. With the example you give however, I don’t think it should evoke any discomforting emotions, not only because the valid research behind the topic is so one-sided, but also due to the nature of the posting environment. If it is hard to respond with nuance in this environment this implies that the comment you received would be suspect to the same constraints. So knowing the nature of the environment there is no need to be bothered by comments in that environment due to their limited depth.

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  7. seth,

    “it is easy to think we have ruled out any legitimacy to the offending comment when perhaps there may be something there that could widen our own perspective moving forward”

    Indeed, that’s a constant danger for the Stoic, and one that both Epictetus and Marcus warn against explicitly.

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  8. Seth,
    I don’t like the idea of separating emotion and reason, but I agree some space in time can allow those two aspects to work better together.

    The role of emotion is to powerfully motivate a response. Reason must be given the opportunity to regulate that response.

    I attempt to live by the mantra: ‘feel it and then deal with it

    One’s emotions are legitimate. To be an authentic person one must feel them and not suppress them. Having felt them and recognised one’s emotions one can move on to the process of dealing with them. This is where the Stoic excels because, by training, he has learnt to regard them from a third party perspective and determine a rational response.

    Being an endurance runner I’m partial to the initial Epictetus quote

    Endurance runners are natural Stoics! Tim Noakes, with his Central Governor Theory, has pointed out that fatigue is not a sensation per se, but an emotion. Sensations are translated into emotions and it is the emotions that are presented to the conscious mind. The raw material that the conscious mind deals with are emotions and intuitions. All inputs are first translated into emotions and/or intuitions and then presented to the conscious mind.

    The notion, that the raw materials of the mind are emotions and intuitions, is vital for a Stoic understanding of the world.

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  9. Hi Labnut,
    I’ve read Noakes, including his big ‘Lore of Running’ book and papers surrounding the central governor theory. As human beings we categorize things. This is of course necessary and some ways of categorizing stuff work better than others. I also think however that our conscious response is a holistic integrated continuity, and we can get in trouble when we think of the separation that characterizes the categories of our models as fixed.

    For example you speak of our emotions and intuitions as raw materials. Yet as we develop better mastery in any context or environment those emotions present themselves to our consciousness already mostly refined and more intelligently situated to the context. This allows our attention to respond to a more limited piece of our experience ( the novel aspect). In an endurance runner this is not just a better prepared state of the ‘central governor’ but also all those aspects of the body that have adapted through training ( neuro-muscular cooridination, capillary density, enhanced mithochondria, etc….. ). I don’t think we ever really look at our emotions with some emotion free faculty. Both aspects ( as we categorize them ) I think are always present. If we are engaged in a situation that we are not well prepared for then I think our emotional/rational response functions poorly an finding space in time before acting out the response then becomes a good idea if possible. I prefer to think of that response system as a complex that can be functioning well or poorly together, rather than conceptualizing one faculty that comes to the rescue of the other.

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  10. Seth,
    I’ve read Noakes, including his big ‘Lore of Running’ book and papers surrounding the central governor theory

    yes, the Lore of Running is a terrific sourcebook for endurance runners. Tim Noakes is not only a talented sports scientist, he is also a nice, decent, sincere man. I am sure you will know about his work on hyponatremia.

    I set out to test his Central Governor Model by running for five hours without any fluid intake on a 30 deg C + day under clear skies. It was an extreme test of will but I succeeded in overriding the signals(emotions) from my body of exceptional dehydration. I won’t do this again. I am sorry that I never measured my weight loss but I think I lost four to five litres of fluid.

    I also think however that our conscious response is a holistic integrated continuity

    Agreed.

    Yet as we develop better mastery in any context or environment those emotions present themselves to our consciousness already mostly refined and more intelligently situated to the context

    Yes, they do. I think it is a consequence of a refining of our intuitions.

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  11. Massimo, I like this new feature of your blog. It seems like the kind of thing for a group of Stoics to do, the origins of the “advice column.” I never heard of “twiscussion” but I think a friend of mine invented “twiticism.”

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