I’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)