It is not the things themselves that disturb us, but our judgments about these things” —Epictetus, Encheiridion, 1.5
Both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus agree that people’s anguish is caused by our distress that the world is not the way we imagine it should be. I suppose that much of 2016-2017 has been a major lesson in how, and to what degree, one should approach the world as communicated by the media, both traditional and social. What we read in the news or on social media is not the world, but the world as described to us by the news and social media.
The experience of 2016 on Twitter was so shocking. I feel it was due to two factors: my spending far, far too much time on it, and the design of Twitter itself encourages and rewards outrageous and lurid statements. I step outside my door and it does not resemble the apocalyptic reality that I had been marinating in for the past year. Now, that is on me, surely. By following dozens of political commentators and constantly reading the feed, I was surely responsible for my own state of mind.
But, unable to sleep on that election night, and feeling powerless dread on nights after that as I lay in bed, I realized I had to fix something. Mostly, it was a matter of bringing things back into perspective: that I was putting a lot of emotional energy and paying a lot of attention to things completely out of my control. So, I’m trying to cultivate a Stoicism in not allowing these events to have such a powerful effect on me. What good does following every twist and turn of political infighting provide to either myself or the world? Interestingly, I’ve found that during my social media sabbaticals, my knowledge of world events doesn’t really suffer, suggesting that whatever I’m reading, in addition to causing me anxiety, isn’t really making me any better informed.
Many have written about social media and Twitter in particular as having addictive qualities, as well as giving a megaphone to the most strident and outrageous voices. Could it be that the places where America is most divided are in the media (and by association, social media) and in the government? Because the disagreements on the Internet are certainly vicious, horrible, and intractable. As they are in the halls of government and among activists. When you spend enough time on Twitter, you begin to feel that it is an accurate representation of real life. Another way of putting it is that the Twitter stream in some ways becomes your stream of thought. If that is the case, it is no wonder that to those spending a lot of time on Twitter perceive the country through that lens.
The politics of the current moment are certainly reactionary, counterrevolutionary, and cruel. I do not dispute that, lest anyone misconstrue that I am advocating quietism. A citizen should do as much as they feel is right, but are the social media battles really aiding that goal? I feel a certain gestalt of 2018 is a dawning realization that social media has become—or always was—something toxic, something, like sugar or alcohol, best taken in measured doses.