Why are People So Mean? Challenge #5: Minding Our Social Media Manners
Updated: Oct 27
So many internet quotes are just plain wrong.
In 1942, Thumper, the fictional Disney rabbit in the animated film Bambi, proclaimed, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Thumper heard these words from his father the very morning he spoke them, and they have been passed down from one generation to the next ever since. Whether good advice or not is debatable, but at least we can agree that Thumper's words point us toward a civility that seems increasingly difficult to find.
A quick Google search reveals Thumper's words were borrowed from Charles Caleb Colton. Wrongly.
An English clergyperson haunted with persistent struggles, Colton lived a broken life which he ended himself at the age of 52. But Colton didn't actually say what Thumper did. On page 99 of his best known work, Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words," this is what Colton actually wrote:
Colton seems to be thinking more about the strategic use of words than about being nice. And, in fact, he has plenty of not-nice things to say in Lacon. About the media, for example. In his preface he writes:
In his famous 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, aptly titled "A World Split Apart," Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made a similar pronouncement about the press,
Hastiness and superficiality—these are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press; it is contrary to its nature. The press merely picks out sensational formulas.
He goes on to lament how the Western press has "generally accepted patterns of judgment" and holds"unrestrained freedom."
Colton and Solzhenitsyn may have been overly harsh on the press of their day, but I find myself wondering what they would say today.
If the quantity of the press outweighed its quality in 1820, how much more today in our age of social media?
Now we are, de facto, all part of the media, pronouncing our views whenever and however we choose. A vast world of ideas gets pushed onto our retina displays, chiming and vibrating their ways into our consciousness day and night. The quantity of media is exponentially greater than when Colton and Solzhenitsyn offered their critiques, the conceptual quality never so poor, and the sad reality is that we are both the cause and the consumers of this. Even in writing this blog, I am complicit.
Here is where a better writer would offer a beautiful transition. All I can do is turn a corner, and hope you hang on to what I've written so far.
With this post I'm halfway through a writing adventure prompted by David Brooks's article, "How America Got Mean." I'm offering ten challenges to myself and those who choose to join me. Challenge 3, 4, and 5 are all prompted by an idea called Naive Realism, proposed by a former Stanford psychologist, Dr. Lee Ross. Here's a summary table:
A Humbler Alternative
I know the truth
I know some of the truth, but there is much I don't know (Challenge #3)
If you know what I know, you will agree with me
People hold many different ideas, and mine may not always be right (Challenge #4)
If you still don't agree, then you're a fool (or worse)
Social media gives us a platform to call others who disagree with us foolish (or worse), as fast as our thumbs can fly across these tiny virtual keyboards we carry in our pockets. There are all sorts of ways to call others names--with words or emojis, passive or aggressive, or both.
If Thumper's words are overly simplistic, it seems many have adopted the opposite strategy on social media:
"If you can't say something critical, don't say nothing at all."
Yes, of course I am exaggerating. But even if a fraction of our posts are offered out of Naive Realism, what is the cost to our own souls? To those who read our posts? To the wider social systems in which we function?
Some will point out, correctly, that there needs to be room for countercultural voices to call out problems in the world. But does it sometimes seem that social media has made us all think we're prophets? All of us smarter than the average bear? All of us pointing out problems in others without looking much to our own follies and weaknesses? What if hubris and accusations have simply gone too far, as Jennifer Aniston recently suggested and David Brooks warned four years ago?
In his newest book, How to Know a Person, Brooks writes of social media, "There is judgment everywhere and understanding nowhere" (p. 7).
Even in writing this post, I may be guilty of the very thing I am writing about--calling out those who choose to call out others on social media. The convoluted paradox twists up my mind and my heart, even as I look for a better way forward.
Here's challenge #5. I want to mind my manners on social media, to point out the good and lovely things people post, to affirm and agree and validate whenever I can, to be a person of kindness and grace, to hold my tongue and my thumbs when a critical reply will just stir up more strife.
Thumper's words may be simplistic, and Colton's and Solzhenitsyn's too critical of the media, but I find truth in them all. We're all part of the media now, and it's best when we mind our manners.
Previous posts in this series: