The Internet and the Dinner Party: Cultivating Stoic Calm in the Online World
By Tanya Brodd
Reputations are made and ruined in the blink of an eye these days. A few months ago, in Indiana, USA, a pizza company gave an interview supporting the new Religious Freedom act. The proprietor of the small, family-owned company said they would serve a gay couple who came into their restaurant but they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. The interview went viral and the Internet responded in a way that has been becoming increasingly commonplace. Their Yelp! site was flooded with one star reviews (they had only two reviews previously) and by the end of the day they announced they were closing their doors due to threats. In the predictable followup to this story, they started a Gofundme page which raised over $400,000 in 24 hours. Clearly, expressing oneself on the Internet goes far beyond trolling, the comments section of the newspaper, and Facebook comments. People lose jobs and are made to feel in fear of their safety frequently. Others have been bullied to the point of taking their own lives. On the other hand, it is very easy to express solidarity with whatever cause by joining in on the side we support of any issue. When a bus monitor was the victim of bullying by students hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to support her and, as it was hoped by many, to shame the students. When a man was shamed for dancing on a subway, strangers halfway around the world offered to throw him a dance party and several pop stars joined in. Any incident, no matter how trivial or huge, can quickly go viral and change someone’s life forever due to a picture or quote on the Internet.
Memes pop up about social issues, political viewpoints, even parenting styles, disabilities, and anything else that people have strong feelings about. Navigating this quickly changing world can be very difficult for the modern Stoic and I am no exception. It may seem as though the ancients would have little in the way of advice to offer us today. Yet, in many ways the modern Internet can be thought of as similar to an ancient dinner party. Epictetus, in particular, had a lot to say about this. These words have helped me form an unofficial policy for my own online interaction.
At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a story for a blog about disabilities featuring my own children and their struggles with autism. I was really surprised at how quickly this story spread around the Internet. At first, I was reading all the comments and so many were positive. Writing about our journey was something I had wanted to do for a long time and this was my first tentative step in this direction. It was clear that this story really struck a chord with a lot of parents. But, as the story was shared to groups outside of the autism community some comments turned negative. My parenting ability, my reason for writing the article, the value of my children’s lives were all thrown into question. And when I read those comments, Stoic practice or not, it hurt. I had to go back and pull out my books and start my practice all over again. It felt like reading some words, especially Epictetus, for the first time:
“When someone treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he acts or speaks thus because he thinks it is incumbent upon him. That being the case, it is impossible for him to follow what appears good to you, but what appears good to himself; whence it follows, that, if he gets a wrong view of things, the man that suffers is the man that has been deceived. For if a person thinks a true composite judgement to be false, the composite judgement does not suffer, but the person who has been deceived. If, therefore, you start from this point of view, you will be gentle with the man who reviles you. For you should say on each occasion ‘He thought that way about it’” (Oldfather, 2000, p. 527).
So my first rule: What is said about me, well, I can’t control that. Furthermore, they are making a judgement (whether based on an article, a comment on an article, a belief I have, a cause I support, etc.) based on one small piece of who I am. The best thing to do is to not respond at all. In the case mentioned above, that story was written to be a snapshot about one instance in my life. It needed to stand alone and not be defended. It required me to be quiet, calm and dignified. In order to do that I had to skip reading the comments – both good and bad. I owed that to myself and my children. It can be hard to remember the basics of Stoic principles and to be gentle. But anger benefits no one in these situations.
That’s not to say that I don’t need to be concerned and careful about what I put out for public consumption. The Internet is public. Most of us do need to be mindful of our careers, our families, and to a degree, our reputations. Epictetus again guides me in my interactions and comments online. “Be silent for the most part, or else make only the most necessary remarks, and express these in few words. But rarely, and when occasion requires you talk, talk, indeed, but about no ordinary topics. Do not talk about gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or things to eat or drink – topics that arise on all occasions; but above all, do not talk about people, either blaming, or praising, or comparing them. If, then, you can, by your own conversation bring over that of your companions to what is seemly” (Epictetus & Oldfather, 2000, p. 517). Marcus Aurelius also has a lot to say on this subject but perhaps the best is the most simple of all “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 37).
This, then, is one of the hardest things to do. The Internet provides the perfect place for gossip, mindless chatter, praising public (and sometimes private) figures I admire, tearing down those whose values run counter to mine. This rule, to make my interactions online positive, uplifting, focusing on “what is seemly” is the one easy to say but hard to live by. Judging by what others post, it is the one most people find challenging. At least I’m not alone in this. For even as I know the Internet is public, it still feels like a solitary pursuit. It is easy to lose our composure, lose sight of our Stoic values, forget what we can and cannot control. Stoicism can be a hard practice and sometimes it feels as though I am the only one trying. Especially online. So this personal, unofficial rule: pursue what is seemly, is one I try to practice more often. This includes not forwarding nasty or harsh articles and memes by those who have a viewpoint different than mine under the guise that they are funny. It also, for me, includes exposing myself to those whose viewpoints run counter to mine. I do not want to live in an echo chamber where only those who believe as I do are the ones who talk to me. This helps me to be gentle with those who do disagree with me.
These two simple rules: Deal gently with those who judge me since they aren’t judging the whole me and try to keep my online interactions focused on “what is seemly” may feel simplistic. But, in reading Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and even Seneca the essence of this comes out again and again. If I follow these rules I will have less concern with the negative side of the Internet. I won’t have to worry about my reputation and dealing with anger and the often unwanted consequences that come from the quick retort. I won’t have to hide what I’m doing under a veil of anonymity. To be sure, I am far from perfect in this regard. But, this is the ideal I strive to move towards continually. This living philosophy which informs my everyday life is one of which I think the ancients would approve.
Aurelius, M., & Hays, G. (2002). Meditations. New York: Modern Library.
Epictetus, & Oldfather, W. A. (2000). The discourses, books III-IV: Fragments: Encheiridion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tanya just became the Principal at Arizona Autism Charter School. She has a master’s degree in Special Education – Consultation and Collaboration with an emphasis in Autism and she’s finishing up another master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Tanya have taught every single grade Kindergarten through 12th grade in a variety of settings. As you can imagine, with this kind of background, at one time philosophy and the ancients couldn’t have been further from her mind. However, she is a true lifelong learner and once she discovered the Stoics and their practices (through her classicist husband) she couldn’t stop reading about it with a view to making it applicable to our modern day. Tanya has been reading and studying Ancient Stoicism for over three years and this is the first post she has written about it.