What Plato Can Teach Facebook

article-0-00031A9000000258-799_468x360Plato was interested, acutely interested, in sociological categories and psychological types. All of the major human types are captured and cataloged in his dialogues with cold-eyed precision. The charming host of The Symposium is a case in point. Agathon is a type: an intellectual lightweight, with a flair for language, who’s smart enough to suspect that he’s not all that smart. A good-looking guy who loves pretty things and doesn’t care if they’re real. The sort of guy who values beauty far more than he’s ever valued truth. Eryximachus, the annoying doctor in The Symposium, is also a familiar type: an overbearing know-it-all with a stick up his ass and a PhD in Being Boring. A narrow-minded expert who seems to know everything there is to know about the little fenced-in patch of intellectual property he calls home, but practically nothing about the world outside of it.

These are flawed characters. No doubt about that. Agathon is a bit of a tool, and Eryximachus is a bit of a douche; and yet you can’t help but like them. Because they’re so much more than just types. Like all of Plato’s characters, Agathon and Eryximachus are thoroughly human, entirely believable, and utterly unforgettable. These aren’t cardboard cut-outs or sock puppets; these are real people, people you recognize. You never forget their humanity when they’re in the midst of a heated debate, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. Alas, the same cannot be said of a heated debate on Facebook. We slip into demonization and nastiness far too easily in Social Media Land. My friend Jean-Louis says this is an inescapable feature of the electronic medium. And maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s just too easy to be an asshole online. Be that as it may, the sociological paradox Plato resolved 2400 years remains unchanged. It sits there, right there, on the path before us: like a boulder, like a stumbling block. We can’t get around it. So we might as well face up to it.

To study people as a group, we have to place them into categories: individuals must cease to be individuals. They must become representatives of this or that category. If you want to know humanity the way an entomologist knows butterflies, you’ll have to learn how to see forests not trees. But if you want to be a decent human being, who treats people with respect, you’ll have to learn how to see trees not forests. Because people are not butterflies. And few things are more dehumanizing than being treated like the representative of a category. Individuals want to be treated like individuals. Plato figured out how to talk about the complicated relationships between people and power, ideas and institutions, without dehumanizing us. We’ve yet to figure out how to do this on Facebook and Twitter.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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