Why It’s Hard To Be a Facebook Filosopher

1. Everything’s Written Down. All communication in Social Media Land is based on the written word. For philosophy, this is hardly ideal. It’s good to remember that most ancient philosophers wrote little or nothing. They received and transmitted their ideas via the spoken word. Some did this, of necessity, because they were themselves illiterate; but most did so, like Socrates, because they were profoundly suspicious of the written word. The spirit of philosophy was first and foremost, they thought, a function of speeches not scribbles; it couldn’t be captured in chirography, but it could be conjured in conversation, and, to some extent, encapsulated in aphorisms. For instance, Roman soldiers who could barely read often managed, despite their lack of learning, to commit much of Epictetus’s Enchiridion to memory. Likewise, many an Epicurean shopkeeper living in, say, 2nd-century Athens, would, though functionally illiterate, memorize most (if not all) of Epicurus’s sayings and maxims. These aphorisms contained—albeit in a highly concentrated form—more than enough wisdom to last a lifetime.

2. Everything’s Public. All communication in Social Media Land is public. For philosophy, this is hardly ideal. In Plato’s Symposium we learn that many of the ancient Greeks thought philosophy was impossible without privacy and alcohol. So long as people are sober, they won’t tell you how they really feel, what they really think. Hence the phrase: in vino veritas. Likewise, when people are in a public place, they invariably say that which is politically correct, that which is appropriate. They don’t tell you the truth about how they see things. For these reasons, and others, philosophical discussions happened in ancient Athens only among friends, behind closed doors, and after a fair amount of drinking. The veritas that comes out because of the vino isn’t necessarily The Truth, but at least it’s a good starting point from which to begin moving dialectically towards the truth.

3. Trolls Look a Whole Lot like Philosophers. The difference between a troll and a Socrates is roughly equivalent to the difference between a reckless person and a courageous person. From the outside, their actions are often indistinguishable. That’s why you have to try to see inside the person: to their motivations and mental state. For instance, if I take on a bouncer three times my size for no reason in a bar-fight, because I’m shitfaced, you’re probably looking at recklessness. But if my buddy Jed takes on the same wall-of-a-man the following night, when he’s stone-cold sober, because the bouncer roofied his sister, you’re probably looking at courage. Likewise, from the outside, at least initially, it can be hard to tell the difference between a Socrates, who has the courage to tell people things they don’t want to hear, and a troll, who just likes to hurt and humiliate people in public. But if you’re paying attention, you can usually tell them apart sooner or later. Because we’re fairly good at telling the difference between an asshole and a philosopher in the real world. Alas, the same is not true online. Trolls and ideologues abound in Social Media Land, and they often look and sound a whole lot like Socrates; so if you block everyone annoying outright, you’re gonna throw out a whole lot of Socratic babies along with that troll-infested bath water. Hence the need to tolerate trolls. If you value the examined life, blocking everyone who gets on your nerves isn’t a viable option. You need to hear what they’re saying from time to time. But you don’t have to agree with them. Nor do you have to respond to them. In fact, if you’re going to survive the mean streets of Social Media Land, you’re going to have learn how to resist the urge to respond, how to turn the other cheek. You have to let yourself be abused by trolls and ideologues, let them call you names and misrepresent your views, let them squeeze you into their ill-fitting categories and pre-fab narratives, and refuse to fight fire with fire, refuse to stoop to their level. It’s hard. And there must be limits to what you’re willing to put up with. But it works. For the same reason that “extinction” works on bratty kids.

4. Freedom of Facebook is Under Threat. An increasingly long list of people (e.g., police officers, border guards, nurses, government officials, etc.) are being told what they can and cannot say on social media. Policies are being put in place with clearly stipulated sanctions for those who violate them. To some extent this is little more than a codification of commonsense (e.g., obviously you shouldn’t be posting half-naked pictures of yourself if you teach my kid’s kindergarten class). But these policies usually go far beyond the realm of commonsense. Indeed, I fear that we’re moving, with startling rapidity, towards a world that looks a whole lot like the world of ancient Athens, wherein the freedom to speak your mind in public about important political matters was the exclusive privilege of a tiny percentage of the population. It’s important to remember that, in the 19th century, one of the central arguments against the extension of the franchise to workers—an argument which was repeated ad nauseam by reactionary conservatives (the enemies of democracy)—was that “wage slaves” couldn’t be trusted with the vote because their employers had far too much power over them. Only the independently wealthy were free to follow the virtuous voice of conscience. Only those of sufficient means could speak and act like free men in the public sphere. If we acquiesce to these new social media policies, are we not proving these reactionaries right? As Aristotle rightly observed long ago, participating in the political life of your community is central to what it means to live a fully human life. The free man who can’t (or won’t) take part in the on-going public conversation about the common good is, he maintained, no better than a child, an idiot, or a well-to-do slave. Machiavelli would surely add, with a sardonic smile, that the free man who can’t (or won’t) participate in politics won’t be free for long. If the Florentine’s ghost could speak and we were willing to listen, I suspect he’d leave us with this question: “How free are you now if you’re not even free to use Facebook?”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (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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