Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The ancient Romans knew how to handle Twitter better than we do

     “Pusili hominis et miseri cum est repetere mordentem,” Seneca writes, in his essay on anger. “It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.”
     That’s a little strong. While I hesitate to disagree with the master, I have to. Yes, smallness and sorriness define retribution, as they define much of the anthill we call human existence.
     But there is also a strength to biting back. Someone flips you the bird, you automatically return the gesture. Laudable? No. But it does show pride.
     Standing your ground is a reflex, no doubt traced back to baboons on the savanna fluffing their fur to look bigger. The question is: Is it a reflex we can afford to indulge in our social media age? Because we certainly do, big time. The biters and the bitten, toe-to-toe, blasting away.
     Consider how much human effort, brainwork, emotional frisson, not to mention typing, is spent in online disputes. Billions of times a day, total strangers conducting their snarling, personal-yet-anonymous broomstick sword fights.
     Toward what end? Are we debating? Having a conversation? Or merely flailing at each other?
     Who benefits? Twitter, Facebook and the social media companies certainly do. We, not so much. We are unpaid gladiators performing our tiny verbal combats for their profit, so others can read the advertisements between our spats.
     Writing for a daily metropolitan newspaper, I receive blowback continually on all platforms. Letters and phone calls, Facebook posts and email and Twitter.
     That’s good. I want reaction. I used to read them all, reply to them all. But lately that practice is starting to seem antique, like a 19th century president meeting with whoever turns up at the White House and asks to see him.
     My motto used to be Warren Zevon’s line, “The name of the game is be hit and hit back.” Now my mantra is: Don’t let the poison in. Don’t read negative emails, never mind react. Bail out as soon as the language sours. Block and forget. It isn’t as if the person writing is open to persuasion. That’s so 1980s.

     With emails, my approach is similar to how the law treats dogs: the first bite is free. I read everything new. People who bring up valid points, who identify actual mistakes, who disagree without an excess of contempt, are responded to in kind.
     Well, at least the first line of everything new. People who start with a blast of scorn don’t merit further consideration. Why waste the time? I don’t write for people who hate me; as to why people who hate it keep reading, well, who knows?
     Silence is an answer, often the best answer. Shutting up, I like to say, is an art form. You have to practice to get good at it.
     Somewhere along the line, ignoring nastiness online got a bad rap. Twitter trolls created the notion that to be a vibrant person you need to crawl into the mud with any stranger who invites you. That’s ridiculous. You don’t do that in life. Someone flips you off in traffic, you don’t both pull over so you can exchange obscene gestures for 20 minutes, at least not if you’re smart. Why do it online? Besides, there are too many of them and only one of me. I block everyone on Twitter the moment they turn ugly. If they consider that a triumph, great, they probably need one.
     If you don’t believe Seneca about the smallness of biting back, read Donald Trump’s twitter feed. Pouring contempt on whoever is in the headlines and not his fan — Jeff Bezos getting divorced (“So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down…”). No target is too big or too small for the president of the United States to ridicule.
     That’s not a sign of power, but evidence of enormous weakness.
     In his essay, Seneca mentions mice and ants, which bite if you reach for them.
     “Feeble creatures think they are hurt if they are only touched.”
     That describes a lot of people nowadays, doesn’t it?
     Don’t be like mice and ants, but men and women. Don’t lash out at those lashing at you.
     “He is the better man who first withdraws; the vanquished is the one who wins,” writes Seneca. “If some one strikes you, step back.”
     That’s a plan.


  1. It is attributed to Confucious but sounds more like Charlie Chan. But it seems like good advice. "Wise man never argues with a fool, onlookers might mistake one for the other." Upon questioning Donald Trumps habitual lies with a cousin he replied, "What lies?" The wise man in me said, "never mind " and resolved to avoid Facebook.

  2. I don't use Twitter much, but I recently saw someone suggest muting an offender rather than blocking, so as not to give them the satisfaction of believing they got to you. But perhaps you're above such pettiness!

  3. Our guy Jesus put a positive spin on Seneca's sentiment. Something about turning the other cheek and walking an extra mile.


  4. The line from Warren Zevon comes from this song.


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