Andrew MacDougall: Stoics, social media, and a lesson on how to be(come) insensitive
On the power to stop caring, and why most of your death has already happened.
By: Andrew MacDougall
Say what you will about social media, but one unalloyed good is the future Edward Gibbons’ of this parish are going to have no problem piecing together precisely how our society went down the toilet.
Future historians will not only know what happened as we cratered, but, thanks to our ubiquitous digital sketch pads, they will have all of the horrific micro detail. They will know how many times we circled the bowl, what we were saying about circling the bowl as we were circling it and which streaks we were or weren’t arguing about as we went down. Social media is an infinite canvas home to a limitless number of voices and — while we might not be richer for it in the present — our future societal homicide detectives will be forever grateful that we left so many stains to analyze.
For example, when historians consider — as they surely will — whether the moment Canada truly began to crumble was when a WestJet cabin crew allowed Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre to grab the conch and address a planeload of (mostly) Conservative Party of Canada delegates on his way back from a successful party convention, we will have a panoply of voices to consult. From all walks of life and social stations, too. What, for example, did a famous singer like Jann Arden have to say about the whole episode?
Well, thanks to our good friend ex-Twitter we don’t have to guess; we know. And what Arden said was: “Hey @WestJet you and I will not be doing business ever again. This is so ridiculously disappointing.”
In life, I try my best not to be insensitive, but imagine having so little going on that this is considered a good use of your time? Imagine possessing such a delicate constitution that you would rather chain yourself the be-vomited reclining seats of Air Canada than ever fly WestJet again. When you live in Calgary. And what has to be going on to then quote-tweet a bunch of nasty replies and joust with a network of digital cretins, as Arden went on to do. Dozens of them. Who stirs the sewage and then pins the best turds to their page?
As someone who has spent (far) too much time wasting time on platforms like ex-Twitter, I feel I speak from experience. I’ve picked a fair few fights I didn’t need to pick. Both with randoms, and rock stars. I have fed the trolls and I have done performative tweeting. And you know what I’ve learned? The only people who win are our algorithmic overlords.. People like Arden are the modern-day Olds-and-Milner lab mice hammering the dopamine reward button — look at me get likes and retweets! — until they (metaphorically) die.
This isn’t to excuse the horrific abuse ex-Twitterites piled onto the singer. These people have even less going on in their lives. They are horrible, nasty zeroes. I only use the example because it’s such a potent reminder of another bit of Roman history, the one we should be focusing on if we wish to avoid authoring our own Gibbonsian tome: the history of the Stoics.
Yes, I know Zeno was a Greek, as was Epictetus after him, as were other prominent Stoics too, but Stoicism reached its apotheosis under the Romans, particularly Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose journal outlining the practice of Stoicism — Meditations — survives to this day and is enjoying a renaissance thanks to best-selling authors like Ryan Holiday.
And why is Stoicism the answer to what ails us? What could a long-dead Roman Emperor have to teach us about today’s digital cesspools? Well, let’s consult the Aurelius record:
“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind - for things have no natural power to shape our judgment.” - Meditations, 6.52
That, my friends, is some powerful shit. Just imagine how much better off we’d be right now if we could all take my boy Marcus’ recommendation and just … not care? If we just ... let things go? And how about if we embraced some of Aurelius’ other truth bombs, stone-cold wisdom like:
“Choose not to be harmed - and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed - and you haven’t been.”
“You could leave this life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
“The best revenge is to not be like your enemy.”
And while we’re at it, why not throw some Seneca into our party:
“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.”
What Seneca is trying to tell our shouty modern world is that death is not something that happens at the end of our lives; it happens with every moment that slips past us in life. And when you waste a second of your life feeding the trolls in places like ex-Twitter, that is one more second you are never getting back to do the things you love doing.
More broadly, the Stoics believed in dividing life into two categories: the things you control and the things you don’t. As noted by the Serenity Prayer that Stoicism inspired, the wisdom is in knowing the difference. You should only care about the things you control, and not give a flying fuck about the stuff you don’t (because it doesn’t give an eff-eff about you). And you know what? The only thing we truly control is our minds and our reactions to things.
So let us control them, whether on WestJet or Justin Trudeau’s busted plane, and make the jobs of future historians that much harder.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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