Moral Myopia and the Speed of Twitter

Don’t be like the president.
Take a breath and think before you act (or tweet)

Fresno Bee, June 9, 2017

We are bombarded with news. It is easy to get lost in the Twitteropolis and the vibrating pulse of our newsfeeds. But when we are pulled along by the world in this way, there is no room for thinking.

We are quick to complain and slow to understand. We speak without knowledge. Reactionary responses undermine our long-term interests, goals and happiness.

As a case in point, consider President Trump’s recent twittering. He tweeted that his own Justice Department was being too politically correct with a “watered down” version of his “travel ban.” Trump tweeted that he wants a “much tougher” ban. But these tweets seems to undermine his own court case.

This week Trump also used Twitter to antagonize the mayor of London after terror attacks there. And his tweets about Qatar threatened to destabilize alliances and operations in the Middle East.

Trump is not the only thoughtless social media operator. Petty criminals boast about their crimes on Facebook. And the rest of us post and tweet reflexively. In this fast-twitch era, cyber chest thumping has replaced thinking.

Short-sighted thoughtlessness has always been a problem. In the old days, people ranted to barroom buddies. But today our thoughtless ramblings are permanently recorded online.

A kind of myopia afflicts us. We focus on immediate problems that grab our attention. We miss out on the larger picture. Short-term tactics predominate. Larger strategies go unheeded.

Our myopia is connected to our hedonism and narcissism. Like infants throwing tantrums, we want what we want and we want it now. We crave stimulation and reinforcement. We respond to every prick and poke without restraint. We won’t accept “no” for an answer. We view every setback as a personal insult.

Intemperate reaction fans the flames of cyberspace. The myopic person sees the ensuing turmoil as a sign of success, since their tantrum puts them firmly in the center of attention. But this ignores the fact that long-term interests have been sacrificed to achieve a fleeting notoriety.

Wisdom and virtue require slower, more thoughtful responses. We also need to be willing to shrug off adversity. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. We waste too much time and energy reacting to every challenge and affront.

There is wisdom in silence. It is often also wise to do nothing and simply leave things alone. This idea is central to the Chinese tradition of Taoism. The Taoists suggest that those who are busily reacting accomplish little, while non-action produces harmony.

Silent non-action is counter-cultural. But consider how our reactive culture keeps us constantly distracted. We are obsessed with activity and the need to comment on the latest news. When we do something – even small inconsequential things – we document, post and brag. But the more we post, the less anyone cares and the less any of this means.

Busy bragging is a feature of our general hedonism and narcissism. We seem to be constantly trying to convince ourselves that we exist, that what we are doing is important. But let’s be honest, most of what we do or say simply does not matter. The world is vast. History is long. Everything we accomplish will be forgotten soon after we die.

From the vantage point of eternity, the pursuit of accomplishment is a vain exercise in futility. That may seem depressing. But resigned acceptance can set us free, liberating us from the need to respond to every little thing.

If we were less reactive and more reflective, we would be more moderate and circumspect. Important things require careful attention. Justice and truth are complicated and difficult. Justice is not served by a quick tweet. Truth cannot be disclosed in 140 characters.

Or consider love. We are told that love is patient and kind. It is not boastful, proud or easily angered. Love cannot be cultivated on Snapchat, Instagram or Tinder. Those names imply a quick spark, rather than an abiding warmth.

The fury of our reactionary world undermines thinking. Deep thought is unhurried and quiet. Thinking takes time, vision and revision. The life of virtue cooks slowly. Happiness requires a slow simmer, not a quick boil. And the bread of wisdom takes a lifetime to rise.