Stoic advice: what about the toxicity of public discourse?

D. writes: what would be a Stoic response to the divisiveness that just seems to be increasing evermore in our society right now? How to cope with the toxicity of exchanges between people?

This is a darn good and very timely question, and the Stoic answer is at once very straightforward and yet incredibly difficult to implement. First off, let’s review what we are talking about here. The United States, as is very clear for the world to see, has been going for a while now through a phase of increasingly bitter political and social polarization, a phase that has led to a sharp and seemingly irreconcilable divide between “blue” and “red” America. We now have a President who is publicly sexist and racist, and has enabled some who feel the same to say and do things in public that would have been inconceivable until a very short time ago. On the other side (which, full disclosure, I by no means see as “equally” at fault), we have calls to engage in behavior demeaning toward one’s political opponents, such as booting them out of restaurants and other public spaces. Moreover, many on the left do subscribe -- openly or not --  to the infamous comment made by candidate Hillary Clinton about the “basket of deplorables.” There is anger in abundance, and essentially no dialogue, just shouting past each other.

The situation isn’t that different in several other parts of the Western world. In the UK the Brexit issue has split the country, and the rhetoric has been as nasty as ineffective, with soon to materialize very serious consequences for the British people. In Italy a coalition of a populist movement and an extreme right-wing party is now leading the country and, just as in the US, enabling racism, misogyny and bigotry. That said, the other side just doesn’t know what to do to meaningfully and constructively counter this trend, so they either disengage or shout back, to the detriment of the Italian citizenry. I’m less familiar with the situation elsewhere, but it’s clear even from a cursory look that populism and nationalism are on the rise, and that we keep being distracted from engaging in very real and very serious problems such as global poverty, widespread injustice, economic inequality and, of course, the big elephant in the room: irreversible environmental damage.

It should be clear from the above where my own political allegiances lie, though I do think of myself as politically independent. But that is not the point. There are reasonable people on both sides, and a lot of irrationality and anger across the spectrum. And it is reason that might help us here, not mindless slogans and deep seated hatred.

The Stoic response should be, I think, at two levels: societal, and personal. Let me start with the first one, because there is an unfortunate tendency both inside and outside of Stoic circles to think of the philosophy as self-centered and politically quietist. It is no such thing:

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)

Or consider this:

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 10.10)

And this:

“Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships. She established fairness and justice; according to her ruling, it is more wretched to commit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped.” (Seneca, Letters XCV.52)

The first quote reminds us that a major reason for our existence, according to the Stoics, is to work with others to make this a better world. The second one is about the fact that we all have roles to play in society, and that we should play them at our best, again to be helpful to the human cosmopolis. And the last one again returns to the theme of justice, while at the same time recapitulating the Stoic argument that affection for others comes natural to the human animal, though it needs to then be further reinforced and expanded by the use of reason.

We need to keep this background in mind, as Stoic practitioners, because it is too easy to forget that Stoic philosophy is inherently cosmopolitan, which means that we have a duty to struggle to overcome divisions and reach out to fellow human beings. Remember, they are misguided, not evil.

Let me now move down from the social to the personal level, which more directly addresses your question. Anger, of course, is out, Stoically speaking. Unlike Aristotle, who thought that a bit of anger is actually good, the Stoics were adamant that anger is temporary madness. Even when it seems justified, say as a reaction to injustice, it quickly overwhelms our reason, leading us to say or do things we are likely to regret:

“The outcome of a mighty anger is madness, and hence anger should be avoided, not merely that we may escape excess, but that we may have a healthy mind.” (Letters XVIII.15)

The Stoics were clear-eyed when it came to human behavior, as they fully expected pettiness, anger, and even hatred. Which is why Marcus famously reminds himself of this:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

Notice the bit about not being injured by such behavior, and not to let oneself being dragged into ugliness. It’s a pretty simple precept, really, but very difficult to practice. I basically recite the above to myself every time I open my Twitter or Facebook accounts…

And here is another reminder I find very useful:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

This is the best advice I can give you, and which I constantly give myself. Marcus is saying that other people think that they too have reasons for what they say or do. And just like you are convinced of being right, so are they. Ah, but they are wrong!, you say. Perhaps. But then it is incumbent on your to find the patience to teach them. Of course, Marcus wasn’t naive, he knew perfectly well that even the best teacher can fail if the other person isn’t willing to listen and critically re-examine his beliefs. Which is why he wrote:

“People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)

It’s powerful stuff. In two sentences, we are reminded that we exist to be helpful to others (Stoic cosmopolitanism), that we are capable of deploying reason in order to convince others that their way of seeing things may need to be revised, and that if we fail to do so then we still have the option of enduring their behavior with patience. Just one caveat: given my discussion of Stoic justice above, enduring others does not mean refraining from acting in order to stop them if they are committing injustice.

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at epictetus64 at yahoo dot com. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

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