“When I was your age, television was called books!”
I’m not even thirty years old yet, and already I find myself thinking things like, “When I was your age, Facebook was called a conversation!” on a regular basis. Even though the Lenten season of self-denial is ending for those who take part in it and did a far better job than I, on this Easter weekend I’ve decided to “give up” Facebook for a few days (though this blog post will still be published on it automatically, even if I don’t log-in to my account :)). Invariably, every Easter someone I know and usually someone I care about posts a snide comment regarding the religious holiday and the deluded people who acknowledge it. What is most bothersome about these jibes is that they often come from individuals who pride themselves on being tolerant and open-minded, which always causes my head to spin a bit. I try to ignore my frustration and hurt at the injustice of such ignorance, but every now and then I too give into the Facebook temptation of “discussion-via-a-safe-distance” and sink to similar levels by responding with a sarcastic one-liner. And that is why I’m staying away from the “Like” button for a while. I’ll eventually be back because technology isn’t inherently evil and trying to keep up a blog doesn’t work too well without it, but I need a break so I can try “liking” three-dimensional people a little better.
These Facebook frustrations have also revealed why this generation is so desperately in need of good books.
Unlike a quick status update or a profile picture, a story told in several thousand lines is capable of expressing thoughtful ideas through enfleshed characters and the complexity of human relationships. Reading a book requires time to digest the story, since we must get to know the characters involved before passing judgment on whether or not the author has told the truth (Stephen King’s #1 rule for writing well). On the other hand, our “Facebook generation” seems to be developing this tendency to think in terms of slogans and simplistic “are you for or against it” phrases because we are often forming our opinions based on the bite-sized bits of information we see in our News feeds (I believe there’s an official term for this: propaganda). These small snacks are fine if they wet our appetites and lead us to pursue a more well-balanced meal, but most of the time they don’t. Conducting actual research on an issue or engaging in a meaningful discussion with another human being? Nah, who has time for that? Besides, where’s the fun for my ego if I can’t see how many friends agree with my sentiments through a no-strings-attached “thumbs up”?
This tendency has motivated me to reflect on a myth my fellow social media savants often seem susceptible to, given the bites of information constantly bombarding us. It’s also made me think about the ways stories can provide a more satisfying meal; one capable of fortifying us with the strength needed for any true pursuit of wisdom.
And that myth is: We are much more tolerant and enlightened than people of past eras.
As someone who studies history and writes historical fiction, this very popular perception really gets on my nerves (and reveals just how badly we’ve failed in educating citizens with any sense of historical consciousness). But I have to give Facebook credit for exposing this particular myth, since every day I log on I’m amazed by how intolerant we truly are. I’ve actually seen posts—in the name of toleration, mind you—that basically say: “If you are so bigoted that you cannot agree with me on this issue, then I never want to speak to you again.” Uhh….??? Maybe we’re not putting people to death for holding different opinions anymore, which is good, but we clearly don’t “tolerate” or accept every opinion as equally valid. Nor can we or should we. Being labeled “judgmental” is about the worst insult a person can receive these days, but to possess a human mind is to make judgments. When I determine that bacon is a preferable breakfast to oatmeal, I am making a judgment. When I choose what career to pursue, which presidential candidate I’m going to vote for, or when I decide that The Hunger Games kicks the crap out of Twilight…I am making judgments. Neutrality is not a luxury human beings get to experience. The question is not “should or shouldn’t we judge?” but rather “how do we judge fairly and well?” And also, how do we temper our judgment with its much-needed opposites—mercy and grace? Of course, judgments about the trivial matters mentioned above are a lot different from judging another person’s most deeply cherished beliefs, but what’s so troublesome is the bias and hypocrisy surrounding which opinions are open for discussion and which are not. If you don’t tolerate all perspectives as valid (and I doubt any of us really does), then at least come out and admit that all opinions are not created equal.
Another common expression of “toleration” actually turns out to be nothing more than apathy. You believe what you want to believe and I’ll believe what I want to believe, but don’t you dare challenge me on my opinions, or even worse, ask me to give them critical thought or back them up. What this attitude—another temptation of social media interactions because, let’s face it, actual dialogue on anything of substance just gets awkward on Facebook—creates is the sense that nothing really matters. And if that’s the message youth today are getting—that what they say, do, and are is of NO importance because their life philosophy is just as legitimate as the one propagated by some guy named Hitler…no better, no worse because it’s all valid—then it’s no wonder so many young people are depressed or even deranged. It’s just your opinion, man. No worries. Peace. One love.
That all works fine until we, God forbid, find ourselves in a situation where our creature comforts are suddenly stripped away and we get to discover what we truly believe…which may very well be nothing. There is a reason why zombies, dystopians, and post-apocalyptic stories are so popular at the moment. I often wonder if it’s because we know, deep down, that if our lives or even our personal space was ever in any real danger, all that talk of toleration and brotherly love would go right out the window for the most part. We all want to be the exception, of course—the person who holds on to their humanity in the face of evil—but that kind of crazy courage doesn’t just “happen” because our society tells us we should be nice to everyone. Virtue must be cultivated and the process is life long. Humans aren’t like the latest Iphone. We don’t experience a collective “upgrade” every few years just because our physical lives keep getting easier. Technology may keep on progressing, but the human soul does not do so automatically. One thing I love about good stories is they are proof there’s this creature called a human being and he/she has a nature, meaning he/she will act in similar ways no matter if you throw him in an ancient Roman coliseum or stick her on Mars in the year 2500. Yet the fallenness of this nature can also be redeemed. In every generation there will be people who give in to their most base impulses and act on little more than animal survival instincts, and in every age there will be a few saints who grace us with examples of the goodness and transformative love humans are capable of. Most of us fall will somewhere in between.
But let’s just imagine if we applied an extreme relativism to the stories we enjoy. Oh wait, there would be no story! Without characters who have strong convictions and without situations where those convictions come into conflict with differing views, we writers would have nothing to write about! Humans seem to instinctively know which traits make for a strong hero and what types of behavior reveal to us the story’s villain. It’s the stories that highlight this distinction—the ones that show us the kinds of people we want to be, as well as the kinds we don’t—that stick around and continue speaking to generations beyond just the one they were written for.
Toleration, therefore, doesn’t require us to abandon strong beliefs or accept all viewpoints as equally valid. Toleration is being able to engage in a conversation with someone on a matter of disagreement without crucifying, imprisoning, or perhaps in our day, “de-friending” them.
True tolerance is much rarer than we think.