“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.



15 thoughts on “Why the Facebook Generation Needs Books

  1. Wonderfully written! :) And if true tolerance can make one engage in an intellectual conversation with another of different opinion, if it can ignite a debate based on opinion *and* knowledge — creating powerful arguments for the “for” and the “against”, then new ideas and compromises can be born out of the argument, eventually leading to tolerance of opposing opinions. :D Thank you for this food for thought to start off my day!

    1. Great point…it does seem that when two people actually engage in a meaningful discussion they can both take away new insights and perhaps revise their opinions in a way that leads to growth. We all have our “blind spots” after all and often times it takes talking to someone with a different view to see them. Thanks so much for your comment!

    1. Haha! I know….I thought the same thing as I was writing this, which is why I included that bit about how social media can’t be all bad! I guess my hope as a blogger would be that nothing I write is taken at immediate face value, and instead provokes reflection…in which case hopefully “likes” are okay!:)

  2. I agree that intolerance continues to exist, but I disagree with your assertion that this statement, “We are much more tolerant and enlightened than people of past eras,” is a myth. Considering the fact that anti-discrimination laws are a relatively recent phenomenon, I’d say we’re much more tolerant today than we were 70+ years ago. Let’s also keep in mind the religious persecution of past eras that brought people to the United States in the first place. As for Facebook, the fact that social media allows us to explore new ideas from all over the world makes it a force that encourages tolerance and inclusion. However, it also allows people to readily expose their intolerance on status updates and tweets–the kind of thing that in an earlier era might not have been as apparent.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, as you raise a great point! I do think that as a society we are more tolerant overall, especially since we have laws and structures that encourage inclusion. But on an individual level, I still believe choosing to be tolerant and respectful of other’s views is a choice that must be made daily and can be a very difficult thing to put into practice because our biases are always there beneath the surface. In some ways I feel like we (in the U.S. at least) are “allowed” to be more tolerant because even though we all have challenges, we live in relative comfort and security (compared to other times and places). Yet if we were put into some of the extreme situations past generations had to deal with–famine, war, disease, etc.–I often wonder if our true colors would be revealed and how we would respond to the difficult moral choices people from past eras had to face. So yes, I agree we have a more tolerant society overall and thankfully people aren’t being put to death for having varying views. I guess I’ve just been surprised recently by the lack of tolerance I’ve seen online and wonder if this has something to do with the illusion of “safe distance” social media creates. But of course, as a blogger, I can’t deny there are many great things about social media too! :) Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful response! I think you put this well: “But on an individual level, I still believe choosing to be tolerant and respectful of other’s views is a choice that must be made daily and can be a very difficult thing to put into practice because our biases are always there beneath the surface.” My hope is that our biases, in time, will decrease as we become exposed to more people of different backgrounds.

  3. Very interesting perspective and timing. I think we are definitely more tolerant than we used to be simply out of necessity and shifts in perceptions and perspectives as we are increasingly subjected to not only differences between us but more so similarities among us.. There seems to be an “undercurrent” of an evolution taking place that will require that we be more tolerant and further the evolution of humanity.. Without these shifts ushering in the evolution, we as a society are set to fail.

    There must be a “social media moon” out as I’m blogging about Facebook this Wednesday from a different vantage point! . Your post gave me food for thought from a perspective that i hadn’t considered. Very nice!..

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this! I’ve been hearing a lot about this idea that humans are evolving, as a species, in a positive way and I’d be curious to know your ideas on what might be causing this to occur. I guess that’s what I’ve never quite been able to grasp…if we’re just getting better and better overall, is this just “happening” to us beyond our control? Or are more and more individual people making personal choices that are leading to more tolerance? I definitely agree that social media has enabled us to connect with other cultures in ways that were never before imaginable and that this is breaking down a lot of previous barriers!

  4. Reading good books and engaging for a sustained period of time would seem to be one way of deepening awareness and tolerance within an individual. Sound bites and quick info. fixes don’t provide an atmosphere conducive to deep, critical thought or questioning or dialogue or empathy. These things come though sustained attention. I daresay, the amount of time and thought engagement with a real book provides is similar in kind to the sort of time and deep attentive thought and listening a real conversation requires. Sadly, this is a skill many people — and not only the young — desperately lack today. E.M. Forster’s famous “Only connect” points towards meaningful dialogue rather than linking in, hooking up, and pushing the “like button.” Brilliant post — thank you. :)

      1. Thanks for sharing this article, Ashlee. I’m printing it out. I love the idea of a liberal/classical education and do what I can with my son and my students to make it a reality in my teaching. This piece looks right up my alley! :)

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