My mother was always lavish with advice, little of it original — she was hardly the first to caution against horizontal stripes for anyone broader than Barbie — but much of it unimpeachable. As 2013 draws to a close and I think about the fever pitch and jagged edges of so much of its discourse, I find myself flashing back on one of her caveats in particular.
“Count to 10 before you speak,” she frequently said, and she meant not just that you can’t take back what’s already been uttered. She meant that pauses are the spaces in which passions cool, civility gets its oxygen and wisdom quite possibly finds its wings. She meant that slowing things down often classes them up.
What would she have made of the social media born long after she died? Of a world in which so many of us, entranced by the opportunity for instant expression and an immediate audience, post unformed thoughts, half-baked wit or splenetic reactions before we can even count to three?
It feels at times as if contemplation has given way to expectoration, with speed overtaking sense and nuance exiting the equation. And I’m talking about more than the rising count of reputations forfeited and careers dashed in 140 characters or fewer, of crackups like that of a prominent New York publicist who recently tweeted what she apparently meant to be a joke about not having to worry about AIDS in Africa because she’s white. I’m talking about a revved-up metabolism and roughened-up manners.
Lately there’s been a bit of academic attention to our etiquette online, which is where so many of us spend more and more of our time. It rightly notes how much rudeness makes its way onto message boards and into Facebook threads, how quickly the back-and-forth on websites turns nasty.
That happens in part because the exchanges are disembodied: We don’t have to face whomever we’re lashing out at. But it’s also because they’re impulsive. Their timbre conforms to their tempo. Both are coarse.
Conversely, there was talk this year about the benefits of an activity that’s in some ways the antithesis of texting and tweeting with their rat-tat-tat rhythm. That activity is the reading of fiction. According to some researchers, people who settle into it are more empathetic — more attuned to what those around them think and feel — than people who don’t.
I buy that, and not from a vantage point of cultural snobbery or because I’m a Luddite. Trust me, I watch inexcusable amounts of television, much of it proudly lowbrow. I consume most of my newspapers and magazines online and almost all of my books on an iPad, and I depend gratefully on email and instant messaging to maintain friendships that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside.
But I’d bet big on real reading, fiction or nonfiction, as a prompt for empathy and a whole lot more: coolheadedness, maybe even open-mindedness, definitely deliberation. It doesn’t just yank you outside of yourself, making you consider other viewpoints without allowing for the incessant interjection and exaltation of your own. It slackens the pace. Forces a pause.
Last week I lingered over an excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012, it plumbs the relationship between emotion and reason.
And one of Haidt’s observations, relevant to an era in which partisans stake their ground and fortify their opinions at the start rather than the end of a discussion, is that people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they’re prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep.
Is there enough such time these days? Amid what’s trending on Twitter and swiftly going viral throughout cyberspace, is there an adequate premium on it?
In 2014 and beyond, one of our challenges will be to exploit the great advantages of social media — as town crier, as public square, as connector — while sidestepping the pitfalls, chief among them the encouragement of, and reward for, hasty pronouncements, which are all too often intemperate ones.
On social media, on many blogs and along other byways of the Internet, the person you disagree with isn’t just misinformed but moronic, corrupt, evil. Complaints become rants. Rants become diatribes. And this tendency travels to cable news shows, Congress and statehouses, where combatants shout first and ask questions later.
For more than two decades, there’s been a celebration of slow food. Over the past few years, we’ve proved receptive to slow TV. What we really need is slow debate. It would trade the sugary highs and lows of rapid-fire outrage for a more balanced diet. We’d be healthier. Probably happier, too.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.
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