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007 - On Public Opinion - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Nothing is more dangerous to your reputation than exposure to public view in the circus of social media.
Field of yellow blooming crop - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Do you ask me what you should avoid above all else? Public opinion, I say; for as yet none have managed to navigate it without peril. And no one ever ventured forth into the public arena without being tainted by what they encountered there. When you swim in sewage you can’t help but come away smelling sour. To court public attention is to court disaster, because there is no chance that you will not be confronted with the basest and vilest among us. The more you seek to spread your reach, the greater your risk of getting your fingers smacked.

Nothing is more dangerous to your reputation than exposure to public view in the circus of social media. By crying out in this arena, you draw the attention of the mob that has no interest in building you up, but only in tearing you down. It matters not what you say or mean, it only matters how what you say can be misunderstood. We are challenged enough to make our point clear in a debate with equally armed combatants, where there are no limits on our time to speak, and our opponent is primed to listen. Even here, a meeting of the minds is the rare outcome of hard fought sparring.

What chance, then, can you hope to have in the social media sphere, where every tongue is sharpened, and your words are deliberately twisted in knots to tie you to positions you do not hold? “Can you believe how bigoted he is,” the crowd bays. “He offended me,” wails another. “I am offended on behalf of another!” That you have committed no actual harm is irrelevant, and there need be no sin. When the crowd’s bloodlust is aroused and the tweets are flying, the question is never whether there will be a cancellation, only whose turn it is in the dock today.

And don’t think you can throw yourself upon the mercy of this court. Mercy only grows in soil watered by compassion and understanding, of which this mob has neither in abundance. The only water flowing on these grounds is the raging flood that etches first channels and then ravines into even the firmest bedrock. Nay, no matter how abject your apology, absolution will not be forthcoming. Rather, we observe the opposite: the stronger your apology, the graver must have been your offense! But the greatest harm is to your own soul. By offering an apology where none is due, you give credence to the false claims against you. Do not weaken your conviction by submitting to unjust jabs. Just as the valid argument does not become so by virtue of the multitude’s praise, nor does the jabbering of a lunatic horde render your point defective.

“But surely it is worthwhile to put down enduring truths. For even though many will misunderstand, and even more will not hear, still the benefit will be real to some.” True enough, Deuteros. If you do expose your thoughts to public opinion for this noble purpose, make sure that you have first built up your defenses as carefully as you have built your arguments.

Until you are ready, it is safest to withdraw into solitude and contemplation. In the quiet, your mind can expand and roam. Spend your time with a small group of friends, who are equally committed to self-improvement. These friends will identify the flaws in your ill-considered arguments, but will not declare you flawed as a result. Your own thoughts are improved by refining away these flaws, and thus the battle leaves you strengthened rather than worn.

Lest you think that I write for my own sake alone, I shall share with you three excellent sayings along the same lines. Consider the first in payment of my debt to you, and the others as advance deposits. Epictetus serves up this reminder that the persons we surround ourselves with are vital to our progress:

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

You might think it was his great wealth and power that led Bernard Baruch to this next thought, but the wisdom in it is equally available to the pauper:

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

And the third saying, from modern day philosopher Henry David Thoreau, reminds us that we need nothing so much as our own well-ordered mind:

I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.

Take these words to heart, Deuteros, to fortify your resolve neither to be shaken by praise nor blame.

True goodness comes from within, and thus your focus lies there.

Be well.

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