The Blog of Craig W. Hansen

The New Emotional Socialism

The article is entitled “Stop Instagramming Your Perfect Life” by Shauna Niequist, and it has had over 82,000 Facebook shares in the past four days. It’s on Relevant Magazine, which is generally an interesting publication with thoughtful articles. Unfortunately this article seems more designed for sharing than reading. It’s familiar bait, and tens of thousands are rising to it every day.

I say this because I think you could get exactly the same response if you wrote a piece entitled, “Stop Posting Your Bathroom Mirror Pics,” or “Stop Posting Your Food,” or “Stop Whining About Your Problems On Facebook,” or “Stop Posting Political Views That I Don’t Agree With.”

Starting with the article’s title, it’s clear that the writer has a beef because she’s telling us what to do and how to do it. Unlike much of Relevant’s content, there’s no pretense of libertarianism here. Rather, the provocative title is designed for maximum mind-share. It appeals to those who are blunt and direct, but also to those who don’t want to say these things explicity themselves. “Hey I didn’t say it, she did. I’m just passing it along.” This kind of plausible deniability is exactly what the “sort of” culture loves – those who have lost the ability to make their own declarative statements – and they can season it to taste when they share it. “Interesting ideas in this post,” “Hmmm… thoughtful,” “Food for thought” or similar.

The truth is that we shouldn’t want to say something like this, so Niequist is offering us cover in exchange for promoting her piece. The real question is, why would anyone want to put a chill on joy-speech? I mean, it’s clear the author has a complaint, and on the surface it appears that she’s worried that sharing our joy online might hurt someone else’s feelings. But where does this complaint actually come from?

Let’s not for a moment deny that Facebook depression is a real thing. I’m sure it is. But let’s also talk about depression and loneliness honestly and intelligently, and how social media and internet addiction can play a role. And whatever we do, let’s not create congitive dissonance just for the sake of populism.

Joy is joy and envy is envy. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are completely different currencies with their own economies, traded in different exchanges. Joy buys peace and hope, envy buys strife and despair. The envious do not accept joy as legal tender, and vice versa. They are similar only in this: If you invest with either currency, you will receive an in-kind return on your investment.

The lynchpin of Niequist’s argument is that she believes we over-share our joys and under-share our sorrows online. In fact, she believes it is actually dangerous. In fairness, she does acknowledge envy, but in a backwards way:

But seeing the best possible, often-unrealistic, half-truth version of other peoples’ lives isn’t the only danger of the Internet. Our envy buttons also get pushed because we rarely check Facebook when we’re having our own peak experiences. We check it when we’re bored and when we’re lonely, and it intensifies that boredom and loneliness.

Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this quote. First, people interract with social media all the time and in different ways and circumstances. It’s extremely diverse, and each social media outlet carries its own cultural norms, appeals to its own demographic, and tends to spawn its own kind of content. Yet Niequist makes such simplistic, sweeping generalizations as, “Everyone’s life looks better on the internet than it does in real life” and “it only takes one friend at the Eiffel Tower to make you feel like a loser.” Unfortunately, she’s making my point better than she is hers. How is jealousy an expression of friendship?

Second, the high points in our life are fully true, as are the low points. Neither are half-true or unrealistic. Focusing on one more than another in our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts is an editorial choice that people make based on many factors. It’s not simply a matter of fronting a fake life. But sometimes it’s about a very simple admonition of truth:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Does that mean I never post negative comments? No. In fact, this piece is itself a critical commentary. But this simple Biblical encouragement commands me to tip the balance towards the lovely, the laudible, and that which might add value to the lives of those whom I love, and those who love me and my family.

There’s also the concept of propriety. The stuff that hurts the most also might hurt others the most if it were said publicly. So people avoid gossip and other damaging speech on purpose, and for good reason. Having a wise sense of propriety is not the same thing as being “heavily edited” and inauthentic.

Third, it’s inappropriate to shift this blame onto others. We don’t have “envy buttons” that “get pushed” by other people. We aren’t the victims of other people’s good fortune. We simply have envy – living, seething, rotting, strife-ridden envy. It’s active, not passive. It doesn’t lie dormant until provoked. If anything, it lies in ambush looking for any opportunity. It is, in a word, sin. And it doesn’t require someone else’s provocation to do its work. It actively transforms the innocent, pure “I love my husband” and twists it into the evil, destructive “Nobody loves me. I hate my life.”

To proclaim that joy pays its dividends in envy is to pervert the truth and to do cultural harm. By this logic, I should never share how happy I am to be married to the same wonderful woman for 25 years, since I have friends that are divorced, widowed and orphaned, and my declarations of joy might make them depressed. But in fact I do have many divorced, widowed and orphaned friends and they do rejoice in my joy, as they weep with my sufferings. And I with them. That’s a definition of love, not mere community. After all, there are plenty of “transformative communities” that aren’t rooted in any sort of love.

So what’s really at the root of this argument? It is Envy itself, protecting its territory. Envy says, “It’s not fair that you are so happy in this moment, while I am so unhappy. It’s unseemly. It’s arrogant. Your joy is doing damage to other people. You should feel guilty.” So instead of expressing so much joy, we should try to temper it with some despair so our Facebook posts reflect the full reality of our circumstances.

This is the new Emotional Socialism, complete with its own form of propaganda: Everyone should express the same full-spectrum of joy/angst/grief/sorrow in the same measure, or it isn’t true. It isn’t real. After all nobody has more joy than others, right? We should all live the same emotionally-communal life so that we strike the right joy-to-strife ratio in equal measure. Unity requires uniformity, and if we aren’t actually uniform then we should fake it. If we are having a high moment, we should just keep it to ourselves. Better to share misery, which always loves its company.

Yes, we are a discontent people, and we immediately grow to the size of our fishbowl. As soon as we have a bigger one, we want an even bigger one. This is the problem, not the joy/strife quotient of somebody’s else’s Instagram feed. The problem is us, not them. As it was written in Exodus, the issue isn’t our neighbor’s wife or anything about her. The issue is that we covet her. If we are depressed by someone else’s good fortune, then how is that any different from delighting in their calamity? Both come from the exact same place. This kind of reverse-schadenfreude is invalid and harmful, and we don’t do anyone any favors by encouraging people to accomodate it.

The good news is that joy is also active. It is not content to lie dormant and passive, to be tame and docile and well-behaved. In fact, in its purest and fullest form it cannot be contained. It overflows from one life into another, and spills out in everything we say and do – even online. It cuts across all socio-economic circumstances, across all racial and ethnic chasms, and even has the power to transcend our precious ideologies. Joy brings positive transformation, and it’s a wonderful thing when joy overcomes our sufferings, right in the midst of our pain and need.

We speak of our joy even in the midst of our strife, for in our joy we find hope. It’s not perfect, it aspirational – even when it isn’t our immediate reality. Because the rememberance of our milestones, blessings and triumphs are the very things that protect us, keeping us from falling prey to our own envy, lust and greed. Thankfulness is the antidote to envy, and as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, I can use all of the joy on my Facebook wall that you have to offer. Are you visiting the Eiffel Tower? Bring that vintagy-looking-intentionally-aged-pic. Let me rejoice with you. In a deep struggle? Bring that too, and I’ll try to encourage you and lift you up. But the end goal of both sharings is always joy, peace and resolution. Either way, don’t worry – how I respond to your post is on me, not you.