I received some mildly critical feedback on my most recent post: 4 Pieces of Stoic Wisdom For Dealing With Negative News Media. (Nothing too harsh of course - this blog has polite readers!) The objections are with my suggestion that we should tune out news media entirely or almost entirely if we want equanimity. Those who commented, argued that Stoics (and presumably non-Stoics) have a duty to act socially and politically, and that ignoring the news smacks of self-interested isolation in the Epicurean Garden.
So, what is the problem with staying informed via news media, you ask? Isn't that what we are supposed to do in a democracy? There are two parts to this question which warrant a response. First, there is the problem of social and political action, ostensibly based on the information we get via media. In other words, what should we "do about," current issues? Second, there is the problem of the information itself - with the quality and manipulation of news and mass media - which I will go on to address in part 3 of this series.
Do social and political actions really have any effect? Can taking such actions be harmful? Do we have a duty to stay informed? Well yes...and no. It all boils down to the question of what do you plan on doing with the information you get from the news. There are certainly more and less ethical and effective ways to create a better community and a better world, so I have also included some helpful suggestions at the end of the post:
The Difference Between Knowing and Doing
However, today there is a phenomenon where a large percentage of citizens are just passive consumers, or at best sharers of news via social media and so on. Many people don't do any of the things above, not even voting. Just being informed for the sake of being informed (because that is what we are supposed to do in a democracy or because we are following the herd) has very little benefit.
Merely keeping informed about daily events in the news may give us a false sense of social and political involvement. We chat with coworkers about the latest disturbing headlines, or grouse about politicians that we don't like, as though we actually have some control over what is going on.
As the sociologist Robert Michels noted in his book Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, "Democracies are always glib talkers. Their terminology is often comparable to a tissue of metaphors.”
You need to do something with at least some of the news information that you get, using it to pinpoint areas where there is need, either in your life or in your community. Otherwise, there really is no point to watching the news. But you also need to do the right sort of thing if you get involved socially or politically, so that you don't inadvertently make things worse.
Can Stoics Be Social Justice Warriors?
What is the Stoic perspective on activism? While I am still continuing my formal study of the complex system that is Stoic philosophy, I believe that the Stoic position on politics and social action is somewhat paradoxical. Stoics have a duty to their community, but when we act, we act with the understanding that the results are out of our control.
Moreover, Stoics must use prosoche in every decision about political and social involvement. Prosoche is attentiveness or mindfulness to every situation, used to determine the proper judgement needed to maintain eudaimonia. This involves some self knowledge. For me, prosoche means cutting out most news, which is why I suggested as much in my last post.
Marcus Aurelius advocated an unwillingness to take sides politically, a respect for free speech, a disinclination to meddle in the affairs of others, and not listening to gossip and slander.
Marcus Aurelius' criteria for community involvement - not taking sides politically - does not describe most activists today. A Stoic activist should respect free speech and act with politeness. We should exercise discretion in action, realizing that even though we choose to act socially, we don't control the result of our actions. A Stoic activist is a far cry from a social justice warrior.
In his book, Stoic Pragmatism, John Lachs states:
The distance I advocate has its source not in cold unconcern, but in caring. If we wish others well, we let them flourish as they will, cheering them on from a distance. Leaving others alone because we want them to do well has as its flip side helping them when the need arises...in emergencies and when obstacles are overwhelming. Moral wisdom consists largely in knowing when to leave people alone and when to help them and, when helping them, how not to subvert their aims.
What Can You do to Make the World a Better Place?
2. Use Discretion or Prosoche. Adopt, and act on, a consistent, balanced code of ethics. You want your actions to mirror your thoughts and emotions, and to protect your sense of eudaimonia, so that you do not behave in contradictory or harmful ways. Value your own rights and freedom, as well as the rights and free will choices of others.
3. Petition Your Representative - Contact your representatives about political issues in your community. Sign up for email action alerts on so you will know when legislation is moving. This is more effective than just being generally "informed," by digesting whatever news stories are floating around.
4. Give To Charity - Charity can help alleviate suffering locally and internationally, but you need to use discretion, as unfortunately not every charity is ethical with their use of donations. Some foundations and charities take advantage of donors' good intentions to enrich themselves. A good charity should have the lowest percent of administrative costs possible - meaning that they are putting most of their funds towards their mission. Bad charities can have administrative costs up to 80 percent of their total budgets or more. A good resource to locate reputable charities is the website Charity Navigator.
5. Get Involved Doing Something You Care About - Preferably which benefits others. This could include education, either locally or via the Internet, volunteering, activism, or local politics. If you are at a point in your life where you lack the time or resources get involved, resolve to do so as soon as possible.
Focus your efforts where are able and where your actions will have the biggest impact. You really can’t do anything about every international crisis in the news, but you can change yourself, your relationships, and perhaps your own community. As more individuals do these things, the greater the chance that the world will change for the better.
Stay tuned for part 3 of this series. We need to closely scrutinize the news and the flow of information in free societies. I'll explain why some news absolutely qualifies as propaganda and also cover the ethics of covert manipulation. We can apply the Socratic Method and critical thinking skills to avoid being manipulated by the media. If you missed it, part 1 of the series is located here: 4 Pieces of Stoic Wisdom For Dealing With Negative News Media.
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The Ancient Greek Got Happiness Right: 3 Steps to Eudaimonia