Great Books: How Proverbs Helps You Stay Sane on the Internet

Part of my “Ancient” book list for the Great Books included the Old Testament, a fun read any day. I’ve never really read the Bible as literature before, and it’s an interesting shift. The literary power of Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy is enthralling, moreso when I consider how very old those works are. On the other hand, the genocidal vision of retaking the promised land, a key theme of the the first five books of the Old Testament, is disturbing and difficult to redeem even in context. As is the very strong patriarchal bent to everything. But, there are transcendent moments and helpful wisdom both, one of which comes from one of the Old Testament wisdom books, Proverbs:

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” Proverbs 20:3, ESV.

There are multiple iterations of this advice, and as I kept coming across them, they brought to mind another ambition of mine, which was to develop a sane and healthy relationship to the Internet, especially social media.

I’ve gone back and forth on how necessary online debate might be. Twitter can be an influential playground of debate (with a similar level of maturity), but I suspect that journalists and culture warriors hold it in such high esteem because, well, they’re the main ones using it. Facebook offers the opportunity to shield debates from the whole watching world to one’s circle of friends, but I’m a little heartbroken to argue gun control with someone I haven’t seen in years, whom I’d like to still be friends with next time we meet.

To be sure, there is legitimate need for advocacy, activism, and discussion online. But I don’t think we’ve found an apt-enough metaphor for online interactions by which to understand what it should be. Some people see social media as a necessary battleground; I feel more and more like it’s a howling mob in one’s living room.

So, for me (and this is only how I approach things; it may or may not help anyone else), I’ve taken Proverbs’ advice to heart: avoid strife. Keep aloof. As a luminary on twitter said, “Nothing on the Internet deserves a response.” And it’s been wonderful. I skate right past the Hillary/Bernie debates and post on Harry Potter instead. Or better yet, I only allow 15 minutes of Facebook a day, less for Twitter. Real life has more time to breathe, and I can deal with my own problems and contemplations, not the eight terrible problems with the world, all of which I feel personally responsible for, posted by my wonderfully (or overly) informed friends on Facebook.

However, one of the problems with Proverbs is that it comes from sources firmly in social power. It is the wisdom of empire. So while it nods toward justice, its chief concern is material prosperity and social stability. Justice, most times, has radically different priorities.

But I’m still skeptical of how much good I can do via online debates. Instead, writing letters to legislators, participating with justice groups, and meeting people in the flesh to discuss issues keeps my blood pressure lower and, probably, has more of an impact.

Maybe one day we will develop social media to a more tolerable point. My guess is that development will need networks owned by their people, not by for-profit corporations who do not love us and want our money. Until then, I’ll take the centuries-old advice of Proverbs, and save the strife for when it’s truly necessary.

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