I’ve had Facebook for 14 years. Yes, I’m old. My 20-year-old self would think so, anyway. But despite so many years elapsing, the content of my feed is pretty similar. Admittedly, I’m more likely to see photos of babies than wild nights out, but the overall peppy, upbeat tone remains reasonably unchanged.
Until recently, that is. Because over the past few months my feed has been increasingly filled with politics and the tone has become more sombre. Many of my friends are regularly expressing their disappointment, fear and anger. Some of these friends are unhappy with the results of the Brexit referendum and/or the presidential election and worry about the fate of our most vulnerable. Others are unhappy with the reaction to the results and are frustrated by what they perceive as unnecessary negativity, pessimism and catastrophising.
Many people argue that the discomfort created by talking about politics on social media means it’s best left completely alone. I disagree. In my opinion, social media is a tool for expression, conversation and protest and, provided it’s used carefully and sensitively, it is an important 21st century manifestation of our right to free speech. This doesn’t mean that we should expect others to agree with us, nor does it mean we should accept all opinions as equally justified. It simply means that banning ourselves from talking about politics via social media is too extreme.
But while politically charged Facebook posts and tweets expressing concerns and worries have their place, there is a limit to how constructive and cathartic they can be. This is partly because talking to others in the flesh adds something that can’t be replaced by online communication. It’s also because it’s easy for posts and tweets to become offensive or excessively divisive. But mainly this is because social media limits our response to words and emojis and hashtags. And if we limit our response to these things then we miss an opportunity to transform our disappointment and concerns into social action.
By social action I don’t mean political action, at least not primarily, anyway. Although many of the posts and tweets I read these days concern politics, usually the concerns extend beyond, towards worries about hate, fear and division more generally. And ironically, because this makes the issue bigger than politics, it also makes the solution smaller. Ultimately, the only way to really protest hate, fear and division is through a persistent commitment to small acts of kindness.
Because when we are kind, especially in a random, unprovoked way, our lives start to become a peaceful protest. Not just a protest against the hate, fear and discord ‘out there’, but also the hate, fear and division in our own hearts, too. Because no matter how loving, peaceful and tolerant we may believe we are, we always fall short of what we could be and our hearts are usually harder than we believe.
My own experience of falling short is manifested primarily in my daily failure to listen to that inner voice – understood as conscience, love, God or, perhaps, all three – that gently, yet insistently, nudges me to act kindly. Sometimes that’s because it nudges me to do something that, at the time, seems too difficult, too tiring, too time consuming and at others it’s because I’m so busy with my own thoughts and plan for the day that I’m not even attending to what’s going on enough to hear the nudging voice.
So as well as posting my concerns on social media, I’m also trying to transform my anxiety through committing to kindness. My protest is to look more and to listen more; to attend to those around me and to listen to that nudging voice. And while Iris Murdoch is right that this is the hardest work in the world – due to the “falsifying veil” that our selfish thoughts place between us and reality – she is also right that it is the most important work we can do as moral agents. Because when we look and respond, we love and, when we love, our egos weaken and our hearts soften.
This piecemeal work of attention often goes unseen and sometimes doesn’t feel ‘enough’ but as Mother Teresa explained, it is, at least, something we can all do wherever we find ourselves and in all situations. “We can’t all do great things,” she wrote “But we can all do small things with great love”.
And although she didn’t say it herself, maybe, just maybe, great love is the precisely the power we need to turn these small things into great things.