Is It Possible to Bring Ethical Civility into our Social Media Culture?

By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

Thinking back over these past few months, I realize that I developed some unrealistic expectations during the days of Covid-19. In the back of my mind, I assumed that when we returned to our “normal” lives, we would all get along better than we had before the pandemic. After the hard times we had been through we would feel relieved, good feelings would rise to the top, and we would all simply be glad to be together. 

Perhaps you had expectations that were a lot like mine. Yet, I think you will agree with me that if anything, more things divide us today than before the virus hit. We have never been so divided on so many issues. Perhaps we spent too much time online during the pandemic. Whatever the reason, the polarization pandemic has replaced the covid pandemic!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Polarization and the resulting lack of civility have infected so much of our cultural lives and public discourse. We are politically divided, which has been extensively documented. It’s taboo to have a differing opinion about anything – the result can bring about being canceled – almost like a social quarantine. The perplexing aspect of this problem is that we are not always actively looking for the information that we consume that leads to polarized opinions  – we passively receive them. They are fed to us by the social media companies who know our every virtual search or interest. And if we share those ideas or our opinions, others assign identities to us and dislike or even hate us. Even if we simply ask questions about something we do not understand, people can brand us as hostile. 

How did we get to this place? To be truthful, I do not know. Perhaps the more important question is, How can we get out of it?

I think that it can help to return to what Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas called The Cardinal Virtues. Please note that even though Thomas Aquinas was later named a saint, the virtues he recommends exist in all the world religions and in secular philosophies too. 

Here are some of these virtues:

Prudence. Today, that word has come to mean acting slowly and carefully. But for Aquinas, it meant actively deciding how you should behave. I think you will agree that this could be an issue that a lot of people are not considering today. 

Temperance. Most people today think temperance means controlling their intake of alcohol and intoxicants. But for Aquinas, it meant living calmly by avoiding anger, setting aside the desire to punish others, and refusing to become agitated by prejudices and false judgements of others. Temperance also means thinking carefully before criticizing others or having negative opinions of them. We need temperance today. 

Humility. This means being humble – which is another way of saying that we can strive to see other people as our equals and their opinions as equally valid as ours. Humility or being humble does not mean thinking less of ourselves; instead, it takes true inner strength to be humble and to realize that I am not the expert on everything. If this virtue is not needed today, well . . . I don’t know when it will ever be. 

Social media culture does not foster prudence, temperance or humility. Maybe we should take some time to consider the Cardinal Virtues again as an anecdote to the polarization plague that threatens the very existence of a civil society and continues to isolate us…just like Covid did.