A new Yale University study showed that social media posts expressing moral outrage get more likes and shares than other content. The increasing number of likes and shares, the study found, encourages people to express more and more outrage over time. The worst consequence of this trend is that it influences those who are more moderate to express more outrage because they generate more feedback through likes, comments, and retweets.
“This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media,” said William Brady, a postdoctoral researcher in the Yale Department of Psychology. We are in the process of creating a rage-induced dystopia that exists only to give us the ego boost of thinking that many people agree with us. If we do not find a way to get off of this train, it is going to go off the tracks.
On days when I scroll through my social media feeds and consistently see unglued hot takes, I am reminded of a quote from 18th century Virginia pastor Samuel Davies. He wrote to a friend, “I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and the noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.” Davies reminds me that in the world of books, there is a relief from the insanity of our current cultural climate.
In recent years, I have found that novels provide enlightenment and windows to the world in ways I would have never imagined. Thoughtful fiction inhabits the real world and gives us insight into people and events that we rarely gain through interactions with others. Novels have nothing to hide, so they can delve into the reality of human nature and expose vulnerabilities that people rarely do in real relationships with others. Novels can help us understand each other and release some of the tension we have built up in our culture.
Novels can teach us perspectives on events that we haven’t considered before. A few years ago, I ran across a young adult novel titled Copper Sun. The book tells the story of a teenaged African girl and the interesting life she lives in the village with her family and the young man she hopes to marry. She inhabits a rich culture that is shattered when white men attack the village and drag many off into slavery. The bulk of the book narrates the story of her journey on the middle passage and subsequent trials as a slave in South Carolina.
Reading this story helped me see slavery from a different perspective. I had only thought of the physical and emotional horrors of slavery itself. Copper Sun introduced me to the world slavery destroyed. People were pulled from villages and families that they loved, and their way of life was completely disrupted. This is something I should have known happened, but stepping into another person’s shoes through fiction enabled me to see it from the point of view of those involved.
Novels also help us to see the beauty of life. Some of the most influential books I have read outside of Scripture have been Wendell Berry’s Port William novels. In this series of books, based on his hometown, berry tells the story of a town and its residents. He calls them the “Port William Membership” because they are bound together through living in the same community and participating in its life.
Berry shows the members of this community working together during times of crisis. He offers insight into the foolishness of chasing after excess material possessions through the folly of some citizens in the community. But more than anything, he shows the richness of life when people know each other, love each other and live as if they share in the struggles of this life.
These novels showed me the kind of friend and neighbor I should and could be to those around me.
There’s one more tangible benefit to novel reading I should not forget here at the end – good books give us something to talk about other than the day’s events. If all of my conversations are about COVID, inflation or Afghanistan, I am going to be tired of the people I am talking to, or they will be sick of me very quickly. However, if we have both been reading good books and learning from them, we have a whole world of issues to talk about that are divorced from the issues inflaming everyone’s passions.
If we are going to live in a civilization together, we have to think deeply about what we are putting into our minds. If it is social media and a steady diet of opinion-based news, we are going to be angry people. However, if we step away from the rage machine and give our attention to good books that stimulate our minds and imaginations, we might find the empathy and understanding we need to walk through life with people who disagree with us.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Chrisitan Headlines.
Photo courtesy: Seven Shooter/Unsplash
Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”