True, Necessary, Kind, and the Internet
I had most of this post on my desktop for a couple of weeks. I guess I couldn’t decide whether it was necessary.
I sometimes lament that an outsider to our family—or a child in our family—would surmise that the character traits we value most are being smart and being funny. You know, as opposed to being nice, helpful, considerate, generous—all the qualities you’d want smart, funny people to have down solid, lest they become unbearable know-it-all jackasses.
Smart, funny people need to know when to can it, to leave the one-liner that is freakin’ brilliant unsaid, to let a meaningless—if glaring‐error go uncorrected.
In our house one way we sum this up is the phrase “True, necessary, kind.” This phrase has been credited to Socrates, though I am most familiar with it from Buddhist readings. Discerning “right speech,” in the Buddhist sense, requires asking three questions about the things you say: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”
When my very smart near-teenager makes a joke that might be funny among friends, but is hurtful to a little sister, possibly none of these criteria are met. When she corrects that little sister, likely in a condescending way, she knows that just being right is not enough to make her words OK. “Hey,” I can ask her, “was that true, necessary, and kind?” She’ll know exactly what I mean.
So much activity online violates this precept, or at least stretches the definition of all three words. Was it necessary for me to post a photo of a Captain Crunch box on my Facebook wall today? Is linking to a blog post that expresses an idea you agree with, albeit with harsh words for people who don’t agree, kind? At what point does the online persona we each have cross the line from “selective sharing” to simply self-aggrandizing or otherwise misleading?
As both the holidays and the election season start gearing up, I’m questioning whether the various types of online media many of us engage with—Facebook, Google+, blogs, e-mail lists— are supporting “right speech” or making us as tone deaf as too-smart-for-their-own-good adolescents.
I can’t tell yet. Sure, Facebook is a time-waster, but it’s also become an important medium of connection between friends and family who wouldn’t be sharing the basic stuff of life otherwise. Isn’t that necessary? And kind? Isn’t networking necessary? Aren’t blogs a way that some people get to share what’s true?
The conventional wisdom of social media is that frequent posts that keep you in the eye of your readers are necessary—but necessary for what?
This December I’m aiming for a few more Silent Nights. Most things worth saying will keep.