Third Year Religious Education between Christmas and mid-term is Buddhism. The topic today was the Eightfold Path and we tried to think about what right action, thought and mindfulness might mean for us.
We agreed that in the era of the smartphone and social media, the Buddha’s suggestions were unlikely to find many adherents in our own society.
We discussed “doomscrolling,” that propensity for people to pick up all of the negative stories. We felt that spotting bad news and potential danger was a useful evolutionary trait, but wondered if we had gone too far. Had we become so obsessed with bad news that we were pulling ourselves down, putting ourselves very far away from the ideals of the Buddha?
The French essayist Henry de Montherlant once wrote, “Le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches,” “happiness writes in white ink on white pages.”
The words seem apt for the present times. there seems an unquenchable thirst for tales of unhappiness. To speak of happiness or success is to invite a wave of criticism and begrudgery. To tell of misfortune and suffering is to surround oneself with expressions of sympathy and messages of solidarity.
Social media have become places where good news has little currency; people have a hunger for the worst. Social media have become platforms for those whose daily lives seem filled with difficulty, if not outright disaster. The smallest problem or setback is shared so that “friends” may respond with empathetic comments and a general bemoaning of the state of the world.
The magnification of every insignificant complaint into a matter of principle is not a trend that can be challenged, unless one wishes to incur the wrath of the complainant and all of her friends.
If one wants to understand current political trends, much of an explanation might be formed from analysis of the rise in the popularity of misery, an analysis of the development of the culture of complaint. It is simple to join in the chorus of moans, to express sympathy toward those for whom daily life seems a litany of perceived difficulties. They would feel affirmed by those who complain along with them.
The phenomenon has been with us for at least two decades. It was fifteen years ago, in January 2006, that The Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee expressed a dislike for what she described as “miserabilism,” writing:
“Let’s get one thing clear. This is the golden age – so far. There has never been a better time to be alive . . . than today, no generation more blessed, never such opportunity for so many. And things are getting better all the time, horizons widening, education spreading, everyone living longer, healthier, safer lives. Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard – mobile phones sending pictures everywhere, accessing the universe on the internet, and iPods with all the world’s music in your ear. Barring calamity, there will be better.”
To share Polly Toynbee’s comment in response to the daily diet of complaints on social media would bring a flood of denunciation; that Toynbee’s comments are true for those of us who live middle class lives in affluent Western societies would be thought immaterial.