Every few weeks someone will post a comment in my Stoicism Facebook group that goes something along the lines of “If you guys are into Stoicism then I don’t see why you should censor posts just because they’re offensive.” Or they might just say “Suck it up” or “You guys aren’t real Stoics, you’re all just f*** snowflakes” or words to that effect.
Sometimes they’re just messing around and being facetious – or just plain trolling the group. Sometimes, though, I think people actually do mean this sincerely, although on closer inspection the reasoning behind this obviously doesn’t make any sense at all. I’ve responded to this a few times in detail, explaining why I think they’re mistaken but I think the time has come to write a short blog post so I can just share the link rather than reinvent the wheel and explain the following points every time this idea comes up.
The beautiful and good person neither fights with anyone nor, as much as they are able, permits others to fight… – Epictetus, Discourses 4.5
So here are my reasons for not allowing people to be verbally abusive or insulting toward other group members in my Stoicism forum:
- Not everyone in the group is a Stoic. As I write there are over 55,000 people in my group. They’re all ages (from 13 up), different genders, nationalities, and from different cultures and religions. And they’re not all Stoics. Some are Epicureans, or Buddhists, or existentialists or Nietzscheans or whatever. Some of them are just people vaguely interested in Stoicism who want to learn a bit more. So the premise of the argument above that everyone in the group is Stoic is obviously false. Moreover, there are approx. 1,000 children (ages 13 – 18) in my group. Some are schoochildren whose teachers have introduced them to Stoic Week, for instance. Abusive language obviously isn’t appropriate for a mixed audience of that kind.
- No Stoics are perfect Sages. The Stoics said that the Sage is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix, which according to legend was born every 500 years. So there probably aren’t any in our group. The Stoics admitted they were all imperfect and fallible, even the founders of the school. So all Stoics sometimes falter and get upset about things because they’re human beings and not perfect Sages. That doesn’t stop them aspiring to inch closer to that ideal, though.
- Even Sages have feelings. It’s a popular misconception that Stoicism is unemotional and that the ideal is to have no feelings or never to get upset. The Stoics actually had a sophisticated psychological theory that clearly distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary emotional reactions to events. So even if we did have a perfect Sage in the group they would still potentially experience propatheiai or automatic flashes of emotional in response to certain things being said or done. It’s natural that they’d prefer not to have to expose themselves to that repeatedly when they’re trying to have a discussion if it potentially gets in the way.
- It’s not about hurting feelings. The main reason for preventing verbal abuse isn’t to protect someone’s feelings, actually. As moderator, it’s more about the fact it disrupts the group and prevents people from being able to discuss things rationally. It would be as if we were trying to have a philosophy seminar and someone ran into the room, jumped on the table and started screaming random insults. You say “Um, can you maybe stop, or leave?” And they say “Ha! You bunch of snowflakes, I thought you were meant to be Stoics – see how I’ve managed to upset you all, frauds!” or whatever. Well, nobody is actually crying. The most upset person in the room is probably the crazy person standing screaming on the table. Everyone else is too busy thinking “What a nutcase!” to take it personally. It’s the same with trolling. Nobody really cares. The irony is that trolls get upset really easily themselves and that’s probably why they assume everyone else is a “Snowflake”. It’s classic psychological projection. The real reason for banning them or asking them to leave is just so that everyone else can get on with what they’re trying to discuss without distraction.
- It’s not ethical. Stoicism is a virtue ethic. The goal of life is to be virtuous and that includes acting with justice, fairness, and kindness toward others, regardless of their race or gender or religion. (Stoics are ethical cosmopolitans.) So screaming abuse at people online flies completely in the face of Stoic ethics. It’s definitely not the sort of behaviour ancient Stoics were talking about when they said that people should act honourably and with affection toward other human beings. So it’s part of Stoic ethics that we would both avoid acting like this ourselves and, within reason and where nothing prevents us, politely discourage other people from behaving in a vicious and aggressive manner, although whether they do or not is ultimately outside of our control. (It’s what Stoics call a “preferred indifferent”, something they don’t get upset about but would gently attempt to prevent or change.)
- Just join a different forum. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I’ve been called a “fascist” because I banned someone for trolling. They’ll complain it’s violating their right to freedom of speech, and sometimes even try to complain to Facebook. Or they’ll go straight on to another forum and complain about it there. However, if you’ve joined a forum where trolling and personal abuse is explicitly against the ground rules, which you agreed to as a condition of membership, you can’t really be suprised if you’re then removed for breaking those rules. Also: there are other forums! Just go and join one where abuse is tolerated, or start your own for “Stoicism and trolling.” (Good luck, though – you might find that not many other people want to join and if they do you’re probably not going to end up discussing Stoicism much.)
So there you go, if you’ve got to the end of this hopefully it’s at least given you something to think about. The ground rules of my forum prohibit verbal abuse against other group members and these are the reasons for that policy. Hope you understand and please treat other people with respect. Thank you.
Free Email Course
Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.