The aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s unexpected demise – the first of a British monarch in the digital age – was characterized by a shower of comments, posts, images, and articles. This certainly did not come as a surprise, but what was eerily striking was the polarization of these tributes: they ranged from profound commotion and near-adoration to harsh criticism (sometimes bordering on the ungracious).
A powerful paean of the Queen was published in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan, well-known columnist, who credited the Queen with having “old school virtues.” Quite different were instead many reactions on the media, with the online community Feminist (nearly 7 million followers on Instagram) insisting on the imperial and colonial legacy of Queen Elizabeth. Similarly, an article on the Guardian was titled “Don’t ask me to give the Queen a minute’s silence.”
In some sense, it can be argued that death unites people, so some of the criticism comes off as unexpected and the paeans as presumable. However, this specific instance is just symptomatic of a much broader, underlying issue: it follows a worrying trend that has emerged with force from the onset of social media. Think of Democrat/Republican, pro vaccines/against vaccines, fascist/communist and many of the labels that are placed on people. The word label itself is a path that can take to the root of the problem: the social media world loves labels because they are quick, in line with the fast food, fast fashion and fast everything world we live in. Labels also allow to distinguish between an us and a them. While a world without labels would be impossible to navigate, an excessive use of these is limiting because the nature of humankind lies in nuances.
Matt Haig, bestselling author, provides interesting reflections on his personal page in this sense: he writes that “social media is really not equipped for the complexity of humans and their feelings.” Indeed, Mr. Haig notes that novels and music are far better equipped for this purpose. Social networks provide such a quick outlet for our emotions that there is not enough time to process them critically: while our feelings provide vital information about the world, they are often too immediate and intense to be followed without reason. Hence, it is only in a state of balance that one can attain dignified self-expression.
The most famous apology of equilibrium comes from Aristotle and his Ethics. With the notion of a “golden mean,” the Greek philosopher expressed his disdain for extremes and the need for a search of something in-between. Greek culture tended to this ideal, and it was perfectly embodied in the calming lines of their temples, sculptures, and palaces. Aristotle knew far too well, however, that the mean was not a mathematical one, and that sometimes equilibrium did not lie exactly in the middle. In the case of a historic demise, for instance, the balance might be closer to solemnity than thoughtlessness.
Some may argue that a search for equilibrium is useless in the modern world: Stefan Zweig, in his “The World of Yesterday,” looked with sympathy at his parents who lived in a “world of security” that was crushed by two bloody wars. Nonetheless, he admits to being contrasted about whether he would prefer a life of stability to one of intensity. Unfortunately, Zweig did not have a choice, as “all the livid steeds of the Apocalypse … stormed through [his] life.”
Perhaps, Stefan Zweig’s admonition is that one should not abandon the search for equilibrium, but that this should not come at the cost of the illusion that security is eternal. Maintaining flexibility in one’s thoughts and actions can aid in reaching a steady state, and it can shield from the dramatic polarization of our times.