What a Turtle Taught Me About Social Media

June 6, 2019 Updated: June 12, 2019


One thing we should never do first thing in the morning is check our social media accounts.

Many of us do it and then we wonder why our days are starting off on the wrong foot. Well, I do it sometimes, too, and the other day was one of those mornings.

A particular post from someone I have known well for many years caught my attention and became my morning distraction and disappointment. He didn’t attack a politician he disagreed with or a policy decision, but instead took to social media to make a blanket and ungenerous attack on everyday people who support a leading political figure—many of whom have been his friends.

It was a disappointment to me, as it showed such callous disregard for people who might think differently, and because I would have hoped this person should have known better and shown better character. Frankly, I took it as a personal failure of my own.

Then I laced up my running shoes and headed out the door. My mind, though, kept coming back to that post and my disappointment—until I saw a small turtle making its way down my running trail.

As I passed the little box turtle, I caught myself (fortunately no one else was within earshot or sight of us) encouraging the little guy along its journey. Our encounter didn’t last long, but it left an impact on me as I ran on ahead, thinking of him and my social media experience that morning.

You see, we have choices to make when we pass others in our social media world. If they are slower, are struggling, or are going in a different direction, we have three basic alternatives. We can just run on by and ignore them; we can be encouraging and instructive and helpful; or we can choose to mock them and treat them with scorn, in the process signaling our own sense of moral superiority.

After I encouraged the turtle along his way, it hit me that my actions were what is too often lacking in our social media world. Only a monster would attack (verbally or otherwise) a slow little turtle minding its own business. Similarly, most of us wouldn’t attack people personally if we were physically with them.

However, many of us actually do end up attacking individual people on social media, but often without fully grasping what we are doing. As we treat individuals as mere parts of a whole class of people with whom we disagree, we allow ourselves to treat them differently than those with whom we actually interact.

It’s the great driving evil of social media—not having to challenge people face-to-face, we can dehumanize them as we put them into a class to be demeaned. In the process, we can also signal our political and moral superiority to the wider world.

This isn’t only bad manners, it’s bad politics, too. I don’t know anyone who has ever genuinely changed their political stance after being attacked on social media. I do, however, know of many friendships that have been ruined over social media politics. And I’ve known many people who have grown more strident even as they censor their own posts so as not to have to deal with the virtue-signaling and moral-shaming of today’s social media world—like a harassed turtle pulling itself into its own shell.

No doubt the shutting down of alternative opinions is exactly what some of our social media activists want. On the other hand, I think much of this goes on without strategy or even understanding but is driven by the distance that social media puts between actual persons and its encouragement to dehumanize people by lumping them into classes and group identities.

My encounter with the little box turtle reminded me of a few lessons for our social media world. First, treat everyone as individual persons who have their own struggles and are worth an equal dignity with everyone else, including yourself. Don’t make blanket assertions about whole classes of people.

Second, before you write it—imagine saying it directly to a real, live, feeling person. If you can’t imagine saying it to someone’s face, don’t say it at all.

Third, encourage, don’t dismiss, those who are slower than yourself or who are on a different path. One never knows who might join your side tomorrow if they don’t feel insulted and dismissed today.

Being generous, encouraging, and reasonable is the right thing to do. It also has the added benefit of holding the possibility of being successful. Somewhere in the world of Facebook and Twitter, we seem to have lost Grandma’s wisdom that you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

And as for that little turtle, well, thinking about him and these lessons while I ran encouraged me to turn around and run back in his direction. In so doing, I ended up breaking my own 2019 best for distance, and having a pretty good day after all.

Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell chair in leadership at the University of Louisville and is the author of a number of young adult novels, including “The Sporran” and “The Iona Conspiracy.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gary L. Gregg
Gary L. Gregg
Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College.”