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Why Tone Still Matters

Are we becoming what we consume in media? Influencers and opinionators now deeply shape personal beliefs and attitudes, causing a loss of complexity, promoting cynicism, and highlighting the need for civility and peacemaking.

While reading a post by a popular blogger, I suddenly found myself wondering whether I was becoming like this person. 

This concerned me. While I greatly admired this writer’s sharp analysis and detached method of delivery, I didn’t get the sense that this person was, well, happy. And I noticed that as I consistently consumed their writing, I was not just learning their opinions, I was also adopting their values and attitudes.

When I consciously tuned into how this writing made me feel, I realized it communicated much more than the explicit meaning.  Lurking below the genuinely useful insights, there was also a great deal of cynicism, skepticism, contempt, and anger, and this was starting to influence how I saw the world and the people around me.

Of course, we can’t eliminate the implicit transmission of a writer’s values and attitudes, but it’s worth noting how that transmission has changed in both extent and frequency. There has never been a time when so many people with no real relationship to us can reach so deeply into our personal lives and shape our internal landscapes.

We risk being programmed.

When I was growing up, the publication process greatly limited the scope and reach of any one person’s views. The nice thing about a traditional book or magazine is that it generally confines itself to a set topic, and after you put it down, it then has to compete with all your other real-life experiences, interests, and relationships.

Social media has drastically changed this. Now, every pundit and influencer can engage with every issue at any time in a stream-of-conscious fashion. By absorbing a stranger’s thoughts in this manner, without reprieve or mediation, we risk being programmed rather than simply being informed.

Further complicating things is the fact that no one can possibly be sufficiently expert or informed to comment authoritatively on such a vast array of problems and issues. To compensate, opinionators often simply use their much narrower area of focus—say, psychology, capitalism, race, or religion—as the lens for interpreting a broad range of complex problems and events. This lens allows them to filter out any information that can’t be understood through that area of focus, even if that information is critical. 

This not only produces a cacophony of shallow, narrow takes that are too simplistic to resolve real-life challenges. It also trains those who regularly consume this kind of thinking to ruminate over a limited number of problems from a limited perspective.  Among other things, this has the effect of heightening moral outrage while at the same time reducing our ability to cope and problem-solve. 

A world that was once complex, beautiful, and interesting becomes gloomy, predictable, and small. Everything is bad, and it all boils down to liberalism or religion or racism or sexism or progressivism or fascism, etc. Chesterton put it this way in Orthodoxy

A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large … I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours …?

Peacemaking as protection. Some of the resolutions of this angst may be simpler than we realize. In April, President Russell M. Nelson called on Latter-day Saints and others to be peacemakers. A year earlier, Elder Neil A. Anderson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “The Lord taught how to live, then and now, in a contemptuous world”—citing the famous teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

“By the shield of our faith in Jesus Christ,” Elder Anderson added, “we become peacemakers, quenching—meaning to calm, cool, or extinguish—all the fiery darts of the adversary.”

Notice that peacemaking here is not simply forbearing for the sake of others. It’s also a protection for us from a contemptuous world and fiery darts. 

Some chafe at calls for civility because they believe it excuses errors, makes way for those with bad intentions, or distracts from the substance of an argument. In this view, peacemaking is an observance of niceties—a generous but fundamentally unnecessary act of self-restraint or tolerance. 

Yet to actually be a peacemaker and to engage with real civility are not just matters of decorum that can be separated from the substance. How we treat others reveals what we consider to be of real substance. It also makes us less susceptible to unwanted influence. 

One of my friends in college was a rower. She had incredible posture, and the muscles in her upper arms and shoulders were very defined. Our bodies respond to the work that we habitually ask them to do, and over time, they change in ways that make that work easier.

The heart attenuated by cruelty is more susceptible to falsehood.

The same is also true of our minds. The way we engage with media content and other people strengthens certain mental and emotional muscles. Not only does this affect how we feel in the moment, but it also develops skills, capacities, and a kind of “muscle memory” that will influence how we interpret and handle future events.

Whatever it is you are arguing or defending, if you do it with mockery, criticism, and contempt, then you still become someone who is critical and habituated to hurting other people. Using truth to justify contention or cruelty doesn’t make one a warrior for good; it makes them a clown in Satan’s outrage circus. The heart attenuated by cruelty is more susceptible to falsehood, not less.

On the other hand, heeding the prophetic call to “build, lift, encourage, persuade, and inspire—no matter how difficult the situation” is to believe that there is real good in other people and the world and that it’s worth saving.  In this way, peacemaking becomes a bulwark against the nihilism of the opinion pageant, where truth is a means to status and power. 

Instead of only asking ourselves about the beliefs of media voices we consume, we should also ask ourselves what mental and emotional habits they ask us to practice. Does interacting with this person’s ideas strengthen my fault-finding? To see flaws in others and their words? Do I find myself habitually aggrieved or outraged? Do they invite me to take pleasure in someone else’s failings or to delight in tragedies that confirm my prejudices? Am I developing a greater capacity for defensiveness and suspicion? To demand others capitulate to my wants and needs?

Alternatively, which voices encourage me to practice lifting and building? To laugh with genuine mirth or to feel wonder and awe? To be merciful, warm, and delighted by beauty? To relish the truth and have the courage to reconcile myself to it? To be humble and grateful and, thereby, discover a world filled with love and grace.

Being a peacemaker is more than something we do, though it certainly requires doing. Engaging in peacemaking is also teaching ourselves to see, love, and nurture the things we want to endure forever.

About the author

Meagan Kohler

Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint wife, boy mom, writer, and occasional philosopher. She also writes on Substack at Mirabile Dictu.
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