Last week, an eternity ago in political conversation, the internet was swept away by the video of a smirking teen and a native American veteran. Everyone was outraged but the story turned out to be not exactly what it seemed at first. I will admit to (or brag about, depending on your perspective) that I really didn’t follow this story closely. I watched part of the video before losing interest. I didn’t like, comment on it, or share it anywhere. I chided myself for not thoroughly informing myself about the story and its context and forming an opinion. But as it turns out, maybe that was okay.
Today I stumbled across an article by Ephrat Livni at Quartz that suggests there is danger to the culture and to our individual selves when we react to and automatically share and opine about everything that goes by. Social media groupthink is impeding our individual ability to think independently. The author provides historical context for the wisdom of stepping back, observing, getting more information, and thinking, instead of taking immediate action (reaction). Livni suggests that we should be more like the flâneurs in 19th century Paris.
The boulevardier, or flâneur, was a French 19th-century literary type who wandered Paris with no particular purpose other than to be on the scene. Although flâneurs didn’t necessarily do anything visible to the naked eye, besides hanging around in parks and cafes, they watched what was happening, taking in the bustle of others and so developing a deeper understanding of city life and their changing times.
The author quotes a 2013 article in The Paris Review, where Bijan Stephen wrote of the flâneurs, observing that our virtual streets resemble the physical boulevards of days gone by.
The 19th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin likened the flâneur to an urban investigator, within the city but detached from events, the quintessential modern artist citizen.
The author also quotes the writer Charles Baudelaire who illuminated the flâneur and the art of flânerie in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life“:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.
Livni: “In other words, flânerie is a charmingly subversive act, a refusal to be swayed by the vagaries of the moment while committing to investigating the trends and events rather than ignoring them.”
“It’s possible that in stepping back and vowing to think before we tweet, we may discover that, upon reflection, we don’t really have any value to add. If we’re all quiet and there’s nothing left to observe online, that either means we didn’t need social media after all, or that we’ve all taken to speaking only about what matters, and only when we know enough about it to opine. “
Click here to read the entire article at qz.com