On the Monkey Mind and Twitter Archaeology. Part II

sense and sensibility jane austen

Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it. But the feelings which made such composure a disgrace, left her in no danger of incurring it. She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with a headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either.

(Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XVI)


As these considerations occurred to her in painful succession, she wept for him, more than for herself. Supported by the conviction of having done nothing to merit her present unhappiness, and consoled by the belief that Edward had done nothing to forfeit her esteem, she thought she could even now, under the first smart of the heavy blow, command herself enough to guard every suspicion of the truth from her mother and sisters. And so well was she able to answer her own expectations, that when she joined them at dinner only two hours after she had first suffered the extinction of all her dearest hopes, no one would have supposed from the appearance of the sisters, that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love.

(Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XXIII)


In delineating the characteristics of the two elder Miss Dashwoods Jane Austen was able to demonstrate something of the effects of, on the one hand, allowing thoughts and feelings to run unchecked through the mind and, on the other, deploying resources to check and defeat such forces of chaos.The 5th century hermit Mark the Ascetic might as well have had Elinor and Marianne in mind when he wrote ‘He whose mind teems with thoughts lacks self-control; and even when they are beneficial, hope is more so.’ Marianne’s mind yielded to the teeming thoughts and feelings which surged through her and so thoroughly demoralised her spirit and debilitated her body. Elinor, by contrast, fixed her mind on the virtue of moral goodness, by the standards of which neither she nor her beloved Edward could be judged and found wanting. In that sense it was her hope in a future judgement about such things, whether by persons of moral worth in this world or the Deity in the next, that proved most beneficial in her inner struggle.


The effect, then, of the monkey mind on the unresisting is a surrender of the faculty of reasoning to the power of feeling. On the resisting the effect is a severe inner struggle which, if reason alone proves successful, results in a continuing, willed, act of self-repression. That is, Reason triumphs but it pays a high price for doing so. Nobody, after all, said that life would be easy. In some ways it might be argued that Elinor represents the ideal of the Rationalist Enlightenment in that she is governed by a rational calculation of her circumstances. However, even granting that this is so, clearly it is not her natural state, it required a degree of training in self-mastery and a deep inner struggle to arrive at such a condition and the Enlightenment thesis would have us believe that all Men (male and female) are naturally born as reason-governed animals. It is probably worth mentioning that Miss Austen was a deeply devout Christian and so her understanding of how one could, and why one should, resist the unruly mind no doubt flows from that particular religious tradition. 


Pretty much all humans are likely to find themselves moving along a spectrum from Marianne to Elinor, sometimes we will be nearer the one and sometimes nearer the other. This may partly depend upon personal characteristics with which we are born but familial, cultural, philosophical and spiritual factors will play a part too. And, indeed, environmental, physical and physiological conditions will also play into how this effect is worked through. In short there are not sufficient grounds to suppose that any one action or any one exercise of speech by a person represents their deeply considered and irreversible feeling towards, or thought about, a particular issue, situation or other person. Which brings me to Twitter archeology.


I remember that about 18 years ago I was walking through a Scottish town which I shall not name (it was Falkirk) when I saw a small group of children departing from a courtyard while a little girl shouted after them that they were no longer friends and that she never ever wanted to see them again. Some 30 seconds later, or it may have been less, the same little girl came running out and said that she hadn’t meant what she had previously said and could she be forgiven? Which she was, there and then, and much happiness ensued. Fortunately for all involved Social Media had not yet been invented. The exchange involved human beings in physical contact with each other, nothing was recorded in writing, video or audio, and forgiveness was readily extended. How the world has changed since those long ago days.


Each particular human action or speech is a compound of internal activity and external manifestation of that activity. The only thing the outside world can ever know for certain is the outward sign which symbolises the inward intention. We, the world, can make a more or less accurate guess about that intention if we know the person, if we are able to interrogate them and if we have some idea about the context in which that action or speech occurred. Certainly a person, however uncharacteristically Marianne-ish they may be at the moment of acting, is responsible for what they have done or said and can legitimately be held to account for it, but that accounting to be equitable needs insofar as is possible to take into consideration the internal facts as well as the external ones. 


The business of total strangers going through the social media posts of a person many years after they have been posted, a process sometimes called Twitter archeology, strips away everything except the bare action. No possibility exists for such archeologists to know the person being investigated nor to grasp the context in which they posted. Moreover, the motivation for such an investigation is ordinarily a malicious one, that is, there exists a positive desire to catch the investigated person out in wrongdoing such that every posting is interpreted through the eyes of enmity. The consequences of such archeology, unlike, incidentally, real archeology which is a highly worthwhile and beneficial exercise, is baneful not only upon the person having their past dug up in this way but also upon society at large and even upon the archeologists themselves (on the principle that you become that which you mostly think about.)


People have their careers destroyed and their lives ruined because of something they posted on social media years ago. Yet, for most people most of the time, what does a social media post consist of? Often a stray thought which floats through the mind finds expression as a short Tweet or Facebook meme or whatever. In a pre-internet world similar thoughts would have been shared with friends at work or school or at the pub or in the mother and toddler group or wherever. They would often enough have been spoken with an intention to please, amuse, impress or edify one’s companions and if they had been inappropriate for the in-group they would have likely enough been challenged on the spot, if they had been denigrating to an out-group (as human conversations often are sadly enough) then that would have been bad but no one would have been hurt by comments which in most instances will have been uttered through ignorance or foolishness not malice.


If the Enlightenment supposition that we are reason-governed animals were true then it would, I suppose, be morally right and socially good to hold every person strictly to account for every word they ever uttered, on the grounds that each word necessarily proceeded from a carefully thought through position. But we are not such creatures. Elinor’s are made not born, and unless a society is wholly geared to the manufacture of such persons, as the 21st century West manifestly is not, then Elinor’s will be few in number and cannot be considered as normative for the species. In truth we are all possessors of monkey minds; thoughts and feelings which we do not deliberately generate float into our minds at all times, day and night, waking and sleeping, and often enough these find expression including now, in the second decade of the 21st century, on social media. These expressions may be clumsily formulated, they may contain sentiments which are, rationally, to be regretted but they do not necessarily or even often express our deeply felt, consistently held views. Unless there is a clear, repetitive pattern over time then each post often represents merely a snapshot in words rather than images of whatever monkey is leaping across our thought-process at that particular moment.


Elinor could no longer witness this torrent of unresisted grief in silence.

“Exert yourself, dear Marianne,” she cried, “if you would not kill yourself and all who love you.

(Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XXIX)


It is not wrong to correct people for the right reasons but, obviously, it is wrong to correct them for the wrong reasons. Twitter archeologists are as fully possessed of a monkey mind as the rest of us. They are at times as Marianne-ish as the people upon whom they exercise their maleficent arts. What they are not is as loving towards those who err as Elinor was towards her sister. And yet they, and we, need to be because a climate of universal fear is created when a universal trait, monkey mindedness, is seized upon as a tool by which to destroy people. We are all vulnerable to this assault, unless we have spent several hours a day for many years in deep meditation stray thoughts will assail us and we will sometimes act upon them. If we do not know this truth about ourselves then we will not be kind to others. And we need to be kind.


thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: