Have you ever had a real doozy of a day and just collapsed onto the couch to treat yourself to a few minutes of laziness? You open Instagram on your phone, wanting to scroll through bright colors and the happy faces of friends and family.
But soon, all those snapshots of happy faces, perfect ponytails, handmade masterpieces, and messages about working hard and “soaking up every minute” make you feel like an abject failure.
We know that social media plants seeds of damaging perfectionism in our hearts. It is a blessing to connect with others from afar, to be sure. It is a joy to see their joys. But sometimes, when we only see everyone’s most polished moments, it’s easy to feel like every scene of our lives should be tailored toward impressing others. It’s an impossible standard.
Trying to meet that standard crushes self-esteem, triggers anxiety, and even influences suicidal ideation. It makes us feel like we aren’t enough unless we constantly exceed all expectations.
Thankfully, in my circles, friends and family often share the less-than-ideal memories they make each day, not just the perfect ones. We commiserate and laugh at ourselves daily. And I hope this is the case for you, too, so we can embrace social media for its supportiveness instead of defining ourselves by its embellishments.
But another type of perfectionism has sunk its teeth into the social media age. And it is just as damaging.
Social Sanctimony and Cancel Culture
I don’t follow the news closely. This isn’t to say I’m ignorant to the goings-on of the world around me; it’s just that I’m not cut out to be a news junkie.
I dislike the 24-hour, for-profit news cycle. From my viewpoint, it has encouraged journalistic integrity to step aside so that bias (specifically on political subjects) and view-earning drama can step in. I can’t completely trust any single source of news, so I have to peruse many to get the big picture on a story—and even then, I must accept that my perspective is limited.
This is true of mainstream media outlets, many of which have presented consistent partisan leanings in one direction or another. And I can’t even express how damaging it is from downright fake news outlets.
In the same way the idyllic images on social media make us feel pressure to always “live beautifully,” the slanted language of the nonstop news we are served makes us feel obligated to believe a certain way, or form a specific opinion, or hold up one version of the truth without examining every side.
Then there are social pressures like “cancel culture” and imposed relativism, which suggest a need to protect ourselves from perceptions of bias that could hurt us—at least when it comes to biases that go against the mainstream.
So we speak loudly on issues we haven’t fully explored, or jump on board with shaming others for saying something counter-cultural or making a bad joke or being ignorant—while neglecting to seek important context and first-hand perspectives. Then we decline to engage with those who disagree because they are simply wrong, as far as we know. Which is, in today’s narrative, about the worst thing you can be.
To be clear, on some issues, what’s socially acceptable really is the right answer. It’s never okay to be racist, or to kill, or to bully (to use a few examples that should be painfully obvious).
But many other issues—economic policy, education reform, gender roles, social support systems—deserve healthy and respectful debate. Their positive evolution is, in fact, driven by that debate. Too often, though, popular culture labels one or another position as “unacceptable.” And then cancel culture kicks in, or at least debasing comments that all too often attack the individual instead of the issue.
It is a vicious cycle. The inherent bias we ingest from the news and day-to-day conversations gives us a sense of being unwaveringly right in our understanding. Next, social pressure pushes us to demonstrate to other people that we’re right (lest we be ostracized for being wrong, or for being too quiet). This leads us to share the biased content as if it is unbiased proof, which presents it to someone else—and the spin continues ad nauseum.
It’s Okay to Be Wrong (As Long As You Want to Learn How to Be Right)
What we’ve forgotten is that it is downright impossible to be correct in all things, at all times. Just like it’s impossible to be Instagram-ready in all things, at all times.
It is tempting to see history as a line on an upward slant: a neat chart that shows us starting at zero and growing to perfection. We want to see human progress as black and white, beginning with the dark ages and ending with paradise.
But this simply isn’t reality. History, though positive growth is certainly clear, is also a squiggly line of peaks, valleys, progress, regress, goodness, and badness.
We may have markedly reduced poverty worldwide, but we’ve also notably increased the wealth gap in the last century. We may have 216 million fewer hungry people than we did 30 years ago, but obesity is contributing to the premature deaths of 4.7 million people every year. Global violence by genocide has declined over human history, but infant mortality for black babies remains 2.5 times higher than white babies in the US.
Human history is a relentless game of good versus evil, and we cannot expect to achieve perfection.
Now, I know it may not sound like it, but I am an optimistic person. We should always be striving to make the world a better place for our neighbors and children. I will always try to influence positive change, especially in regards to respect for human life. So I don’t point out these gaps in human progress to make you sad.
Rather, I outline them as a reminder of humility.
People are inherently good.
People are also inherently flawed.
There is no perfection in this life—not until we are saved from the shackles of death. Can we do better for ourselves and each other? Absolutely. But we can’t do it alone, and we certainly can’t do it by diminishing one another in the process.
So if you’re called out on social media for sharing a misleading article, or misrepresenting a counterpoint, or failing to see another perspective on an issue—I hope you’ll listen.
I hope the person who’s offering criticism is doing so thoughtfully, without vitriol. I hope your response is respectful, too.
I hope you don’t feel ashamed for being mistaken. I hope you aren’t scared of hard conversations or challenging research. I hope you know when to turn away from a discussion that isn’t productive without dehumanizing the person on the other end.
I hope the same for me, too. For all of us, growth takes grace.
Most of all, I hope you don’t let the despair of this world drag you down into the pit. I hope, instead, you can look up and marvel at all that is beautiful about this life—and know that you are not alone, and you’re not perfect, and no one should expect you to be either of those things.
You can always join hands with your neighbor, learn something new, and gain a better understanding of the many perspectives. You can minimize the alienation of “us” versus “them,” and unite as people who want to live in a freer, fuller world.
Even if nobody changes their mind.
This isn’t perfection. But it is progress.