Reflections on Molding our Information Environments

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on my words; what I choose to say and write, others’ words that I choose to repeat and share, and how it impacts those who hear or read them.

“It behooveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station.”

Do these qualities distinguish what I say, write, and share? It’s a high standard to live up to. Naturally, I never intend to cause harm when I hit share or repeat a bit of information I heard, but sometimes good intentions aren’t enough. I feel as though Baha’u’llah has called on me to be conscientious and purposeful in my communications.

It has never been easier to share my words with the world. In the age of social media, anyone can publish anything anytime online. In many ways, this is a boon to freedom of expression. But it seems to me like freedom of expression in Western culture sometimes gets equated with the freedom to say anything true or untrue. I also think that with freedom comes responsibility.

“Speech is a powerful phenomenon. Its freedom is both to be extolled and feared. It calls for an acute exercise of judgment, since both the limitation of speech and the excess of it can lead to dire consequences.”

I constantly find myself searching for good information, comparing different news outlets’ reports, and still struggling to discern the truth of a situation because of all the sensationalism and partisanship. In fact, Shoghi Effendi spoke of the “corruption of the press” as one of many signs of “a decadent society, a society that must either be reborn or perish.”

In its ideal form, the media could be a powerful contributor to unity. That almost feels laughable to me in this current stage of our society’s evolution, but Shoghi Effendi, Abdu’l-Baha, and even Baha’u’llah spoke of the special ability of the media to be an integrative force.

“The press will, under such a system, while giving full scope to the expression of the diversified views and convictions of mankind, cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples.”

“A newspaper must in the first instance be the means of harmony between the people. This is the prime duty of the proprietors of newspapers to obliterate misunderstandings betwixt religions and races and nativities, and promote the oneness of mankind.”

“[Newspapers] reflect the deeds and the pursuits of diverse peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon.”

Until we realize this ideal in practice, I try to be aware of the ways my information environment is influencing my thoughts and understandings. But I am not only a consumer–I can also contribute to molding the information environment, both online and offline. Whether I reach five people or five thousand, I contribute to the information environment of others.

“Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.”

I repeat a news story I read, I send a meme to my family group chat, I recommend a podcast to a friend. All of that contains information. I usually do this sharing without much thought, but given the “acute exercise of judgment” that the Universal House of Justice says is needed in speech, I’m starting to reflect on my communications more intentionally.

“Their efforts at such discipline will give birth to an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the human race.”

I want the words I choose to share–whether I write them, speak them, or share what another has written or said–to be distinguished by their unifying nature in the way Abdu’l-Baha says He wishes for us to be distinguished.

“In brief, you must become distinguished in all the virtues of the human world—for faithfulness and sincerity, for justice and fidelity, for firmness and steadfastness, for philanthropic deeds and service to the human world, for love toward every human being, for unity and accord with all people, for removing prejudices and promoting international peace.”

Thankfully, the Baha’i Writings provide guidance on the qualities we should develop in our communications. Baha’u’llah says our words should have “the property of milk, so that the children of the world may be nurtured therewith,” and that they “should not transgress the bounds of tact and wisdom.” He asks God to allow the “authors among the friends” to “write in such a way as would be acceptable to fair-minded souls,” and says, “Fair speech and truthfulness, by reason of their lofty rank and position, are regarded as a sun shining above the horizon of knowledge.”

He says we “should inquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing,” and our utterance’s influence is “dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure.”

Reflecting on these calls to a higher standard, I feel that I need to pause before sharing information so I can spend more time investigating the truth, reading reality, consulting with others, and becoming aware of my own motivations.

This isn’t an easy task–we are all subject to the pull of our baser natures. But if I do strive to get closer and closer to Baha’u’llah’s standards in what I choose to say, write, or share, perhaps I can help contribute in my small way to an information environment that can be the “means of amity and understanding amongst men.”

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Maia James

Maia is a new mom, graduate student, and public librarian in the United States with a passion for community building. You’ll often find her writing in coffee shops, reading with her lap cat, and exploring backroads with her husband.

Maia James

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