Public opinion

It is not due to envy that I caution today’s sheikhs and public intellectuals about their vast followings online. Some have tens of thousands, others have hundreds of thousands, still others have millions. And maybe that is a good thing: there may indeed be baraka in those followings and great benefit for the masses.

But still: caution. History teaches us that it is very hard to be a scholar, because they face public pressure. Pressures to bow to the clamour of community, rather than to do what is right. Pressure to do what is expedient, rather than to speak a word of truth.

Years ago I prayed this heartfelt supplication:

May God protect us from leading others astray, and from being led astray, and from misguided followings, fan clubs, groupies and admirers.

I feel grateful that my Lord has blessed me with obscurity, despite the occasional petitioning of my ego. After years lamenting my insignificance and inability to string a sentence together in public, it all of a sudden occurred to me a few years back:

To be able to be talk and not be heard, or write and not be read — what a magnificent freedom is that! When all that one puts forth is of no significance — indeed, when you are insignificant — there comes the freedom to say what is right, or true, or good, or mistaken, foolish, unwise. The insignificant one has a freedom that the significant could only dream of.

People who were once measured in words, I now see performing for the crowd. Vast followings are forever manicured, targeted posts curated to win a thousand likes. With each populist diatribe, another hundred followers are added to the camp of admirers, swelling their reach and influence. Quickly the influential learn not to misstep or risk censure, for uttering an unpopular sentiment or articulating a minority opinion. The influential think themselves leaders of opinion, but instead are themselves easily led, swaying to the rhythm of their audience. As once I noted:

Now on Facebook strangers dance a jig. On a forum they do a waltz. On Twitter they do the tango. For his audience the writer must perform. What followings we have, what quaint interactions. What a brave new world. What a new way to live.

Gather vast followings if you must. Preach to the choir. Reach out to your impressed disciples. Entertain the unlearned with your wisdom and insight. Honestly, I do not begrudge you your popularity, undoubtedly deserved. Put your talents to good use if you have them.

But for my part, I did not enjoy the elixir of pride that momentary popularity brought. To be sure it was intoxicating at its height, but the aftertaste was bitter and the hangover palpable. Few can handle that kind of wine. Not only is it addictive and unrelenting, but it also blinds you when drunk too much, making your unreality real, reality obscured.

Speak to the masses if you must, but caution! Be sure that you understand who is leading who, and where the led are being led to.

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