“Every action is an act of creation!”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Election years seem to bring out the worst (and sometimes the best) in people because of the passion people have for their country — and also for their candidate, Party, or positions. Passionate exchanges are part of the fun on Facebook — until they turn demeaning. In this last election, no matter which candidate people wanted to win, nearly everyone I talked to just wanted it to be ‘over’ because of the mean-spiritedness this one seemed to bring forth. Some of it continues after the election.
Have you ever seen a negative Facebook story about a political leader, religion, or social issue you don’t like and then simply shared it on your Timeline? In years past, people would get those stories and propaganda in their email and then simply forward it to most of their address book. Now, in one click, you can send it to a hundred friends who will click and send it to their hundreds of friends. It becomes a destructive wildfire of misinformation.
But, did you take the time to research whether the original post, linked story, or e-mail was factually accurate? Did you research the ‘facts’ before you shared something designed to shock, scare or demean?
Over the past years I have become increasingly concerned about the relationship climate we are creating in our society and in the world when people share in social media and email without bothering to verify the truth. So many seem to not even question what they read, and worse, don’t seem to care that they damage people and groups by what they post.
Story of the Pillow of Feathers
A man went about his small community telling rumors, and stories about a businessman he viewed as competition. People soon stopped buying from the businessman because of the stories that spread. The businessman was ruined and could not provide for his family. They were seen packing up their belongings and leaving town.
The man who told the stories began to feel bad about what he had done. He went to his minister saying he would do anything he could to make amends for his thoughtless behavior and the fact that it had helped destroy the businessman’s reputation and livelihood. Clearly it had hurt his family as well.
The minister told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly.
When he returned to tell the minister that he had done it, the minster said, “Now, go and gather every single feather. “But that’s impossible,” the man protested.
“Yes,” said the minister and nodded gravely, “that is how it is: once a rumor, a gossipy story, a slanderous statement, or a ‘secret,’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it ends up. It flies on the wings of the wind. People spread rumors and bad news just like the feathers in the wind. What you put out into the world can never be ‘undone’. You cannot take back what you have spread.”
This type of thoughtless rumor-mongering damages the person or group you are talking about, all the people who hear and read the rumors, and your own integrity.
Each of us is ethically and morally responsible not only what we create, but for what we forward from others – and for the consequences those posts and e-mails create in the relationship climate of the world.
Many good people, including some of my own friends and relatives, damage the reputation of individuals or groups, promote ignorance and fear, and feed prejudice — not because they are mean-spirited people, but because they find or receive a sensational story or headline and do not take the time to think it through.
It is high time that we all take full responsibility for what we send or forward to others. We create ‘worlds’ — marriage, friendships, society, the climate of our interactions with people and groups — by the words we speak and share. We can build, strengthen, look at things from different perspectives, consider the concerns and ideas of others as well as our own. We can use difference to think more creatively and make our world better. On the other hand, we can strengthen a knee-jerk culture based on fear and mis-information. We can add to hatred and bullying. We can add to distress and alienation. We also damage ourselves when we do it. We end up acting and speaking in ways that are far from the values we want to guide our own lives and behavior. We compromise our own integrity.
If you are like me, you probably have friends, family, colleagues, clients and acquaintances from many different racial, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. So of course we sometimes see things from different perspectives and sometimes passionately disagree on different topics. Healthy disagreements on positions or plans adds to the richness of the relationships.
What is the difference in those posts that disagree, that challenge us, that stimulate our thinking, that cause us to pause and consider another perspective so we can all work to move things forward in a positive way — versus those that add to the distress and harm?
To me, what makes words and posts damaging is demeaning, dismissing, or degrading other people and groups; spreading falsehoods (including passing them own), and attacking a person instead of disagreeing with their position.
Here are a few of the many examples that I saw on Facebook that spread false stories or make statements attacking people instead of position that adds to hatred and relational ‘pollution’ in the world:
• “Muslims in Dearborn Rallying and Chanting Around Image of Jesus’ Decapitatio and Waving ISIS Flags (video)” (Fact: It was the culmination of a procession for Arbaeen in which there is an image of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, who was beheaded because he opposed extremist oppression. The rally was ANTI-ISIS by the Muslim community in Dearborn and others who joined in.
• “47 People Who Were to Testify Against Clintons Died Suspicious Deaths.” The unstated implication is that the Clintons were responsible for the deaths.
• “Obama is the anti-Christ,” “he is an Islamist with jihadist sympathies, and finances and enables terror.” There are also Photoshopped images of him holding a gun as a militant member of the New Black Panther Party (different than the original Black Panthers.)
• “We are a Christian nation and how horrible it is that someone said we are a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.”
• “Trump was born in Pakistan as Dawood Ibrahim Khan, educated at a Madrassa.”
• “Everyone who votes for Trump is a racist.”
• “Everyone who votes for Clinton is a socialist or has no moral compass.”
These were all shared by well-meaning people I know, care about, and sometimes love, (or their friends) who did not make one iota of effort to think through or check the allegations before they sent them to hundreds of people. They spread feathers dipped in poison to the wind which carries the damage wide and far.
When you demonize the person, group, or position that is ‘different’ than yours and define an adversarial relationship in which the ‘other’ cannot legitimately exist, you fuel hatred. When you throw out highly charged words, you also trigger primitive reactive responses in the brain that feed fear. Fear can easily lead to scapegoating and hatred. As we increase fear and anger, we become just like animals who sense danger and will do anything to protect ourselves, even if it means harming others with words or actions. We start defining ‘them’ and issues as a fight of the forces of life and death, good and evil. With that either/or, good/bad, thinking you create your identity based on hatred of the other. Franklin Roosevelt was spot on when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Neuroscience confirms it.
Do we really want the primitive fight or flight part of the brain determining the the quality of theworld we create for the future in our country, or in our own relationships?
Fortunately we have other parts of our brain– the cortex and its frontal lobes–that can filter our fears and other emotions through our reason, that help us think before we speak or act and consider the consequences of our words and behaviors. Our frontal lobes empower us to step into the shoes of someone else, even if we disagree, and choose to act from our highest values instead of simply reacting.
So what can we each do about it?
Whatever your beliefs or political choices, take time to follow some basic guidelines with Facebook posts. Be aware of sensationalist ‘news’ designed as ‘clickbait’ to create a viral post, or e-mail chain letters.
1. Ask yourself honestly, “Am I adding value to the conversation, the situation, or the world to move us forward by sharing this post or helping others understand MY concern?”
2. Is the story or statement focused on an objection I have to a position or action, or is it a disrespectful, demeaning or dismissing of the other person or group? Is it intentionally written to instill fear?
3. Is the story I want to share true? Check out the facts of the story or photo before you pass it on — especially those that claim negative things about other people and groups. The more you react inside to story — the more it stirs anger, fear, or an “OMG, this is unbelievable”, the more you need to do stop, think, and check out the facts from more than one source.
a) It is unethical to pass on statements that are untrue or that defame, demean another person or group or feed prejudice. Not only general ethical principles, but most religions have teachings about the harm of making false statements about another person. I think that also extends to what we say about groups of people and even important issues that affect all of us.
b) Everything you say, do, fail to do or say, the way you say or do things creates the climate of individual and group relationships. (See What IS Relationship?)
c) In some cases, it is illegal.
“In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. Slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism.” (Summary from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation)
d) Spreading lies and inaccurate or misleading information shows your ignorance, or your lack of care for truthful information, and your failure to take responsibility for what you send – and even for what you think. Explore the issue and make up your OWN mind. Don’t just pass on someone else’s story or words like a sheep.
4. Check out the sources of organizations, groups, or individuals that send out links and sensationalized posts on social media or e-mail messages before you pass them on. What is their agenda? What kind of world do THEY create by their words and behaviors? Do they disagree with positions or actions, or do they demean people and groups?
5. When your Facebook or e-mail friends and family post a sensationalized or demeaning story — or one that dismisses or trivializes the concerns of others, respectfully bring it to their attention and ask them to help you understand their thinking or personal experience that made them want to share that story.
6. Respect difference and don’t pathologize or demean those with whom you disagree.
When you disagree, give your reasons without bashing someone else’s who happens to disagree with you. You can argue your case without denigrating or stereotypically labeling the person or group that thinks differently from you.
7. Be careful of extreme or volatile language — like “downright evil”, “Hitler-like”, “traitors”, etc.
5. State YOUR points as YOUR opinion or belief, and support your ‘facts’ with references that you have checked out as best you can.
We all probably sometimes present our opinion as THE truth. It might be your or my view or opinion, or my passionate belief. Sadly, much of the commentary around election time, comes out with the arrogant attitude of “my way is the only way, , and THE one and only truth — and if you see it differently, you are bad, wrong, crazy, misguided, etc. ” One of the great things about a free country and interchange of ideas is that you have the opportunity to hear the concerns, fears, hopes and dreams of people who think and experience life differently. Difference does not mean someone is bad, wrong, or crazy for thinking or believing differently from YOU! Difference makes us richer if we make room for it in our own minds and hearts and respect it.
6. Claim your own identity from your deepest values and dreams instead of basing it on ‘us vs. them’ or on demonizing the ‘other’.
When individuals, groups, or countries base their identity primarily on who their enemy is, it paralyzes progress, creativity and fuels prejudice and hate. It keeps people in the primitive reactive part of their brains. I don’t believe in being stupid and assuming everyone is my friend. Clearly there are individuals and groups who want to destroy others. But when you focus nearly all your energy on self-protection and exclusion out of fear, you restrict your capacity to join with others who DO share common goals and a vision for peace, justice, progress – even if they come at it from a different approach. You restrict your capacity for creative thinking to address the concerns and needs of everyone involved.
7. Avoid generalizing when talking about people of different religious, racial, ethnic, political or other groups.
8. Step up to the plate, formulate and put out your OWN thinking and ideas instead of simply sending around circulating Facebook posts, tweets or e-mails that express the opinions of someone else. If you disagree with a person or an issue, present your own thoughtful ideas of an alternative. What is the kind of world YOU want to create? What are YOUR hopes, dreams and fears?
I personally have much more respect for someone who speaks for themselves, than those who constantly take the easy way out by passing along someone else’s stand on issues or regurgitate soundbites from TV, radio and other media. Even when I completely disagree with someone, I can understand and respect their point of view when they show me their hopes, dreams, fears, concerns. The show me who they are by expressing their own point of view.
9. Stop, think, decide what kind of world you want to promote by your words and shares. Then choose mindfully.