Call out xenophobia and ignorance. Don’t be a jerk about it. Because no one will listen.

I am speaking from hard hard earned experience. In the past I’ve shared rants and ravings, that were justifiable and mostly accurate, that did precisely NOTHING to change people’s perspective or even challenge them. All I achieved was feeling pleased with myself while further alienating those I most wanted to “correct”.

I also got into some epic comment-thread arguments that left both parties angrier and more entrenched in their original thinking. EVEN THOUGH I WAS RIGHT!

To be clear, this is not a post about coddling stupid people, or protecting the feelings of some over valuing the experiences of others. Rather this is a post about effective social media activism. I would never tell you to not to express real anger or grief. Sometimes you just have to share the truth about how you feel, or to share your experience in it’s raw state. I champion you in that, it is good and necessary.

I am also very specifically speaking to those of us commenting on news and issues that we are not directly a part of. It’s different if you are implicated in what is being discussed. For example, if you have experienced sexual assault, your commentary on events related to that topic carry the weight of witness, your thoughts are insight beyond what those of us who know only facts and figures can have. Or as a person of colour, if you are commenting on incidents of racial violence, you have an understanding that allies need to listen to and not talk over.  We are removed to varying degrees, be upfront and genuine about your level of implication in a topic, honesty always strengthens your commentary.

So when I say don’t be a jerk, I’m referring to the posts/tweets/comments in which, as removed observers, we intentionally craft criticisms and share information to make a point. Inevitably in response to an event that is provoking strong emotions in our on-line circles.

Let’s talk about today and the many many people making what I’m calling “comparison posts” between the Paris terrorist attacks and other large-scale tragedies from around the globe.

  1. If you don’t regularly follow local/international news and share about it and give voice to the stories and experiences of people from other parts of the globe (or locally!), I’m going to go ahead and say: you don’t have the reputation to back up the critique you are trying to make.Reputation matters, not in the inflated “popularity” sense, but in the sense of a history of actions that prove you are in this for the long haul, that your reaction is not as shallow as the ill-informed reactions you want to call out. If you realize you don’t have the reputation (maybe you have it IRL but not on-line yet), then start building towards it TODAY so that the next time Facebook falls apart with knee-jerk reactions you can share thoughts from a platform that has solid legs to stand on. People will still get offended or scroll past, but you will be on firm ground to engage those who want to.
  2. The events, stories and people not covered by mainstream media or not going viral, deserve to be discussed in their own right. Whatever it is you want to bring attention to, do it diligently and treat it with equal “airtime”. My friends who have been posting about the the horrendous famine in South Sudan, shared again in the wake of the Paris attacks. No comparison, just the continued raising of awareness that ended up being a powerful silent criticism of the disproportionate outpouring of sympathy for France.And if you do decide to post a critique…
  3.  Know that you can be gracious and make searing commentary at the same time. Oh how I wish I had known this sooner. Through thoughtless remarks and wilfully ignoring the experiences of my audience, I have shut people out who might have otherwise been willing to dialogue.Mind you, I’ve also un-friended or deleted comments by trolls and bigots who only want to destroy.

    When I say be gracious, I mean write and share in the same tone and language that wooed you towards deeper understanding. Think back to the conversations, or blog posts, or status updates that taught you something, caused you to change your thinking. Model those.

  4. Let others speak for you when their witness is stronger.If you are having trouble finding that note, of gracious calling out, may I suggest amplifying the voice of someone who does it well? Or sharing the posts of someone on the front line? A beautiful recent blog post on the topic of how media covers terrorist attacks is The streets of Paris are as familiar to me as the streets of Beirut by Joey Ayoub over on Global Voices.

    Earlier this week I was following the events at Mizzou and Yale, and feeling at a total loss on how to comment on the racial tension, so I simply waited and kept reading until I found a voice to amplify. A Vassar professor, Kiese Laymon, posted excerpts from an article the NYT asked her to write but didn’t end up publishing. Laymon’s self-reflection, lived experience, and wisdom were insightful and edifying in ways I could never be on the events unfolding at Mizzou and Yale. Sometimes the best course of action is to give someone else your little slice of influence.

What do you think? Would you add something or disagree with my guidelines for social media activism?

One thought on “Call out xenophobia and ignorance. Don’t be a jerk about it. Because no one will listen.

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