Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Pro-life online etiquette

[Today's guest post by Sylwia Gryciuk is part of our paid blogging program.]

Don't be this guy.
With the dawn of social media, the last decade has undoubtedly revolutionized our understanding of human communication. Although it used to be self-evident that maintaining relationships requires time, effort and physical proximity, many of us seem to be taking this old, tried rule somewhat lightly these days. Much has been said about the good, the bad and the downright ugly effects that social media revolution had on our lives. We are indeed able to connect and reconnect with others in a simpler manner, to the benefit of our private lives as well as our careers. But the simplicity involved also proved to be a temptation to “share” our ugliness which we’re taught to suppress in the face-to-face communication. Consequently, while scrolling through a newsfeed it is not uncommon to come across a stream of thinly disguised exhibitionism, narcissism and even vengefulness. You may sometimes wonder: Is this intricate mess that social media creates a good place for your everyday political and social activism at all?

If, according to the old-school definition, human communication requires effort, activism requires it to even greater extent, as clearly implied by the word “active” inscribed in it. While thinking about pro-life activism many of us probably picture an image of a fundraising event or sidewalk counseling. On a second thought, online activity of organizations such as Secular Pro-Life itself may come to mind. Yet social media revolution has caused many ordinary, otherwise passive people to be involved in activism, even if they’re not fully aware of it. At a first glance, it may seem to be a positive thing, but as experience shows, unskilled activists can bring in more harm than good.

“What would it be like if we acted in real life, like we act on Facebook” has lately proved to be a popular theme among satirists. In a BuzzFeed video exploring this concept, a man interrupts his work to stand up and proudly announce to a bunch of uninterested colleagues: “Hey guys, just so everyone knows, it’s my dog’s birthday.” A goofy scene that can make as crack a bitter smile, as we’re reminded of silliness that we tend to indulge in way too often these days. Now, let’s modify the image a little and have him solemnly declare: “I’m here to announce you once and for all… abortion is immoral!” only to rush out of sight loudly shutting the door behind him. Awkward? That’s to put it mildly! Still, that’s how lazy, passive-aggressive activists of the digital age often appear to their numerous online “friends” (most of whom are truly just acquaintances). Sadly, they give bad name not only to themselves, but also to the whole movement that they come to represent.

As social media tend to make it easy for us to access and share information, we are tempted to overshare. The key is to focus on quality, not quantity. If we happen to come across a number of interesting pro-life items in one day, sharing every single one of them at once will only make as look like a spambot – a malicious pest that wants your attention and money without giving anything truly meaningful in return. No one wants that horrible association. In order to avoid it, cutting on the number of posts (or spreading them out over the course of a few days) may be necessary. The next step is personalization of content. Before we decide to click the “publish” button we should always think through the following: 1) Who is likely to see this post? 2) What may their reaction be? 3) What do I ultimately want to achieve by sharing it?

We all like to be approached as individuals; and after all, respect for the uniqueness of human individuals is a core pro-life value! The targetless attempts at grabbing attention of everyone and no one in particular tend to backfire, as we easily see through the laziness behind it and sense lack of respect that it implies. We need to think carefully about our target audience. One the one hand, sharing controversial material within an ideologically homogenous community that is only likely to congratulate us for having such great views is like a narcissistic pat on the back – nothing is boosted but our ego. On the other hand, in a more balanced situation many people are likely to disagree with our pro-life stance; some will just quietly sneer at the sight of the pro-life content, some other will complain about it in private to their pro-choice friends, but finally, some may indeed take a moment to share their opposing views with us. That's a good thing! The worst response at this point would be to ignore them or even – goodness forbid! – delete their comment.

Not every person can boast great argumentative skills and controversial content tends to arouse strong emotions, so – willingly or not – we sometimes can come across as aggressive or spiteful while trying to defend our position. It is quite probable then that we’ll find the comment section of a political post flooded with arguments ad hominem, strawman arguments or even straight-up insults. On rare occasions, this may cross the line into abuse and an end to the conversation is justified. But make a good-faith effort at a genuine discussion. Do not to be the man who cowardly flees the scene loudly shutting the door behind him, as it’ll appear to our opponents that not only do we (and the movement we represent by extension!) lack counter-arguments, but also that we do not have even basic respect for those holding different views. Dealing with a messy comment section can be upsetting, but we have to remember that we’re not talking to random internet trolls, but people whom we have invited into our lives, even if only in the digital form.

We can never forget that ideally we aim at an honest, thoughtful conversation with other human beings. It’s not a game or a competition, so winning an argument is not the end goal. Reaching to other people – whose motives and emotions may be complicated – should be the goal instead. It is easy to forget about it in the digital age, when it sometimes seems that we’re talking to mere avatars, but falling under the illusion of social media which paints a simplified view of the world is taking the wrong path when we hope to make a change in the world.

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