Passionate Advocacy or Cyber Bullying?

I’ve wondered this before.  Where is the line between being a passionate advocate and being a cyber bully?  Is there ever a point a point when even sticking up for the little guy in advocacy crosses over to being the playground bully? I’ve wondered this about interactions I see online.  I’ve wondered it for my online friends.  I’ve wondered it for myself.  Several times after seeing an exchange or ongoing situation with advocates that makes me cringe I would considered writing something on compassionate advocacy then Dionna did just that over on Code Name Mama and I thought *phew* I’m off the hook.

Recently though I’ve felt the need to add my voice to those advocating for compassionate advocacy.  After a particularly disappointing situation on The Leaky B@@b Facebook page I shared some of my thoughts on this issue in brief on the Facebook page and longer on the forum.  I’m expanding on some of what I wrote on the forum here.

Whether we’re talking breastfeeding, birth, circumcision, homeschooling/public schooling, gentle parenting, babies/children and sleep, sustainable living, organic/non-organic, vaxing/non-vaxing, or any other topic we care enough about to attempt to educate others on, how we share our message matters.  In fact, I believe how we share our message can be the difference between it being heard and considered, possibly leading to change or it being dismissed and embittering, leading people to dig their heels in to defend their position.  Open or closed.

The Leaky Boob is intended to be a safe place, supporting breastfeeding mothers and the people that support them.  People, particularly moms, come to TLB to find help and support in a safe and authentic community.  I don’t ever want that to be compromised by agendas being pushed and sides being taken. Stimulating conversation is fine and encouraged. Personal views are fine too. We don’t have to agree on everything, in fact, we won’t ever agree on everything.  In order to be an authentic community we have to be able to voice when we disagree and share our concern about something we see.  But we also have to know when our language is not communicating effectively, when the issue is one that can’t be heard any more through the hurt and when our passion for our cause has superseded our compassion for people. Grace, just a little bit of grace all the way around would worked wonders in sharing our passion.

As much as possible I try to empower my children to make good choices.  Attempts to control their behavior usually backfire and leave us all frustrated.  If I resort to words that tear them down or belittle them they begin to resent and fear me, focusing only on how mean I am.  In that frame of mind they are unable to learn anything.  Speaking down to them, talking as though they are incapable of understanding puts distance between us and leads them to be annoyed and why wouldn’t it?  People speaking down to me annoys me too.  And shame?  Or expressions of self-righteous anger?  Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the path to having my kids hate me forever.  Validating and sharing my own personal feelings and what or how I’ve learned something, on the other hand, opens up conversation.  Sometimes I get impatient and want to tell them what they should do and how right I am but then they don’t own the choice, all they own is their resentment for me dismissing them and their ability to make positive choices in their lives.  When I take the risk to empower them to take responsibility amazing things happen: they come and ask my opinion, they independently consider or research their options, they think critically through the choices before them, they choose with confidence (and usually wisely) and they accept responsibility for their decision regardless of the outcome.  It’s not to say that it’s perfect and that sometimes I don’t want to just yell at them to do it my way, it’s just that if I can not do that the outcome usually surprises me.

I am a Christian and I grew up in a very fundamentalist Christian home.  I know a thing or two about how the ways we try to spread our message can damage our message and discredit the messenger.  Studying Christian history I know this well and I am pained by what some have done in the name of Christ.  So much so that sometimes I avoid associating myself with them in anyway I can because I don’t want anyone to think I’m like that.  Since I can’t do that and accomplish anything positive by doing so, I instead try to validate those that have been hurt by Christians, acknowledging the damage done and striving to be different but true to what I believe.  In some of the bitter exchanges I’ve seen over hot button topics I find myself wondering if we’re seeing the modern version of crusades.  Violence in the form of words and condescending attitudes, cutting down people that don’t believe what they believe.  It starts looking more like an attempt to control than a mission to educate with a purpose to empower.

I don’t have to convince anyone of anything to still make a difference. I just have to keep doing and living what I believe is right.

It is important to me that The Leaky B@@b Facebook page and The Leaky Boob Forums be something more than a platform for those that love to hear themselves spout off and instead strive for community that encourages people to grow through gentle education. A place where patience is exercised and compassion applied.  We have to remember People over principle, compassion over being right, grace over righteous indignation. It seems so obvious to me that emotionally loaded terms should be avoided when you’re trying to actually inform, educate, and effect change. Lasting change comes with respect, compassion, grace, gentleness. Bitterness, resentment and hard hearts come from shaming, violence and belittling.  If you wouldn’t talk to your child that way why would you talk to anyone else that way? Modeling is the most effective form of parenting, I was saddened to see that behind a screen so many people modeled behavior I’m certain they wouldn’t want their children to emulate when interacting with their siblings.

We should speak up about what we’re passionate about or when we see something we feel is wrong.  I don’t want anyone to think I want conversation stifled or that I want to censor people that say things that may be hard to hear because that’s not true. What I do want though is for our messages, particularly the ones that are the most likely to be a flash point, to be couched in a constructive way that encourages dialogue. We are smart people, I’m fairly certain we know that when we use terms like poison, abuse, mutilation, lazy, uneducated, followers, ignorant, stupid, mutilate, chop it off, lame, pathetic, cruel, irresponsible, idiot, etc. we are using inflammatory language. People don’t even hear what we’re trying to say, the information is completely missed and the educational opportunity is lost all because of our word choice. Condescending questions intended to provoke (i.e. “Why would you ever…”) tear down people before they’ve even had the chance to consider your point.  Even if those words or others fit your feelings on any particular subject you don’t actually have to use them in order to have effective dialogue on the matter. I swear, you don’t.  For those of you passionate advocates out there that already understand this, thank you and I know that is actually the majority, we just aren’t the most obvious.

Sometimes there are situations where strong language and a level of force is effective or required.  Perhaps reflecting my approach to parenting though, I think those times are rare and best when exercised cautiously and in a limited fashion.  Even better when it is by someone in real life, in a face to face exchange after care and attention is given to being sure everyone understands the whole picture and only after more gentle measures have been attempted.  It is likely to be even better received by a person that is perceived as an authority on the subject or is in a relationship of respect with the individual.  Forceful language and soap box stomping are far less than effective when respect and personal relationship are neglected.

Sometimes even the most gentle attempts at education and sharing views on a hot button topic become volatile when someone takes these words as personal as condemnation.  I think this usually happens when someone has already felt attacked once (or twice or ten times) before and has started to discriminate against anyone with a different view.  Learning how to hear an opinion expressed without applying it to oneself as a personal attack will go a long way in diffusing potentially hurtful conversations not only online but in our face to face relationships as well.  A good friend of mine helped me learn this lesson years ago and it’s been an important part of my relationships since.  Now when someone says “I think it’s stupid when women post photos of breastfeeding on Facebook, like, do they want people staring at their tits?” I can ignore the part that seems to imply that he’s saying I’m stupid and instead address the real issue he’s bringing up.

It is nice to have friends that see eye-to-eye on everything with you. Or at least I would guess it is. I have yet to actually have friends like that. In my experience there have always been some things I’ve not agreed on with my friends. Yet we can still be friends. Even if we’re passionate about those issues. I need friendship more than I need to be right and more than I need to save someone from being wrong.  And I’ve found that being open both to listen and to share has been the single most effective way to productive conversation.

It’s easy to find people that want to rant and rave about how right their views are. It’s hard to find the rare place where love, support, and openness are practiced; where even if we think someone is wrong we can let them be as wrong as they think we are; where genuine care and patient compassion educate gently; all working together to building supportive, empowering community.  I want The Leaky Boob to be that rare place.


  1. “If I resort to words that tear them down or belittle them they begin to resent and fear me, focusing only on how mean I am.”

    I really try to keep this in mind when I’m interacting with people online. …I also try to pretend we’re face to face – would I speak as harshly to a friend/stranger sitting next to me?
    We can always use periodic reminders to be kind to each other. Thank you for your gentleness!

    • I think it’s very wise to say things online as you would say them in person. Asking ourselves if we would say those same things to a friend or stranger is an excellent way to keep our passionate advocacy from turning into bullying. As long as we know the difference in our face to face interactions that should work well.

  2. Thank you for addressing this so beautifully! It’s as if you were “speaking” my exact thoughts on all areas of the “mommy wars” (and other aspects of our lives as well). I greatly admire how you have handled the situation (which I, too missed).

  3. I think also sometimes the problem is that people take things so wrong. I posted a link for the Call to action the surgeon general announced for breastfeeding the other day and i got send a message saying that I was offending mothers who chose to formula feed simply bc in that paper it stated the benefits of breastfeeding as compared to formula, the person that messaged me said that it was offensive that i posted that because i would make mothers who chose formula feel like they were doing great harm to their children buy choosing that. I have never posted something that would be to tear anyone down. I only want to put the information out there for others to have a be an advocate for something so wonderful but i think people that dont want to hear it want to say things like that and its simply ridiculous.

    • Absolutely and I’ve similar experiences to that as well. I was called a breastfeeding nazi not too long ago and I was astounded. We can’t control how people will respond, all we can do is make sure we know for ourselves that spoke well, avoiding inflammatory language and trying to gently educate. What people do with it is another matter entirely. I think reactions like that indicate something deeper in the other person and you aren’t responsible for that. Sometimes it is how we say it and sometimes it is in how they hear it. Personally I just try to make sure I’m doing my best and don’t take it personally when it is misunderstood. We all have baggage and filters that can make it harder for us to receive even the most respectful deliveries.

  4. Ambivalent Mom says

    I think there is a case to be made that a site with an in-your-face title that makes a good percentage of people uncomfortable like “The Leaky Boob” sets the tone for in-your-face postings that make a good percentage of people uncomfortable.

    • I think there is also a case to be made that the good percentage (10%, 50%??, idk your source) of people who allegedly are made to feel uncomfortable by the name “The Leaky Boob” maybe should not then like the page and read the posts, as they are obviously very easily offended.

  5. I was always told that when you are online you should act as though everything you are saying is going to be quoted, with your name, and put on the front page of a major newspaper where your parents, relatives, and friends can/will read it. There are a lot of strong words I know people would leave out if they were the head spokesperson on that topic because they know they wouldn’t be taken seriously and would be criticized harshly for what they said. IMHO before you say something on something you feel strongly about you need to step back and think “If it was stated to me like this before I made my decision would I have changed my ways or would I have become defensive?”. Most of the time you would become defensive, even if you knew an action you did was not the right action later on you are not going to sit back and let someone tell you you are abusive, cruel, unloving, or not looking after your child’s best interest. The BEST way to get your point across and change the behaviors of others is to stick to facts, back up your claims, and leave your emotions out of it. People are going to respond to your cause in a better way without a barrage of mental/emotion abuse. If it was your child’s mind you were trying to change would you stoop so low to tear them down as a human being? I doubt it.

    You don’t get brownie points for belittling people or bombarding them with your personal feelings, you get them by stating cold hard facts and backing them up to make your point. You wouldn’t nationally debate someone repeatedly cutting them up and belittling them for their opinion, you’re not going to win any argument doing that, you’re going to debate them with facts and studies because they have more weight in an argument. When you start to use language that could be viewed as abusive towards a person when trying to persuade the person to see your point of view they are not going to remember many of the fact you have stated. Instead they are going to walk away remembering how poorly they were treated, how hurt they were by your words/actions, and are going to be less likely to follow up and investigate the subject you were pounding them into the ground over.

  6. I just wrote about netiquette and about how important it is to remember that we all love our children and want the best for them, and that just because someone does something differently doesn’t make it wrong.

    Sure, I wish every mom and child would get the advantages of breastfeeding, and I work hard to advocate for that every day, but I have to respect moms who decide not to breastfeed.

    Dagmar’s momsense

  7. Love this!! Very well put!

  8. Very well said!

  9. Momma of many says

    It took me a while before I figured this out. Of course there are things that will set me off and I try so hard to walk away, but I guess it depends on what has happened in my day that sets the tone as to how I will respond.

    I see it so often that people online seem to get this mentality that they can say whatever they want without consequences. If someone gets offended by what they say than that is obviously the person’s own fault because they are choosing to get offended. I see these lovely people then get offended because someone dared to make a comment that differed from them, but for some reason their offense is justifiable. (rolling eyes here)

    Words are powerful, we all know that. Words can win a war. The words we say will either help our cause or be the thing that breaks it.

    I am a mom of many and I have a very busy life. It is a different kind of busy than the majority of people have. I try very hard now not to judge other people because I am not in their position. Many choices parents make whether they are good or bad, they make them because that might be what they need to do to get through the hour, day, week, month or year. So many people want to be sanctimonious but how many are willing to come over and deal with the situation so the parent(s) can take a mental or physical break. No book, no expert and no other parent will ever have the exact same experience that I have had and I don’t want to be judged based on their perceptions nor should I judge either. Nature is always changing and as a human I am part of nature.

  10. Thank you so much for writing this! Hopefully the people who most need to hear it will open their hearts to it. I wish fewer people would be motivated by a need to be right (and sometimes this happens without realizing it, i know i have been guilty before), and more by a desire to see positive changes in the lives of others and in the world in general. I have been exposed to many cultures around the world in my life time and maybe because of this I’ve come to see that people are fundamentally the same – they do what they believe is right. Perhaps their ideas of what is “right” are based on less than stable ground, but there are gentle ways to help people come to the realization on their own. I know that my own ideas and feelings change on a regular basis. I like to use forums as a place to share instead of “educate,” although i guess education is part of sharing. I love to learn from others – i really love what you have written above. Kudos!

  11. Perfectly said! Many of the words you mentioned are ones that have made me tune out the anti-circ argument. When someone starts ranting about mutilation and how savage women are to do that or how, “*I* would NEVER do that” is not helpful but judgmental. Women who’ve already made the choice to circumcise feel guilt and you know what? We already feed ourselves a daily dose of guilt as a mother, as a wife, as a partner, as a woman.

    Anyway that is just one example. In my own activism for natural birth I have been ripped to shreds by other women because they become offended (much like an above commenter mentioned about formula). I’m not trying to tell them what they’ve done is bad or the choices they are making are wrong but to educate them on possible risks. Lately I have felt so discouraged because I truly try to come off as non-judgmental and unbiased and encouraging of all types of birth so long as the parents are at peace with their choices BUT there are always those naysayers who pop up and whisper cruelly in your ear.

    So in a way it’s that misery loves company and I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one getting grief when trying to do things with the utmost respect to all choices out there.

    • I really think that the people who feel attacked when you have gone to great lengths to be objective and lay out the facts, are the ones who feel some level of guilt or inadequacy. In the spirit of this article, i don’t feel that it’s our responsibility to make everyone feel perfectly happy all of the time. I do think that we are absolutely responsible as advocates, to share the facts in a non-judgmental and very caring way. I don’t think it’s hard to lay out the facts and still let a mom feel like she is capable of making the best decision for her and her baby. If we cannot see past our own cause, our voice will never be heard. Some moms know all of the facts and still choose the less than ideal option and who are we to tell her she is wrong – we have never walked in her shoes. We don’t know her husband, her parents, her mother in law, her history or what kind of pressure her life circumstances are putting on her. Lets love people before our cause and advocate for change in a responsible manner.


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