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effectively, when the issue is one that can’t be heard any more through the hurt and when our passion for our cause has superseded our compassion for people.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.