The poisonous nature of too much of our online dialogue

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Yesterday, Boston.com’s Charlotte Wilder, writing against the backdrop of severe controversy and unrest over the deaths of black men in police custody (especially current events in Baltimore), claimed that Facebook is the best medium for identifying one’s racist friends and family members. Here’s a snippet of how Wilder (a white female, if anyone is curious) started:

Facebook is the best tool for sniffing out racists among your friends and family.

It’s like the metal detector of who’s a total jerk. . . .

The recent uprising in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody—as well as the national protests over the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner last year—showed that a lot of the kids who sat behind you in high school are actually kind of terrible.

The piece goes on to describe the kinds of posted comments that Wilder finds racist and offensive.

I could’ve predicted what the online responses would sound like. You know when you read something on the computer, and you’re thinking, uh oh, this is not going to go well. If you scroll through the comments, you’ll see that I was not disappointed. A heartfelt but somewhat snarky column predictably is yielding a lot of sharp and angry responses.

Sadly, we’ve become used to that level of uncivil online dialogue. That’s bad enough, but the comments that really give me the creeps are those that validate Wilder’s bigger concerns about race and difference, such as this one posted in response to her piece:

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Whoa! And get the person’s nom-de-Net, which I’m guessing has been inspired by Germany of the late 1930s. (Nice “picture” too…)

And that, folks, is what we’re too often dealing with in our online world.

Personally, I find these deaths of black men involving police officers deeply disturbing. These situations, plus the widely differing public reactions, prove to me once again how claims that we have become a so-called “post-racial society” are way off the mark. The topic of race remains one of America’s biggest challenges. That said, I won’t attempt to stuff all the dynamics of something so difficult and complex into a few hundred words here. There’s too much that I don’t know.

I have yet to unfriend anyone on my Facebook account for what they’ve said about these deaths and the subsequent protests and destruction, and I hope that no one has done so for me. But when feelings run this hot, and social media platforms allow us to instantaneously share them (often anonymously), the loaded, hostile tones of exchange are not surprising.

Recycling: Five years of April

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

April 2014: FX’s “The Americans”: Putting on masks at work —  “On the surface, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are your basic well-scrubbed American couple, living with their two kids, Paige and Henry, in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb right outside of Washington D.C. . . . In reality, however, they are KGB sleeper agents who blend the facade of their everyday lives with serious, often deadly intelligence work. The other day, it hit me that ‘The Americans,’ however unintentionally, is all about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.”

April 2013: Ethical failure at Rutgers: Abusive coach, bad management, questionable lawyering — “Last week, Rutgers University men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after videotape of his ongoing verbal and physical abuse toward his players went viral. . . . (I)t’s clear that Rutgers mishandled the situation at every level.”

April 2012: Workplace bullying 2.0: Psychology and mental health — “Of all the major disciplines relevant to studying, preventing, responding to workplace bullying, the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and its emerging sibling, occupational health psychology, rank first in terms of research and practice. . . . Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those seeking information on counseling and therapy for bullying targets.”

April 2011: Getting back at a bad boss — “Let’s say your boss sexually harassed a co-worker to the point where she quit her job to avoid further advances. Is it acceptable for you to retaliate against the boss?”

April 2010: Adversity, resilience, and trust — “Folks who demonstrate the ability to recover from serious challenges and setbacks often gain a special wisdom. It’s as if an authenticity switch was turned on. You can talk to them about real stuff and they get it. This quality, by the way, cuts across demographic, social, and political diversities. By comparison, too many of the overly sheltered are prone to superficial thinking, act in an entitled way, and have a seeming inability to empathize. They are great cheerleaders but can make for bad leaders.”

“Bullying on another level”: Native American actors walk off set of Adam Sandler production

Screenshot from IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com

Screenshot of script portion, from IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com

Last week, a group of Native American actors walked off the set of an Adam Sandler production for Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six,” on grounds that the attempted parody of the Old West is demeaning and insulting to Native Americans. They were joined by the project’s cultural advisor.

Alyssa Rosenberg, pop culture writer for the Washington Post, wrote a piece praising the bravery of the actors, especially given the paucity of parts for Native Americans in the movies. I agree. Putting myself in the actors’ positions, I would find it humiliating to utter those lines. (If someone wrote something like that for Asian Americans, I wouldn’t want anything to do with it.)

Netflix claims that the diverse characters are “in on” the jokes, which would make a difference if true. However, as the script segment posted by the Indian Country Today Media Network illustrates, Netflix has it very wrong. In making fun of Native Americans, it wreaks of unfunny sexual and toilet humor, using supposedly humorous terms such as “chi wat” and “chungo,” that — at least according to my Google search — aren’t part of any Indian language. (For more of the same, see these script portions shared by Jordan Sargent on Gawker.com.)

In a video clip posted with Rosenberg’s piece, actor Loren Anthony called the experience “bullying on another level.” Maybe his use of the term is different than how I typically employ it on this blog, but his point is well taken. One can easily understand why the actors stood up for their dignity and left the production.

Especially when it comes to racial and ethnic humor, there is an extraordinarily fine line between genuine parody and the furthering of demeaning stereotypes. Only the most gifted comedy writers can pull it off.

Mel Brooks, as exemplified by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles,” is among that small, gifted group. Adam Sandler is not. He should go back to making the vacuous movies that are his calling card, but hopefully with less offensive content.

As for Netflix, this is a disappointment. They’ve led the way on streaming productions, but this one is a tasteless clunker in the making.

Our heroes: Emulating their best qualities vs. basking in their reflected glow

When it comes to our heroes, do we try to emulate their best qualities, or do we simply bask in their reflected glow?

I submit that the way in which we relate to our heroes says a lot about us as individuals. In a 2013 article, I mentioned a few of my heroes and added:

From these heroes and others, I continually draw lessons and inspiration, and I am a better person today as a result. Isn’t the power of example one of the most special long-term gifts provided by any real hero?

Of course, if our heroes are historic, iconic figures, then they may seem other worldly and beyond our limited capacities to emulate. However, if we dig deeper, we often find that they have confronted very human struggles during their lives. To illustrate, last week I wrote in my personal blog about my long-time fascination with Abraham Lincoln. I observed that what attracts me to his story is not the Lincoln of myth, but rather the Lincoln who struggled with depression and bore a heavy emotional burden as President during America’s Civil War.

Lessons and inspirations

Whether a hero is a family member, friend, work colleague, or public figure, knowing their story will help us to draw lessons and inspirations that we can apply to our own lives. These applications may not earn us wide recognition or renown, but in small and sometimes large ways, they can help us make a positive difference to others.

For example, I recently had an exchange with a long-time friend who told me that his devotion to Lincoln goes back decades. Although his life path and Lincoln’s are obviously very different, I see in him qualities of good judgment, self-discipline, humor, and understated generosity that I associate with Lincoln.

In other words, it’s about manifesting “heroic” qualities in our everyday lives and deeds.

The disconnect

By contrast, I’ve also encountered people whose actions and behaviors have been at stark odds with those of their professed heroes. In my previous post, I mentioned Winston Churchill. I am reminded of someone I knew who worshipped Churchill and claimed to have read many books by and about Sir Winston. Nevertheless, in his position as a manager, he raised bureaucratic, inside-the-box thinking to an art form and would follow virtually any directive from above, no matter how wrongheaded or hurtful to others, with scant protest or question.

Sadly, I think this fellow equated admiring Winston Churchill with possessing some of Churchill’s best qualities. Um, let’s just say that the disconnection was quite profound.

The better approach

Okay, so obviously we don’t want to become a clone of my faux-Churchill acquaintance. However, if we unforgivingly hold ourselves to the standards of our heroes, then at times we may fall short and possibly engage in a lot of self-blame.

The better approach, I think, is to learn from their examples, to hold ourselves accountable to the standards we embrace, and to keep moving forward. For most of us, it’s the best we can do, and that’s not a bad thing. 

When dealing with abusive work environments, the terrible “ifs” may accumulate

When Winston Churchill was the First Sea Lord of the British Navy during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, he observed that “the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” While fully admitting that I’m borrowing his quote out of context, I find the words ever so relevant to many of those who are dealing with abusive work environments, especially in the form of workplace bullying.

In nasty work environments, one’s mind may start to race with possibilities, and few of them are good. Hence,”the terrible ‘ifs’,” which also dovetail hard with the understandable tendency of many people in bad work settings to ruminate over their situations. As I wrote back in February:

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

The constant rumination may include imagining a parade of horrible possibilities…what if thiswhat if that. It may fuel a form of “catastrophizing,” whereby “we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong,” as Dr. John Grohol explains for PsychCentral.com.

In some cases, the perpetrators of the abusive conduct may intend this effect. Overall, it’s about keeping people guessing, fearful, and always looking over their shoulders.

If you find yourself in such a workplace, try to keep your wits about you, even in the face of stress and anxiety. As I’ve written many times about bad work situations, this is much easier said than done. Nevertheless, while bad things can and do happen, rarely do all of the terrible ifs occur in unison. In some cases, it’s possible to mitigate the risks by assessing the options and taking smart actions.

“Should I support that Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign?”

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

The growth of “crowdfunding” or “crowdsourcing” sites such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Indiegogo has created a sort of privatized lottery system, whereby if you can design the right appeal for a product, cause, or someone in need, and it happens to gain momentum, then you may be buoyed by monies from complete strangers over the course of a few weeks.

To be sure, most crowdfunding campaigns do not go viral and do not raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite occasional news stories suggesting that if you merely ask for it, then it will come. Many campaigns fail dismally. (Hence, the lottery-like quality to the whole deal.) However, crowdfunding has evolved into a viable option for entrepreneurs, social causes, and personal appeals.

If you Google around a bit, you’ll find plenty of advice on how to design a crowdfunding campaign. But what if you’re on the receiving end of those requests? Over the last year, I’ve looked at several dozen crowdfunding campaign requests, either through sites such as the ones mentioned above, or via more informal means such as Facebook.

At times, I will happily support a crowdfunding campaign for a good cause, interesting new product, or an individual facing tough times. On other occasions I might decide not to contribute.

For what it’s worth — and I’m not claiming to be the first or last word on this — here’s what I look for when approached by a crowdfunding appeal:

1. Above all, is the request a legitimate one? There are so many factors that go into this assessment, including the individuals involved, the nature of the funding request, and the information provided in the crowdfunding appeal.  This question pervades many other considerations discussed below.

Whether it’s supporting a niche business idea, helping to launch new social venture, or lending a hand to someone in need, I want my contribution to have a positive impact. While this applies specially to larger amounts of money, it’s relevant even if we’re talking about modest donations.

The integrity of a crowdfunding campaign depends in large part on its sponsor(s). Are they identified? Do they have an online presence? If you don’t know them or of them, can you otherwise verify the legitimacy of the request?

2. Is the funding campaign “fixed” or “flexible”? A fixed campaign specifies that if the minimum listed amount isn’t raised, then no one will be charged. By contrast, a flexible campaign takes your money even if the stated dollar goal isn’t reached. I tend to favor fixed campaigns because they tell me that the sponsor is confident in the appeal and its chances of success.

In considering an appeal from a high dollar flexible campaign, I will weigh whether (a) it’s an organization or individual I know; (b) the appeal (including the amount) is realistic and well articulated, and (c) I strongly support the project on its merits. At times, if a flexible campaign seems promising but perhaps overly ambitious or not too well thought out, then I’ll wait to see if it’s attracting a lot of support. If not, there’s a chance that others have the same concerns.

Let’s suppose, for example, that someone is asking for $25,000 for a project on a flexible funding basis. If, say, my $75 contribution is part of only $1,000 raised in total, then I may feel like a bit of a chump, having sent money to a project that isn’t even close to having sufficient funds to go ahead. On the other hand, I may so strongly believe in the project and its sponsor(s) that I will quickly make a contribution, knowing that they will use the money wisely even if they fall short of their fundraising goal.

3. Is there a sufficiently detailed budget? I want to know how the money will be used. I’ve read compelling appeals that are specific and detailed. I’ve read others for amounts around $5,000, $25,000, or even (yup) $100,000 that tell me very little. Guess who is more likely to get my contribution?

When foundations consider grant applications, they typically required a fairly detailed budget. Having both written and evaluated grant proposals, I know that writing out these budgets can be a pain, and frankly there’s often some guesswork involved. Nevertheless, it’s about transparency and accountability. Likewise, crowdfunded campaigns should provide a budget, too. If someone is asking for money in a public way, it is reasonable to expect some specificity concerning how the funds will be used.

4. If it’s a personal appeal for, or behalf of, an individual in need, then how credible does it sound? This is a difficult question, loaded with personal biases relating to who is “deserving” of help, and subject to the narrative skills of the person(s) writing the funding appeal.

Here are the personal appeals that cause me to back away fast: They tend to ask for larger sums of money, often five or six figures or more. Some sound excessive or suggest a failure to explore options. A few smack of The Secret on hallucinogens; it’s as if someone sat down and thought, I sure could use $100,000, so let’s go for it and maybe my request goes viral.

However, especially in this age of massive wealth inequality, economic uncertainty, and a frazzled social safety net, it’s also true that a lot of people are struggling to pay their bills and to put food on their tables. We should keep our hearts open to personal appeals, while considering them carefully.

5. What do the perks, if any, say about the attractiveness and integrity of the funding request? On occasion I’ve funded something because the perk(s) offered seemed pretty cool. Maybe a perk includes the very product I’d like to support. Or perhaps it gives me a good feeling of connection with the people organizing the campaign.

On other occasions I’ve declined to fund something because the perk(s) seemed cheesy or, well, insincere. By the latter, I mean that the perks were somewhat contrived and, in some cases, appeared to be deliberately difficult to fulfill. If, say, a $500 donation to a national campaign gets you a face-to-face cup of coffee with the project organizer, but you have to fly halfway across the country on your dime for that latte, then this should tell you something about the campaign sponsor’s regard for potential contributors — regardless of whether you can afford that level of support.

6. Is the funding request on behalf of an abused animal, or a beloved pet who needs expensive surgery? Put a sad looking little doggie or kitty cat on the funding page with a cry for help, and my critical evaluative skills often go out the window. Unless the critter is Cujo, I’m fumbling through my wallet for my credit card. Yup, I’m a sucker.

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This post was revised in December 2015.

The bullying consumer: Is there a little bit of Britt McHenry in most of us?

ESPN sideline reporter Britt McHenry is paying a price for contemptuously berating an attendant at a towing company, an act that was caught on the company’s security camera and has now gone viral:

If you haven’t clicked to the one-minute video, here are some of the “highlights” of McHenry’s verbal beatdown of the attendant, as reported by Clinton Yates for the Washington Post:

  • “That’s why I have a degree and you don’t.”
  • “That’s all you care about is just taking people’s money. With no education, no skill-set. Just wanted to clarify that.”
  • “Do you feel good about your job? So I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”
  • “Maybe if I was missing some teeth, they would hire me here, huh?”
  • “Lose some weight, baby girl.”

McHenry has apologized for her actions, and ESPN has suspended her for a week. It’s hard to say whether the story will last beyond a news cycle or two, but for today it’s making the rounds.

A lesson for all of us?

Yup, Britt McHenry appears to be the classic Mean Girl: Beautiful until she starts talking off-camera, the quintessential hot horror show.

But before we make her out to be the blonde Charles Manson, let’s dig a little deeper into the story. As the Post‘s Clinton Yates further reports, the towing company in question, Advanced Towing, has a less than wonderful reputation for numerous incidents of allegedly inappropriate towing. And generally speaking, it’s unlikely that any of us would be in the best of moods after chasing down a towed car and having to pay to get it back.

Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between being an unhappy or even angry consumer and verbally abusing a receptionist, attendant, or customer service rep for policies and practices that likely trace up to senior management. A few of McHenry’s comments might be excused as venting over a frustrating experience, but the remarks about the attendant’s education, appearance, and employment were plain mean and nasty.

In the couple of news stories I’ve read about this incident that also have included information about the towing company’s reputation, I’ve found the reader comments remarkably evenhanded. Many seem to understand that even when dealing with a not-so-great company or organization, there’s a difference between showing displeasure over the service and savagely personalizing the criticism toward the lower-level employee who is just following instructions.

For me, it’s an important reminder for the next time I have to call my cable TV company: Don’t be a jerk. While I’ve never treated any employee the way Britt McHenry treated that attendant, I’ve lost my temper a couple of times over the years trying to deal with the cable company, to the point where I’ve apologized to the customer service rep for being so agitated.

Now when I pick up the phone to call the company, I coach myself ahead of time to not take out any frustrations on the person at the other end. I tell myself, they’re not the ones who created such lousy customer service. Even the folks who are reading off of a script are doing so because they were trained that way.

Plus, if you’ve ever worked in the retail service industry, then you may know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an angry customer’s tirade. Especially if that behavior crosses the line, it’s no fun, and it can feel very diminishing.

Workplace bullies can wear many hats, including that of consumer. Let’s try not to be one of those.

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