Before you jump into difficult conversations online (like #MeToo), do your homework

My latest article for JSTOR Daily maps out the language and concepts people need to engage in the ever-expanding conversation around sexual harassment and assault.

In the process of working on this piece, I heard from a number of people who felt anywhere from skeptical to angry at the idea that you need to do some homework before engaging on this issue. Their concern was that this expectation was exclusionary, or that it alienated the very allies we should be trying to recruit to the cause of fighting sexual harassment and assault.

So let me explain why I think it’s not only reasonable, but necessary, for people to do their due diligence before diving into this conversation — or any other online conversation where people come to the table with radically difference stakes and experiences.

Here’s what you can accomplish by doing just some reading, learning and listening on a challenging topic:

  1. Avoiding hurting people. If you’re joining in the #MeToo conversation because you’re sincerely concerned for the women, men, and nonbinary folks who are affected by sexual assault and harassment, presumably you don’t want to hurt any of those folks further. Investing the time in understanding how to frame your comments in a sensitive way is the best way to avoid doing more damage. You may think you know how to be sensitive, but if you haven’t done your homework, you are almost certain to miss some of the tender spots that you can hurt inadvertently, just through your choice of words. You may even be contributing to the larger problem, if your comments legitimate the language and thought patterns that make sexual harassment and assault such widespread social problems.
  2. Signalling respect. Do you actually care about this issue? Then demonstrate your compassion with your willingness to invest a little time in learning how people who’ve long engaged with this issue talk about it. Show respect for the people who’ve been in the trenches by learning a little about their insight and perspective, before you share your own.
  3. Moving the conversation forward. It’s ok to join in a conversation on an issue you haven’t thought about a whole lot, but if it’s a conversation other people have been having for decades, you’re asking a whole lot of people to rewind 10 or 20 years so they can meet you where you are today. Do a bit of background reading, and you’ll be able to engage in the conversation people actually need to have now, instead of expecting everyone else to be patient while you catch up.
  4. Protecting your reputation. The #MeToo phenomenon has stirred up a lot of emotion and awareness, so many people are paying attention to what their friends and colleagues are saying about it. There’s a risk to jumping into a difficult conversation online (as well as a risk to staying silent), but that risk can be dramatically reduced by doing a little homework before you dive in. If you don’t want people to think you’re ignorant or insensitive, read up on an issue before joining in the conversation.
  5. Making sense of criticism. If you post something about a difficult issue (maybe even after doing your homework) and then get challenged on what you’ve said, don’t post an immediate reply. Instead, Google any unfamiliar terms or concepts raised by your challenger, and see if you can understand their critique a little better before your respond. (That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it.) You can also ask if there’s anything you should read, watch or listen to that will help you understand that criticism.

If you’ve already plunged into the conversation without reading up on the issue, it’s ok: you can start learning now. (My JSTOR piece is only one of many, many resources that can help.)

But if you want to convince me that it’s not worth your time to do that work — well, please don’t try. Like a lot of people who’ve been reliving and reconsidering their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violation in recent weeks, I’m exhausted. I’m putting my energy and attention towards the people who are working hard to learn from and build on decades of work on these issues, so we can actually make progress.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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