photo: じぇし左衛門 フラー

Don’t make me feel better

How to take care of one another online when the world is falling apart

If our first days of the Trump era have been profoundly painful, that’s not just because we’re reeling from the shock of the election. It’s because, in our shock, we are hurting one another — both online and off.

But we can do better, especially online. Most of our online communications are asynchronous: I post, and then you respond some time later. That’s how email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram work; even a lot of text chats unfold over time.

That means we can think before we share, and just as important, think before we respond. We can use the Internet’s asynchronous communications to develop and practice the thoughtful responses we need in real-time, face-to-face conversations too. We can take the time to think about how what we post may affect other people — including our friends and allies.

Here’s the single most important thing to keep in mind:

So often in the past week, when I’ve seen people run into conflicts online, it’s because one person is trying to make another person feel better…by denying the reality of their fears, their feelings and their experience: You don’t need to be scared. It won’t be that bad. We’ll be okay.

But you know what? It’s perfectly appropriate to be scared right now, because it might be that bad (or worse) and we might not actually be okay. Being told all the reasons you shouldn’t feel scared just makes the fear feel that much worse.

Here’s how my old friend Gabriel Aguilera, who is Mexican-American (and a former Republican) described that experience on Facebook:

I woke up this morning to discover that Trump is still president-elect. I also digested, as I do every morning, that I live in Alabama. This would not be so bad except that Trump is going to be president and I have too many people, intelligent good people, around me at work who keep making the point that it won’t be so bad. Every day, several times, I have to restrain myself from saying, “are you really so oblivious? Are you not listening to what these people are promising to do?” They go on, “It’s just politics.” I ask, in my mind, “does Manzanar mean anything to you? What think you of American children forcibly separated from their parents? Do they not have rights?” They respond honestly, “no, not really.” This is what really hurts, I think.

[Sidebar: One other piece of taking care of one another? Not “outing” your friends. I checked with Gabe before sharing this quote, asking him both what I could share and how he wanted to be identified.]

Ironically, it’s in trying to make people feel better that we are most likely to make them feel worse. In part, that’s because we all have different stakes in this present crisis. For some (let’s be direct: white, affluent, cis-gendered straight people) it is horrifying and disappointing but not personally threatening. For others (like brown, black, Asian or trans people), this election result creates additional, immediate and personal risks.

So we need to stop trying to make people feel better by telling them to stop being scared, or to be less scared, or to be worried about what we think they should be worried about instead of whatever they’ve just photographed or written about or asked. That’s why my previous post suggested that we need to take care of ourselves: you need to find the strength to stay with your own grief and fear so that you don’t fall prey to the temptation to minimize the fears of others.

Next to all the comments telling people that “it’s not that bad”, the biggest way we are hurting one another is by rushing into online debates about the election itself. I’m not talking about people who are speaking up and out when they see their friends or family members celebrating Trump’s victory online: if you’re strong enough to take the potential abuse, registering your concerned dissent is an important way to show that America is not, as a whole, behind Donald Trump.

I’m talking about all the post-election arguments that are now unfolding online among people who are horrified by Donald Trump. This is seriously unhelpful right now. If you’re having these conversations with fellow Democrats and progressives, at least some of the folks in the conversation are traumatized.

We don’t need to work out our ideological, strategic or tactical differences right now. We need to support one another.

So when you see a friend or colleague posting about their latest Trump-related anxiety or insight, resist the urge to re-assure them, correct them or offer them some additional information. Just listen.

Here are some comments that I have been falling back on when I read a distressed comment or blog post — especially when it’s attracting hostile comments, or I don’t fully agree with it:

  • I feel you. So scary right now. Sending love.
  • Hmm, I’m going to stew on that. Would love to pick up this thread in a few weeks, when I’m in a better space to think about it.
  • Ouch! Stay strong.

Right now, most of us need love and kindness more than we need additional information or a corrected world view. So try to focus on dishing out some of that love yourself, and modelling that behavior for others who are diving into debate mode.

There will come a time, very soon, when we need to move beyond basic kindness and empathy in our online conversations, and actually use some of our online spaces to sort out strategy and tactics. A time when it’s not enough to acknowledge the varied risks and realities we face in the Trump era; when it’s not enough to simply refrain from brushing people’s fears away.

Already, I see people moving into this next phase: the phase when we actually harness our online spaces, communities and skills to challenge the Trump administration and the hatred it represents. In my next post, I’ll offer some thoughts on how to move towards online action when we’re still raw and tender.

But I remain convinced that no action will be successful, or even possible, unless we begin by taking care of ourselves and one another online. And actually caring for one other might be the quintessential act of resistance to everything Trump stands for.

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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