How to handle conflict on social media

How to handle conflict on social media

Depending on which area of Instagram you hang out, you will either be keenly aware or completely oblivious to the highly politically charged conversations that have been taking place on the platform in the pocket of the slow living community. That's it. I literally won't say more than that because I am not aiming to draw traffic from the controversy. This is merely something that I am writing about as a response to its sudden relevance in my neighbourhood of the online world.

So I should also clarify that this post is NOT aimed at a particular side of the argument (if you do, in fact, know what I'm referring to). It isn't a statement on the disagreement itself. I'm not talking about an account. Or a brand. And certainly not a person. There is no aim, here, in fact, in regards to larger politics. Based on what I've observed over the past week or so, I'm writing this out of simple concern for the general way that we use language in these discourses about things that matter to us.

I'm an academic writing teacher by trade, so my job is to help people express themselves as clearly as possible so that they can achieve a valuable degree classification. And this blog you're reading right now accompanies my business as a photographer and writer mentor. My primary goal, really, is to equip people with confidence to speak with wisdom, critical thinking, intentionality, and authenticity, which is the only reason why I feel compelled to dip my toe in this fire. Because truthfully, I just care so much about the way that hearts are touched by words. I care about the fact that we all have access to words and we therefore need to be equipped to use them to communicate well. So in light of recent events, I feel inspired to just share a simple list of thoughts that I'd encourage people to contemplate before they engage in their own use of language in discourses that matter to them:

1) Imagine others complexly.

This is taken straight out of John & Hank Green's book, but it really is true. The first thing that I see people forgetting when they engage in conversations about things that spark their anger and/or frustration is that they often forget to imagine the other person as a whole, complex person. We tend to view people as polarised opposites, either allies or enemies, but it isn't always necessarily that easy. People carry hurts, pains, fears, experiences of trauma, frustration, poor education, lack of understanding, and a whole range of other factors that contribute to who they are. But those feelings don't necessarily categorise them as "all bad" or "all good." As Sirius Black says, "We all have both dark and light inside of us." And that complexity cannot come through in any real, tangible way in the space of one comment, or even multiple comments. If we converse with one another while still recognising that the person behind the comment is much more complex than the opinion expressed in the comment itself, then we can, hopefully, have a conversation where people are truly hearing one another instead of just contributing to the noise.

2) Recognise that everyone is entitled to their feelings.

I am not saying that people's feelings or opinions are always right. Certainly there are people in this world who believe things which contradict the moral compass in our very core. We do not have to agree with another person's opinions or feelings. Certainly not. But we are set free when we recognise that our freedom to feel allows other's the equal freedom to feel. We have a right to our anger, our confusion, our hurt, our pain, our fear, our anguish, our frustration. We have a right to our emotions, and so does the person on the other end. If we try to deny them their right to those feelings, we distance their listening ear from the words which we are trying to express to them. We isolate ourselves. We weaken our own point by triggering the deafness of the ears that we hope will hear us. If you tell someone that they are not entitled to feel the way that they feel, the likelihood of them listening to you is very slim. If you want to be heard, you must allow the other person the right to their emotions, no matter how difficult they may be for you to understand. Now that does not mean that we have to tolerate abuse. Abuse is feeling taken into harmful action, and that has to be dealt with appropriately by blocking and reporting such abuse. But we must recognise the difference between abuse and feelings which we simply cannot understand and do not agree with so that some valuable conversations can be salvaged. Again, the ultimate aim here is that if you can offer the same recognition of freedom to those who you disagree with, you stand a better chance of igniting their recognition of your own freedom. And then maybe, from there, a full conversation can be had.

3) Be patient and explain HOW and WHY you feel the way you do.

So much of what I see in discourse online involves people shouting opinions at one another with such fervour, intensity, and lack of thought that it loses its context and confuses the opposing side. No matter how trivial or how obvious you think your point of view should be to others, be patient with them. Give them the chance to truly HEAR you by explaining not only what you feel but where those feelings came from. You may not feel that you owe anyone an explanation, and you'd be right: we do not owe anyone our stories. But by explaining your background, your lived experiences, and your aims, you broaden the chances of having a fruitful conversation. It's your call whether you choose to share or not, but do not expect people to immediately understand where you are coming from without taking the time to let them into your way of seeing things. We are, by nature, selfish human beings. And even though that sucks and I wish we were not that way, the fact of the matter is that our general selfishness means that we won't always understand another person's point of view unless it is explained to us. As always, we should aim to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, and being offered insight into their lives will make that task so much easier to do. So if you're hoping that someone will relate to your point of view, then articulate and explain your reasoning as well as you possibly can because it is so much easier to misunderstand each other in the online space. Just as it is the job of a student to make their argument in their essay as clear as academically possible, it is our job (if we wish to be heard) to make our thoughts and feelings understood by offering as much clarity and articulation as we can.

4) Read. Listen. READ AGAIN. Think. Wait. THINK AGAIN. THEN respond.

Resist the temptation to throw your voice into the throng straight away (I find this particularly difficult, and I think many of us do). Chew on the words being thrown about and chew on the words swirling around inside your own head. When people respond as a knee-jerk reaction out of anger, defensiveness, or at the worst times, hate, it is so often coming from a place of such extreme vulnerability because our emotions are so high. That vulnerability breeds even higher emotions as a conversation escalates, which ultimately strips any discourse of its reasoning, rationality, and productivity. As soon as we lose our ability to think rationally, a few other practical skills also go out the window, mainly our ability to listen, read, and fully understand. So often, I have seen people respond to someone in a completely inappropriate way simply because they did not fully understand what the other person said. It's the equivalent of saying "I fancy a sandwich for lunch" to which someone else responds "Why don't you own a red pair of trainers?" If you are not reading and digesting what the words on the page are actually conveying, then how can you respond appropriately? Take your time. Read carefully. Chew on the information. Meditate on your stance. And THEN respond with great care.

5) Ask questions.

Asking questions does two things: first, it gives you the opportunity to hopefully understand more about the other person and where their views are coming from. This understanding will either equip you to better rebut their claims OR it might help you realise that you didn't have a full understanding of their view point yourself, and you may even be challenged to rethink your stance (which isn't a bad thing and it does not mean you're weak-- it means you're open to learning and growing!). Secondly, it will challenge the other person to really consider the reasoning behind their own views. Perhaps they will realise that they haven't fully thought things through and they need to go back and reconsider what they believe. Either way, asking questions leads to better understanding of ourselves and of others.

6) Do not feel pressured to give a response.

This is different than my request that you patiently take the time to explain yourself to those who genuinely misunderstand. If the situation becomes hostile, you may feel that to not respond to a comment that hurts you is to be weak or to be a "doormat." In the online space, this could not be further from the truth. You should not feel that you owe someone a response or that you are required to succumb to pressure to "prove yourself." If you respond, do so from a place of security, not a place of vulnerability. Sometimes, stepping away is a way of recognising that you do not need to change this stranger's mind in order for you to maintain your own values. To give yourself permission and freedom to step away is to recognise that your value, your worth, and the truth you are fighting for does not need to be vilified by the stranger on the other end. That value comes from somewhere far more whole and concrete, and if conversing with someone else online doesn't seem as though it's going to be fruitful, you have permission to remove yourself for the sake of your own well-being. This does not make you weak, it makes you wise.

7) Seek to understand the root of anger.

There are two types of anger that I'm going to classify here: righteous anger and unrighteous anger. Righteous anger is justified because it is rooted in a place of love. It is the anger that is a natural response to something in our life that sets our ethical alarm bells off. It warns us that there is a threat to the morals, values, and people we hold dear. It signals us to protect our loved ones and seek justice for harm or wrongdoing that is done against them or ourselves. Righteous anger can be expressed without the need for slanderous language because righteous anger can still be conveyed through a firm yet respectful manner. That's because it's rooted in a GOOD place of love. And through maintaining respect whilst still upholding the firmness of one's values, a righteously angry person can hold their ground without diminishing their own respectability. Now, some people get angry for reasons that have nothing to do with their true ethics; instead, the anger comes from a place of fear or a place of pride (and usually behind the pride, there's fear too), so when people operate from THAT kind of anger, it usually comes across as hateful because it primarily has to do with their own selfishness and nothing to do with others. Language from this kind of anger turns into slander, hostility, name-calling, and illogical thinking, and there usually isn't much that can be done to help those people because their anger and their fear is too complex to speak to from the other end of social media. It is the angry person's own responsibility to handle the roots of their anger, and a stranger online certainly will not be able to "fix" them. Despite the desire to engage in the kind of language that spews from the mouth of hateful people, the best thing you can do is block/report them. Do not tolerate their hate, but do not presume that you will be able to change their minds because you end up risking your own emotional and mental health for the sake of a stranger who is probably unwilling to listen to anyone who does not soothe their own pride and/or fears.

8) Come from a core place of LOVE & GRACE.

Give people grace. Recognise when they make an honest mistake or misunderstand and do not hold that mistake against them when they are earnestly attempting to understand where you are coming from. This coincides with coming from a place of love. If your position is rooted in love-- love for yourself and love for others and a genuine desire to bring about a change that promotes that love-- then that love needs to breed the patience and willingness to talk people through things with grace. If you are not coming from a place of love (and remember, anger can be rooted in love, so I'm not saying that we can't be angry here) but instead are coming from a general desire to promote yourself in your views for the sake of your pride, or, even worse, if you are coming from a place of genuine hate, then please just recognise that you will live in an echo chamber: nobody will truly hear you apart from the people who already agree with you. You will make no difference to your cause, and ultimately, your voice will be less significant than we all want our voices to be.

Truthfully, my main goal with this post was to challenge people to meditate on a few things:

- The need for greater wisdom in how we use our words.

- The need for greater patience with one another.

- The need for a willingness to truly listen and read carefully.

- The need for a greater tone of productive, truthful, transparent, and mutual respect in the midst of these heated conversations.

- The freedom to embrace the way we are feeling yet maintain confidence as we express those feelings.

- The desire to help people feel empowered to engage in a way that still protects their minds and hearts.

- The naive but ever-persisting hope to filter out the hatefulness that this world permeates through the use of language in exchange for language that brings about growth and understanding.

And as a final note, can I just say that fighting for what you believe in is a good thing? Caring deeply about something is commendable. It's how women won the right to vote. It's how slavery was abolished. To care deeply about something is to be an advocate for positive change.

So please know that I share this post with the utmost humility-- I am not here to shame anyone who has made mistakes as they navigate the online space because I am keenly aware that I am still learning and making mistakes myself. Constantly. But even so, I write all this, my sweet readers, because I recognise that the world is not entirely full of people who root themselves in love. But if you've taken the time to read this, then I do not think you fall into that category. Maybe I'm naive, but I certainly still choose to believe that the majority of the human race is good and wants to breed goodness. However, to acknowledge the truth of things, we must recognise that mistakes will be made on the road to goodness, so we have to listen, think, be kind, and constantly reroute our path according to the love-facing arrow on a compass that points us onwards into the light.

If you want more support on how to navigate social media well, you can apply for a Instagram Consult with me here.

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