Social media can be a wonderful place. People often find support online that they are unable to find elsewhere. It can also be a vile, horrible, nasty, malicious, and harmful place. In many cases it is both at the same time. Particularly when someone posts about events in the world. Responses can quickly devolve into responses of “Not all group name” in effect invalidating the original comment or post. When responding online or in person we can and must do better.
The other day as I was on Facebook a post was shared about how the number of countries in the world where being a lesbian or bisexual woman is illegal is growing. I read the article and contributed a comment pointing out that a lot of the opposition to LGBT people around the world is being funded by fundamentalist groups in the United States. Within two replies it devolved into an argument of “not all Christians”. My comment was intended to point out the harm that conservative Christians are doing around the world. Yet, by making it about “not all Christians” the real harms done to real people by these groups was being erased.
When someone is talking about the harms that have been done to them as a marginalised person or toward a marginalised group saying “Not all group name” are like that is erasure. When people talk about the harm they have experienced this comment serves to deflect and shut down the conversation. It tells the person or people who were harmed that their experiences are invalid because that is not the experience of the person who is not marginalised. The message is that the person’s experience is irrelevant and that their reflections on their experience are irrelevant.
For those of us who are constantly struggling to have our basic rights respected this is particularly difficult to see. These types of “not all group name” arguments are used to say that we can’t be discriminated against and that we’re imagining the marginalisation. It allows for the violence against transgender people, black people, people of colour, gays, lesbians, immigrants, muslims, and more. Please stop. Please be silent and listen. Be a witness to the person or group’s expereinces and pain.
Am I saying that your feelings and defensive responses are not real? No. It does hurt when we see ourselves as progressive, tolerant, supportive of people’s rights, and someone points out the systemic problems. It can feel like an attack on ourselves personally. I have felt that way at times myself. The challenge is to learn the discipline of pause and reflection when reading or hearing about these issues.
There are many ways one might accomplish this and I encourage you to find what works for you. My own strategy is to read the full article or post. In the case of listening to someone I endeavour to stay silent until they are finished. When the person has finished speaking rather than immediately going on the defensive pause. One does not need to speak right away. The best response can be to just say, “that is horrible” or, “that really sucks.” Online one does not have to comment on everything. Sit on your hands, either metaphorically or physically.
Once you have been silent in the moment and acknowledged the person’s experience take the time to examine why you are feeling uncomfortable or angry at the statements or article. Learning to reflect on our own reactions helps us to understand ourselves better and to respond more appropriately in the future. It may be that we are realising just how we have been at fault in our own lives. Other times it may be that we are having to confront difficulties and problems in groups that have been supportive to us and we have not been aware of how they are harming others.
For those in leadership it is easy to see comments about an organisation as attacks on our own leadership. Rather than take the comments and feedback as a starting point to improve, it is easy to entrench in the ways things are being done. Examining our leadership styles and the ways in which an organisation is problematic is not easy. We as humans do not like to admit being wrong, or that we need to change. Change is, however, part of life. We all make mistakes, we all screw up, and we all need to be able to move on in healthy ways.
I urge you, as I continually urge myself, to take that pause when tempted to reply with “Not all group name” to take that pause. To reflect before answering or commenting. You will likely find that posting or saying that comment would be better not done. Instead be affirming of the person’s experience and direct some energy, as you are able, toward making the changes that will help make the world a better place.