On Civil Discourse

Don’t Feed the Trolls, and Don’t Be a Troll

I despaired after the Trayvon Martin verdict came down because the national conversation on race in this country has devolved to a state where reconciliation seems impossible. People feel passionately about the issue, and there is a lot of anger being expressed and not much listening going on. On one side, people are claiming that we live in “post racial” society and racism is not a problem any more. On the other side, folks say that racism in America is alive and well, and we as a society still have a lot of work to do to change. The way this issue is playing out in the media and popular culture, people on all sides are not engaging in any sort of productive or civil discourse.

Race is just one issue among many others that divide the nation, that divide progressives and conservatives. I continue to despair because I see little hope for productive dialog across the left-right abyss. Until a critical mass of citizens commits to truly listening to and respecting diverging opinions, we’re not going to be able to make progress towards building a more just and civil society. The priority has to be civil discourse and respecting one another, not winning the debate.

In the days after the verdict in Trayvon Martin’s case came down, I posted a couple of opinion pieces about the Trayvon Martin verdict that I thought were well written on my Google Plus page. One article in particular prompted some debate in the comments of the post. I am decidedly on the progressive side, and believe that justice was not served in the case. Since I posted it publicly, anyone can comment on the post, unless I block you. A couple of readers whom I don’t know posted their opposing points of view.

The exchange started out okay, and they just expressed their opposing views. Another progressive friend posted a comment (in response to the article, not to any other comment in particular), and one of the folks with an opposing view angrily lashed out at her, calling her stupid, and her ideas bulls***. To me, that crossed a line, so I deleted the offending comment, blocked him from my page and from further discussion. I did so with a statement to everyone following the thread that I don’t tolerate trolls and incivility.

After that, another reader stated his disagreement, and accused me of banning the previous offender simply because he had a different point of view. He posted a few things that were angry in tone, but not yet bullying per se. I rearticulated my position that calling someone stupid and using offensive language is enough for me to shut someone down on my turf. He continued to assert his belief that I was shutting down dissenting opinions. Finally, he too, called my friend stupid in another angry rant, so I blocked him from further comment.

I welcome friendly debate and differing opinions. I strongly prefer diversity of all kinds – including political and social perspectives. I don’t want to live my life only socializing with like-minded folks. I want to understand why people arrive at such starkly differing opinions. However, I have yet to encounter anyone, online or otherwise, with an opposing opinion who is willing to debate without intimidation or insults. I would like to build bridges, not walls, but I will not engage with people who are mean and hurtful.

Taking a note from Ta-Nehisi Coates, I claim the prerogative to curate my comment feed as if it were a dinner party: If you’re going to berate and insult one of my guests, I’m going to ask you to leave. I welcome disagreement, not abusive and uncivil behavior. I’ve taken a stab at writing my own ground rules for civil behavior in public debate. If you are on my turf, any blog I manage, and social media feed that I control, here are the rules of engagement. And if you don’t play by the rules, you don’t play at all:

  1. Come to the table with good intentions, seeking understanding and common ground.
  2. Assume that everyone, like you, also comes to the table with those same good intentions.
  3. Listen openly. When you don’t understand something, ask clarifying questions.
  4. Prioritize respect for others over being right.
  5. Stay focused on the issues being discussed and debated. Don’t distract and bait with insults and unrelated topics.
  6. Take a breath, especially when you feel yourself getting upset.
  7. Don’t take disagreement personally.
  8. Take ownership. You are responsible for what you do and what you say.
  9. Be nice. Be cordial.
  10. Do not feed the trolls! Don’t engage in debate with anyone who treats you or anyone else disrespectfully. Walk away, or you risk becoming a troll, too.

References:

The Thorny World of Online Comments – from On The Media

How to Creat an Engaging Comments Section – from On The Media

Trolls: A Field Guide

Internet Trolls Wikipedia Page

Cutting Internet Trolls Down to Size

On Responsibility

My reflections on the George Zimmerman verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin

While I’m not surprised at the verdict of this trial, I am outraged and despairing. This is a miscarriage of justice, and one of the most appalling thing to me is the admonition from the judge that racial profiling not be considered in Zimmerman’s behavior on that fateful night. Racial profiling is central to this case, and it seems to me that Zimmerman is now alleviated of all responsibility of his actions on the night he killed Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman is not being held responsible for assuming, prejudging, that Martin was “up to no good,” and then pursuing, and confronting an innocent kid. Ultimately, Zimmerman is not being held responsible for the consequences of his actions which his own prejudices drove: Zimmerman, while losing a physical struggle that he instigated, fired his own weapon and killed an unarmed teenaged boy, a boy who arguably was defending himself, standing his ground.

There is a double standard in the application of “stand your ground” laws, revealing that the lives of brown people are valued less in our culture. And apparently women, too, now that the verdict of Marissa Alexander’s trial, sentencing her to 20 years for firing warning shots as her abusive husband was threatening her. Why does Zimmerman get acquited when an innocent boy died at his hands, and Alexander goes to prison when she was legitimately defending herself?

I’m trying to see threads of hope in this. There is an opportunity for communities to come together about how to conduct an ethical neighborhood watch, how to truly look out for one another instead of suspecting one another, and to value all lives equally. This incident may get more people to really think and talk about prejudices that we all hold.

We are not color blind, as much as we want to believe we are. We see color and we assume differences. We all act on prejudices, and those actions have consequences for which we are personally responsible. Until we take responsibility these grave tragedies and injustices will continue. So I hope we can forgive each other when we act on prejudice, and I really hope we can take responsibility for our own actions, and learn from those mistakes and change.

I’m trying to be optimistic, though it is difficult when we are so divided as a nation. Oddly, knowing that I am not alone in my despair is giving me hope.

RIP, Trayvon. May your life and death inspire us all to take responsibility for our own transformation.

References:

George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood On The Leaves

Is There Racial Bias in “Stand Your Ground” Laws?

Florida ‘stand your ground’ law yields some shocking outcomes depending on how law is applied

 

Dialectics and Civility

Seeking An Inclusive Progressive Christian Community

I have been following The Christian Left for a few years, occasionally reading their blog, but mostly on following them Facebook. When I found them, I was grateful to see some representation of the progressive Christian movement. Over the years, I have found their posts to be informative and enlightening.

I was disappointed in early August to see included in their Facebook feed a post depicting a terrible redneck stereotype that was intended to make fun of people who are opposed to LGBT civil rights. The post was mean-spirited and antithetical to progressive Christianity. There were many people, including me, who posted comments saying as much. While the comments were critical and expressed disappointment, no one said anything that was inflammatory or hurtful to anyone. We were basically saying, “hey, this isn’t cool.”

I understand that people are angry at the willful ignorance and bigotry of those committed to activism against LGBT civil rights. I am angry, too, but I am not looking for justification for bullying others just as we are being bullied. Anger is justifiable. Expressing that anger by seeking to demean others is not justifiable. The post struck me as a juvenile taunt, not the intelligent response to hate and intolerance that I have come to know in the progressive spiritual communities where I have worshiped.

The response to my comment is not what I might have expected. Those who were challenging the offensive post were met with defiance and stubbornness: “We’re not taking it down. It’s a joke and it’s mild compared to most of the hate we see directed from the right. Concern trolls will be banned. That’s right, banned.”

And the reaction didn’t stop there. The moderator deleted all critical comments, and then, as promised, blocked us from commenting further. Additionally, the moderator followed up by posting another juvenile and mean-spirited taunt aimed at those of us they were now deeming “concern trolls,” including the comment: “Oh, and once in awhile we’re a little sophomoric and juvenile around here at TCL. We like it that way. It breaks up the monotony. Apparently some folks don’t like it. That’s fine. Bye now. See ya later.”

I appreciate a moderator’s right to curate the comments on a blog or a Facebook page in order to maintain civil discourse. However, the post was being challenged in a critical and constructive way, not in any way being abusive or inflammatory, as trolls are wont to do. A healthy disagreement and community dialog presents an opportunity for growth. The Christian Left shut this opportunity down in a painful way, effectively excluding people who it purports to include. It is regrettable that this was done by an organization that claims to welcome those who have previously been rejected by the Church.

All of this happened within about ten minutes. At first, I was shocked, and a little hurt and angry. And then I realized that I needed to just laugh it off and step away. I struggle enough to find my place in the world as a progressive Christian. I don’t need to subject myself to this kind of negativity. I sent a follow-up email to the group expressing my disappointment (to which I do not expect to receive a response), unliked the Facebook page, and left it at that.

Happily, there are numerous organizations and resources for progressive Christianity, and there are many communities who live out the declaration on The Christian Left’s web page: “We welcome ALL to their place at God’s table, just as they are. All means ALL. No exceptions.”

Below are some that I have compiled:

Please feel free to suggest other resources that I may have missed!

Faith, Intellectualism, and Doubt

On seeking with an open heart

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have struggled with being a person of faith for as long as I can remember. I have always been a doubter. I remember when I was a child learning about the life of Jesus, I was full of questions about learning lessons about God from a book that was so old. I asked my mother one day “What if we learn some day that these are just stories, and that Jesus wasn’t a real person?” There wasn’t any real evidence to prove that he existed, so how could I possibly believe in this person as a deity?

My memory of that exchange is a little foggy, as I was only about seven years old at the time. But her response was something like it’s the stories that are important, and these stories about this person have lessons for us to learn from and to model ourselves after, and faith wasn’t about being sure. In a nutshell, my mom’s answer was that faith is not about knowing. Thus began my life in paradoxology.

I’m just as confused now as I was then at that answer, and I probably will be trying to figure it out for the rest of my life. The result of this confusion in the reality of the world now is that when I go to any kind of worship I feel like an impostor because I still don’t know with any certainty what this entity that I pray to really is. I am still full of doubt and questions, while I perceive those around me full of certainty and conviction of what they know about God.

Equally confusing are my atheist friends who hold their non-belief with such conviction that they judge people of faith as ignorant. They think that one cannot be an intellectual and a person of faith. In this context, too, I have felt like an imposter because I am on a spiritual path.

What do I believe? I just don’t know…and then I remember that faith isn’t about knowing with certainty. Faith is about not knowing, and intellectual curiosity is about being open to learn. Faith and intellectual curiosity are about seeking with an open heart. I hold both with equal weight, one informing the other in constant symbiosis.

Perhaps symbiosis is a helpful way to think about people who are seemingly different from us. Instead of dismissing and shutting people out because we assume we can’t relate to their beliefs, perhaps we can grow by always seeking to understand the other with an open heart.

Response To A Lakeview Bully

Yesterday at church I learned of an incident that happened earlier in the week that is nothing less than bullying. An individual placed handmade fliers making false accusations about Broadway United Methodist Church. In the flier, the bully suggests that people should let Alderman Tom Tunney know how they feel about what Broadway is doing in the community. This is what I wrote this morning:

Dear Alderman Tunney,

I am writing to offer a voice of support for the important work that Broadway United Methodist Church and other community organizations are doing to help homeless youth in Lakeview. I understand that this has become a point of controversy because people are misplacing blame for the recent spate of violence in the neighborhood on the presence of the youth who have nowhere to go. Individuals are responsible for this, so it is not right to blame an entire population of people.

Organizations like Center on Halsted, Night Ministry, and the Youth Lounge at Broadway United Methodist Church are critical to serving these youth who are struggling to survive. They are members of our community, and we have a responsibility to help them. Shutting down the social services that benefit them is not going to solve the problem of violence in our neighborhood. Indeed, I believe it might just contribute to the problem.

It would be a grave mistake for the leaders in the neighborhood to stop supporting these organizations. I hope that you don’t give in to the pressure of a vocal few who are filled with anger, fear, and hatred, and are simply looking for a scapegoat to place some blame for the ills in our community. The problem is larger than this, and requires solutions that are longer term and address its root.

Recently, an individual placed hand-made fliers on windshields in the Lakeview neighborhood that contained false accusations about Broadway United Methodist Church supporting drugs, prostitution, and violence in the neighborhood. Individual acts like this add fuel to the already burning fire of fear and hatred that is misdirected at the innocent people that Broadway UMC, The Center on Halsted, and the Night Ministry are trying to help. I hope that as a community we can have respectful public dialog. Acts like this do not facilitate that. I realize that people on all sides of this fight have contributed to the unhealthy dynamic. I hope that leaders like you will not respond to disrespectful rhetoric like this, but rather will lead the community in respectful civil discourse.

Don’t be distracted by hate and vitriol. And please don’t succumb to the pressure of those who seek to shut out the most vulnerable members of our community.

Respectfully,

Sarah Conner-Smith – Uptown resident, member of Broadway United Methodist Church

My Stewardship Testimony

Recently, I shared the following story with my church, which illustrates all of the reasons why I make financial contributions.

When I was a child, my family attended a Lutheran church, one of the largest and wealthiest in the Twin Cities. It was a big, beautiful building downtown, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, absolutely breathtaking. A beautiful building located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the area, where there sizable Native American population.

My grandfather had been a founding member of the church, and my parents were upstanding members of the community. They were involved in the Christian education program for adults and kids, and we had many friends in the congregation. I learned the meaning of spiritual community there. I was getting ready to begin Confirmation classes, and the church began to go down a road that forced my family to make a difficult choice. It is illustrated by this story:

One beautiful spring day, we were having a pot luck in the parking lot. There were lots of people and lots of food. Some folks from the neighborhood lined up with the rest of us, grabbed some plates, and got ready to get some food. They were hungry.

I remember being surprised and ashamed to see someone with authority tell them that the food wasn’t for them, that they were not members of the community and therefore were not welcome. The message that sent to me as a child and member of the community was that those people were not like us. They didn’t look like us, they were in need, of a different economic status, and we didn’t want them there to make us feel uncomfortable.

My mom took me aside later that day and was very clear with me: What that church member did was wrong, and that was not what Jesus would have done. Those people are members of the surrounding community, and should have been welcomed by us and offered food.

Shortly after that time, my parents made the difficult decision to leave the church. They made sure to let me know that the church was no longer representing their theological views, and they wanted to raise me with different values. They could no longer support or be a part of a community that was teaching exclusivity, not welcoming.

Growing into adulthood, I have struggled with claiming my place in the Christian church. I have hung out with Quakers, Buddhists, and all kinds of Christians, and I still hang out with Yogis and Yoginis. Finding a church home that feels like a good fit has been difficult. The important thing to me is that my parents instilled in me the values that Jesus taught, those of generosity, sharing, community, love, forgiveness, justice, and healing.

When I found Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago, I knew I had found my church home here. At BUMC, all are welcome. This is a community that walks the walk of social justice, generosity, and love.

So a few Sundays ago, I offered up this story as testimony, telling the story of why I financially support Broadway. I give because the transgender and gay homeless youth in the Lakeview need our Youth Lounge program. I give because the Lakeview Pantry needs our donations of food. I give because the community needs the Wednesday Night Live adult education classes. I give because Broadway offers much needed support to members of our community who suffer from depression and mental illness. I give because Broadway is unwavering it its support of LGBT civil rights.

I give because I need Broadway, too. This church walks the walk of my theology.

I encourage other members of Broadway to share their stories about why they give, in whatever ways they give: Time, Talent, or Treasure.

#Gratitude and the Silver Lining

In Light of the Midterm #Election

After last Tuesday’s brutal election results, it has been slowly sinking in what this means for progressives like me and our movements for civil rights, social and environmental justice, and feeding hungry people. The results of that day do not bode well for us.

I take solace in the persistence of all that we do every day in my community of friends and family. Everyone I know is in their own small way determined to make the world better for everyone. So we get up in the morning, make our coffee, and get down to the hard work of living. Simply taking care of ourselves and each other in some cases is a radical act.

We are determined to build communities that thrive, families that raise healthy children, provide homes for wayward animals, get married and commit to loving each other, volunteer at our local libraries and food pantries, build our spiritual communities, plant gardens, support local businesses. All in all we are simply taking responsibility for the way we live every day to make life a little sweeter for ourselves and our loved ones, leave a lighter footprint while enjoying the blessings of this life.

My Dad sent out an email to the family on Wednesday morning, encouraging all of us to think of everything positive in our lives in the midst of this unfortunate outcome. We have a lot to be thankful for, so let’s remember that and share our good news with each other.

Yes, Tuesday was a bad day, but as a result of that outcome, nothing is going to change for me in terms of the way I live my life. Our opponents may throw obstacles in our path, but that is not going to stop us from building our vision of a more just and kinder society. The outcome of the election might make things a little harder in terms of the social climate and the very real limits and disadvantages that the radical right would like to impose on me and my family.

I know I am privileged and blessed, and to the extent that I am able I will use that privilege and blessing to make my life and the life of my community better. For all of that I am grateful.

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