Saturday, October 18, 2008

Freedom of Speech and the Loss of Compassion

On a few occasions in life, I’ve been hit by overwhelming grief at the absence of compassion where ego is easy. I know, in my heart of hearts, that most people don’t mean to cause hurt or pain – they’re just not thinking past their point or motive or own needs. They forget, briefly or otherwise, the basic rules of humanity. Those who are Christian might call it the golden rule, but every culture and every person who’s ever been hurt by the words and actions of another can understand the importance of the tenet, “Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes”.

Yesterday, I heard some unsettling news. A man who was a friend of a friend (I know that sounds convoluted, but I didn’t know him personally and don’t want to name him for reasons you’ll understand shortly) – this man killed himself. He was a stock broker, so I guess you might already imagine the motives.

I happened to notice that it was also written up in the larger local papers, and clicked on the articles on one of the sites. It gave the basic facts, his name and where he lives, where it occurred and the assumed reasons he would have become so despondent. And then there was the section for comments.

Most were well meaning, but some, well some had to admonish how foolish it was to take ones’ life over money... some couldn’t put aside the judgment... and I get it, I do... But, all I kept thinking was, “Oh my God, I’ll bet his family is reading this. I bet they’re pouring through every comment and aching with every word.” And I doubt so much that the people who did comment even considered it. To them, it’s just an article in the paper. A faceless person they’ll never know. And I wonder if they would be so crass to say these things at his funeral, in the presence of his loved ones – and I wonder if they know they essentially did just that.

I am a huge advocate of freedom of speech, and I get that that also includes the things I don’t think should be said. But I think, on occasion, we need to remember that our words have impact. We have a responsibility to be compassionate. This economy is not getting better in a day or a week and there’s a very real chance that the changes coming will be long and arduous for a great many people. Nothing is insurmountable and I have a great deal of faith that whatever is coming, we can handle, that even the worst of obstacles can make way for the greatest of triumphs. But while we’re on the road, be kind. Not because there’s payment in it. Not to pad your reputation or help your own situation, but because it’s right.

Go out and do something nice today. Restore my faith in humanity, because I swear sometimes it’s lagging.


Stephen Parrish said...

We need to apply a different standard to blog comments. We need to recognize that inconsiderate wingnuts will find opportunity to express their sophomoric opinions on blogs, much as they do with spray paints on highway overpasses.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey! Taggers are people too! :-)

For the most part, I agree with you, Stephen. And I've certainly said my own share of childish, thoughtless... or generally mean things - but generally, I'm talking about an idea or situation, not a person.

I don't know, like with the political things, I don't like the skewering on both sides, because it's mean and dishonest - but you expect it and so does anyone throwing their hat in the ring for office.

I think maybe they should eliminate the comment option after newspaper articles. That might be a start.

Zoe Winters said...

Agreed. Having a right to do something, doesn't abdicate you of your responsibility for the outcome. If you say crap to someone, there is often a cost. Your legal right to free speech doesn't stop anger or hurt feelings.

Ello said...

Do you remember I did a post awhile back on Kanye's mother's death in a plastic surgery operation? The comments for the articles all over the blogosphere show how evil and malicious people can be. Chalk it up to the anonymity of the internet. Can't imagine people saying that to a person's face, no matter how callous. None of this is new, but the good thing is that there are more than enough people that condemn this behavior and who do stand up for what is right. I don't think you should worry about the loss of compassion. It is still out there. It just gets covered over by the horrible noise of the trolls.

Erica Orloff said...

I so hear you. It PAINS me when I see real nastiness come up. Two days ago I saw a CNN article on women who struggle to "have it all." I thought, "I do. I work too hard and I have four kids and it's exhausting." So I clicked and it turned out to be a link to Oprah and a show she did. I don't watch her ever, but I of course know who she is. So I started reading and it was about a busy mother--a school assistant principal--whose husband told her to take the baby to day care instead of him (the usual routine). The baby was asleep, and somehow the mom was so distracted and stressed that she FORGOT the baby in the car when she got to work. It was a hot day. You can fill in the rest. This woman is beyond devastated to have accidentally caused this baby's death. So she was on the show to tell women to slow down, to not feel like they have to do it all. She said, I guess, "I hope I can be an example--a horrible reminder to slow down." My heart broke for her. I know I have--all mothers have--made mistakes. The time you THOUGHT the front door was locked but it wasn't or whatever. And you have kids home . . . who could easily slip outside. Whatever it is. ANYHOO . . . the comments, about 50% of them, were hate-comments. Just vicious stuff like she should be in prison, that they have NO sympathy, that this woman deserved this because she was one of those uber-moms. And all I could think was . . . payback's a bitch. How could anyone think their life is so exemplary, so perfect, that a horrible accident or mistake couldn't happen to them. Haven't we ALl driven when we're tired and maybe our reflexes aren't spot on? Haven't we all erred?

So I hear you Merry. But you know . . . today I head to the food bank. I hear from people all the time how the poor WANT to be homeless or WANT handouts. But I know that to be bullshit, so I go and do what I do and think . . . just help ONE person. So . . . there you go. I ain't perfect, but I am doing something compassionate today.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Zoe,

Let's hope Karma gets them... oh, wait, doesn't wishing that on someone hurt my Karma? eeep...

Hi Ello,

I do seem to remember that one. You know, online stuff is bad I think because people can't see what their words actually do, and in cases like news articles, they forget these are real people... they're desensitized to other people's emotions in a way it's difficult to be in person. But I think that might be a problem with our society today overall... I think in large numbers people have forgotten to consider others' feelings before they speak.

Hi Erica,

First, have I told you lately that you're my hero? I think it's amazing how involved you are and how involved you've taught your kids to be. I hear a lot of people talk about programs for the poor or underserviced, but it means so much more when the person speaking puts their money where their mouth is... or their time and effort. I think it's great.

Women can sometimes be our own worst enemy. Some women can be very supportive, but there are a lot of us out there who LIKE to see other women fail because it makes us feel validated in some way... Honestly, I don't think that glass ceiling will ever be truly gone until we stop hurting each other... but I think we're getting a little closer... at least I'm hoping...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

But I think, on occasion, we need to remember that our words have impact.

I think writers focus on this more than other people because we think about our words all the time. One time I try to focus on compassion when most people don't is in the car. If someone cuts me off or races past me, I try to imagine what make them in such a hurry. Maybe they're jerks, yeah, or maybe they have a loved one dying in the hospital.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey SS@S,

You're kinder than me... often, I don't mind that much about what other drivers in traffic do, but I do occasionally get a case of the gleefilled giggles when I catch the same driver, up the road, stuck waiting because no one will let them back into the lane... those are the same drivers that speed past you on the shoulder of the road. Maybe sometimes it's an emergency... but some of them make a habit of it.

Here's a good one we should all remember:


Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D.

SUV Mama said...

I think, in the end, we all just want to be understood. I have had my words completely misunderstood- and read the horrible nastiness of anonymous comments on my own blog.

Yes, we need to be reminded about our words- even more so in a day and age when instead of talking to people face to face, we spurt, blurt, and wretch every thought that comes into our heads with no concept or care of who will read those words.

Writers can not possibly be responsible for every person's anger or hurt feelings when stating their own thoughts, feelings, or opinions. What they can do is write clearly (and not use commas as punctuation marks) and succinctly- clearly demonstrating their intentions.

Conversational writing is the "norm" these days. The problem with conversational writing is the perceived tone is often misunderstood.

If we are going to mostly stop communicating with each other in person, than we need to have the skills to effectively communicate within personal boundaries by using the written word as a tool, not as a weapon.

I look at all of the anonymous anger on the internet and think that I would NEVER want to be friends with these people in real life. Are they really so angry, mean, and hateful? Or are they just confused, scared, lonely people who have no better way to communicate their fear- and no one who will listen to it with compassion?

Many years ago if a man committed suicide, people would talk. They would talk to their co-workers, their families, their friends, their churches, their supermarket checkout clerks. They might verbally say “what a shame he killed himself over money” and others might agree with them. And they would vent their feelings and the family of the deceased might know that people are talking about the death, but they wouldn’t have a constant, permanent written reminder of it.

Now? Somehow the dam has been unleashed and we feel free to just let it flow.

I would love to go do something nice today but it’s very late and I’m in my pj’s.  I’ll raincheck ya for tomorrow but add this: Instead of just doing something nice, I’ll work on improving my own written communication. If I’m going to be misunderstood I want it to be clear as to WHY I am misunderstood. I’ll work on respecting my fellow human beings through my communications, knowing the world is not a big internet bubble. We’re real- we hurt, we bleed, and we cry. And that is definitely something worth remembering.

Merry Monteleone said...

I heart SUV Mama!

It is really easy to get heated over perceived slights online because you can't hear tone in writing. It's also harder to picture the person you've never met at the other end of the computer screen, so I do see where it comes from.

Flaming in blog posts or chat forums is something you almost expect. We can moderate the comments to keep our little corner of the blog-o-sphere a bit more pleasant or we can chose not to respond... I've had blogger friends get visits by trolls insulting their families and some that sound stalkerish and scary... over what? Thoughts someone didn't agree with? Turn the flippin' page.

The comments in news articles get a little out of line to me because the people commenting treat it like they are not real people... it's like they're talking about a story or movie and not a real person's life. But think about it, if you or your family was in a news article, wouldn't you read it? The odds are that you would, and if you missed it, twenty different friends would have let you know it was there.

And there's so much more to the story than what the reporter got down. There always is.

At any rate, I think people put too much stock in the story they hear, and are too ready to judge because it makes them feel safe. "It couldn't happen to me because I'm not selfish..." It's all to make the speaker feel better and it's probably an off the cuff response...

ah, well, I think the best we can do is try to put ourselves in the other guys' shoes and hopefully our examples will resonate.

Travis Erwin said...

Sound advice and a reminder that sadly, we all need from time to time.

jerseygirl89 said...

It seems like we're all so busy and stressed that we've all become so thoughtless. No one - from the car cutting people off to the people making rude comments - seems to remember that other people exist and actually have feelings.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Travis,

Thanks for the visit... and yes, I think we all need the reminder from time to time.

Hi Jersey,

You know, I think our society has become so isolated that we take the impact out of empathy. We don't take the time anymore to really pay attention to the people we run across day to day, so we forget they're struggling, too.