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This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Finding the right words

I am currently struggling with what to do about friends in online communities who post stuff that I find really objectionable. Things like outrageously sexist, racist or homophobic comments - or calling for the return of capital punishment. Things that come out of the blue, that reveal something about the person that you struggle with, but that you had no idea about before. 

If I was into drawing graphs for this sort of thing there would be one axis with degrees of friendship and another of with degrees of unacceptability and where the two crossed would determine what I do about the issue. With a low level of friendship and and a high degree of unacceptability it is easy - you just "unfriend" the person. But with real friends it is not so easy. It is a bit like when a sweet old lady, maybe a relative of a friend, comes out with an outrageously racist comment. You know it is partly her upbringing, you know at one level she doesn't really mean it, and you know that to make it an issue would really cause her embarrassment and hurt her - but you also know that to say nothing is wrong too.

I understand that online I should comment, explain my discomfort, and engage in a conversation about our differences but, just as in real life, this can be a real challenge. The potential for kicking off a flame war at worst or of hurting feelings at best is very high. Given the inability to use body language or facial expressions to modify your message you have to be so conscious of your choice of language and tone.

I kind of know the answer to this but still struggle. How do you deal with it?

Reader Comments (19)

My motto is to stand up for what you know is right and put them in their place, no matter who they are. Bigotry and ignorance go hand in hand.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Post a video - pics speak a 1,00 words and all that?

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Howlett

Hi Euan, that same issue has been bugging me over the course of the last 11 years and over the course of time you learn to let go. That's us, human beings, capable of the very best, but also capable, and *very*, of the worst. So I rather prefer to concentrate on the good we all have inside ourselves. And unless that commentary is a direct attack to your own person, or that of your close family, I let it go. I know they don't mean it that way. I know that frustrations of the day, of their jobs, their work in general, their financial situation, or whatever personal circumstance may have brought that up. I want to look into the positive side of things. Patience teaches you that over time. Let go. I fear that if I haven't done that for a long while now the world would have been a much meaner and nasty place. We need to prove, show and demonstrate that we know better. Unfriending people won't get us there. Need to stick up with the good and the bad, so that the good overcomes the bad over time. Yes, I know, my Hippie 2.0 flair coming along, but, to be honest, it's got to be that way. I don't like the alternative :)

PS. I highly recommend reading this short article by Scott Monty on a very similar topic

You're entitled to speak your mind - as are they. I personally think capital punishment is called for in some cases and I believe people who believe otherwise are entitled to do so. I'd expect debate rather than a "de-friending".

As Andy has said above "bigotry and ignorance go hand in hand" which is very true. We just need to be sure the ignorance is not our own.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Robinson

I guess this sort of relates to my dislike of Klout. I think that the visible connections and associations we make on the web are a subtler and more effective measure of who we are and what we represent. For this reason I am careful about who I am seen to associate with - however inadvertently. This is why degree of friendship matters too.

If someone who I accepted as a friend years ago because they popped up in Facebook consistently expresses views that I strongly disagree with then I am quite comfortable with unfriending them. It is when someone I know constantly expresses strong views that I think have a negative effect on the world that I am faced with more of a dilemma.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

@Euan, and here's where I keep thinking that Klout is to the Social Web what huge bonuses are to executives in the corporate world :-((

It's not all black and white in this case, but a matter of grey that you define depending on the level of connectedness and friendship, in the true sense of the word, not how we have bastardised it over time in the Social Web.

For any of those I would unfriend immediately - both virtually and in my mind

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave Snowden

My in-laws are a bit racist if you listen to what they say. But they have black and Arab friends. It's partly the way they were brought up. I find it easy to excuse their words because I don't think they mean it.

Churchill said that friends were not people whose virtues you admire they were people whose vices you could tolerate. I'm not suggesting that racism should be tolerated, but a bit of ignorance on the part of people who have had a much tougher life than me, and who are generous to friends, including those they appear to abuse is tolerable. For me.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick O'Doherty

Euan, I actually left Facebook nearly two months ago over this kind of thing. While unhinged political views (which seem to be dearly held by 99% of the population) are one thing, what put me over the edge was seeing someone post about how "being beaten didn't do [them] any harm" and how the world would be a better place if more kids were hit by their parents. For personal reasons, these views are among the most disgusting I can imagine, and I very much believe that the people who hold them are enabling much more abuse than they'd like to believe. The glee with which the views were expressed was also disturbing to me.

I can't be emotionally detached from these things - I know that about myself. Accepting this truth, I had to leave FB. I wasn't going to suddenly knock political sense into 99% of my friends, and I wasn't going to put the world to rights with a FB conversation either. More to the point, it's draining and traumatic even to try.

What I know for myself is that anger is a luxury I cannot afford - justified anger being the most dangerous. That being the case, my participation in social media had to change.

I've never been more relaxed. I have no plans to return to FB. I wish I had left years ago (or better yet never joined). Considering how I have made my living, this might seem strange. But at the moment I am pondering this and wondering if my plunge into social media wasn't just a decade-long phase...

Bottom line: I can't change anyone but myself. Obviously I have many friends whose views I find abhorrent - and I refuse to "go there" with them. Nobody is served by that, and when I tell myself that I have to say something, I realize that's my ego talking. Nope, the focus has to be on me, my conduct, and my active choice to engage or not. (Sorry for the long comment!)

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJackie D

Don't apologise! Great comment and thanks for your spot on response. Your last paragraph is really the only way to deal with this online of off. Thanks.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

When in doubt, ask The Specials:


August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jackson

There may be lessons about the complexity of identity and digital identity in your story Euan. I follow some folk on twitter who I really do not agree with. I do so because I want to keep my personal filters partially open. How I decide to include and who I exclude, I'm afraid I don't have a logical answer to. But emotionally I'm satisfied by my approach. Back to the complex identity part. We know that the connection to a multi faceted node can bring both good and bad, relevant and irrelevant. When it's someone you have long known to deliver good, and then a new 'bad' facet is exposed to you, then you have to make a judgment: does the good outweigh the bad. And only you will know how the weight that decision. In short, yours is a wise question but one which only you can answer for yourself.

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Cushman

You cannot change peoples' thinking through legislation or putting them under pressure to conform to acceptable social behaviour - it drives these ideas further underground whilst strengthening them. Walking away only serves to isolate them in a world they believe to be correct.

We learn by example, by education and by experience - don't give up on your friends, show them, educate them and let them experience another way of thinking about these issues. There are ways and means but it takes time and patience.

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan

Its a really challenging issue . . . If the person is just an acquaintance then
un-friending them or hiding their posts are easy options. When its a real friend or relative spouting utter non-sense is where you need to strike a balance between how much of an emotional investment you're prepared to make and the strong likelihood that despite how well reasoned your feedback might be that their behaviour will not change . . . Worst thing you can do is try to change someone's mind online . . . Face to face over a cuppa or a pint would be far better

August 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBob Macdonald

Interestingly, I can only think of this situation arising on forums where people are using pseudonyms. In those situations my blood can boil occasionally but if I don't know the person (as is usually the case) the kind of dilemma you mention doesn't tend to arise. The solution is either engage (ideally rationally) or ignore. Deeply 'politically incorrect' rants by people using their real identity I'd have thought would be quite rare (or maybe I live a sheltered life on Facebook and Twitter. I assume we're not talking about LinkedIn?!) If I did encounter the situation you describe - someone I knew or thought I knew showing a new and unpalatable side to their values - I think I might either not respond, or try in some cryptic and brief way to express disapproval. What I subsequently thought of the person could well be a separate matter, and might well be a question of the degree to which they 'meant' it etc.
Those of us who've been around social media for a long time, and especially where we use it for professional purposes, probably tend to have learnt the value of self-restriant / self-censorship online; those who haven't may well not have done or might be more prone to lapses after, for example, a few drinks.

August 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Carswell

Euan, I just clicked in from a blog lamenting the demise of conversation on twitter. Where's the conversation gone? And then I find the conversation right here among the comments on your blog. Your question gave me the shivers. We're about the same age, I think. Wandering outside on my moonlit deck, I flashed on grade school way down south in Dixie in a small Arkansas town in the fifties. Of course, I attended the white school. Our servants were black, although we (and they) called them the n-word we have since deleted from acceptable vocabulary. "White Only."

A repressed memory flashed up from when I was 8 or 9. My grandmother lived in a sprawling house on a quadruple-lot a block from the railroad tracks in Hope, Arkansas. She was on the back porch and instructed our gardner (a friendly old guy who was the preacher at the African Methodist Church on Sundays) to knock down the old slaves shack at the back of the yard.

My grandmother went to Juliard to learn to write hymns and led Sunday School at the White Methodist Church for 50 years! She was a believer. But I doubt that it crossed her mind that something might be wrong with not recognizing the Black methodists as people.

Think what Hollywood could get out of that situation. But at the time, that was life. I'm not going to apologize for my third-grade teacher, my fellow students, or anyone, for the time she brought a little black boy in to do a knee slapping hambone dance for the class. Or for any of the rest of it. Those days have floated down the river of time.

It’s different twisted lamers who embrace Neo-Nazism or the Ku Klux Klan. I give dangerous extremists a wide berth.

Remember, this was the 50s. Before living in instant time. Regions were regions, more different from one another than today's central American countries. People did not know better. That time is past in my hometown in Arkansas. Folks are civilized. Mostly.

Then I pondered the unexplored territory of "associating" with people who are not friends and family. If we've never met, I don't mind flipping on the bozo filter for ya’. If you bother me, life's too short, click. If you bring me joy, great!!! Cut up the volume. Are we friends? Are you friends? Are you really just a bot? IBM’s Watson with the sexiest voice synthesizer on earth. Who’s listening in? The whole world, maybe. It’s an era of quickie acquaintenanceship.

I spent a while thinking about Dee's post, "Bottom line: I can't change anyone but myself. Obviously I have many friends whose views I find abhorrent - and I refuse to "go there" with them. Nobody is served by that, and when I tell myself that I have to say something, I realize that's my ego talking. Nope, the focus has to be on me, my conduct, and my active choice to engage or not. (Sorry for the long comment!)"

David wrote "We know that the connection to a multi faceted node can bring both good and bad, relevant and irrelevant. When it's someone you have long known to deliver good, and then a new 'bad' facet is exposed to you, then you have to make a judgment: does the good outweigh the bad." Yes.

I recently started looking at the world through a utilitarian filter. Maximize happiness. Happy people are more productive than their morose or disengaged peers. We know how to apply simple practices to boost well-being and happiness. Why don’t we?

A part of well-being is living comfortably in one's skin. That quality is what Dee expressed. In the long run, you have to be yourself above all. There’s a calmness in that thought. I think that keeping your expectations to oneself is one of the determinants of well-being. I’d like to explore that further.

Euan, your post hit this mental trip wire for me. You have to find who you are and live that life.

Euan, Dee, David, Simon, everyone: if any of you are interested in continuing the conversation, let's schedule a Google+ Hangout. +jaycross @jaycross

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay Cross

Hi Jay. Thanks for the comment! I am on holiday at the moment and so not able to take part in a hangout for the next ten days or so.

August 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterEuan

I am seeing a link between this blog post and your one about religion.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCormac Heron

Indeed :-)

August 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterEuan

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