Last week, several posts on the greater meaning behind the words child-free or childless floated through the Internet, some said more eloquently than others. Some thought we shouldn't have given attention to the original post but I can't disagree more. When you observe something that bothers you and there is a point to addressing it (because you believe change can come out of addressing it), then the answer is not to squelch your feeling, but instead to utilize the best form you have of expressing yourself and examine your feelings on the subject.
There were posts and bulletin boards that went with pointless name-calling, but others who presented their personal reaction to the post as well as why they were upset by the words. The one that had the best discussion within the comment section appeared on BlogHer and I don't think that was an accident despite the fact that it probably had the most diverse population reading the post than any other blog. We had a great discussion too, but many of us are coming from the same population, therefore, it didn't surprise me that you felt similarly.
The comments on BlogHer were written by a broad audience of those with or without children and in both cases, due to a plethora of reasons ranging from choice to circumstance. There were differing opinions, though everyone stated their thoughts respectfully, taking into account the idea that everyone's circumspection needs to extend as far as the next person reading their words. It can't stop at a halfway point, only creating a bubble of thoughtfulness towards those like-minded. It needs to extend to every possible reader, who doesn't need to agree, but needs to be able to walk away unoffended.
The original post that everyone used as a jumping point to their own words took the opposite approach, with the author stating within her apology "Did I know I’d get a rise out of people? Yes. And yes, I was taking a jab at the child-free." The original post received over one hundred comments--an anomaly for the Orlando Sentinel blog posts which tend to get under 10 comments per post (and most receive one or none) and those comments were as vitriol-laced and angry as the original post.
And the obvious answer is that thoughtfulness begets thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness begets thoughtlessness. Laurie at BlogHer presented her reaction to the original post with thoughtful circumspection and in turn, commenters took her lead and added their own respectful ideas. Kim Hays wrote the original post trying to anger others and in turn, commenters came at her with anger. And it wasn't just an angry reaction from the group she intended to hurt. Her anger created anger in others as her commenters took the lead of the writer and spoke with the same disrespectful tone with which she used on her potential readers.
The idea of how do we communicate what is important to us without offending others has come into discussion in regards to IComLeavWe. The project attracts a lot of infertility bloggers because it started within our community, but it has since expanded to include bloggers in all areas of the blogosphere and participation is open and encouraged for all regardless of blog topic. The very point is to open dialogue between communities.
Participants enter their blog on a list and describe their blog in three words to give readers a heads up before they click over. Participants then read and comment on a wide cross-section of blogs from adoption-focused to political-in-nature. And while the project celebrates the almighty comment and the interactive and conversational nature of blogging, it also is meant to mix people who might not otherwise meet. Think of it as an online version of the BlogHer conference, where you leave your corner of the blogosphere and meet hundreds of other types of blogger whose corners of the blogosphere might be wholly unfamiliar to you.
The point of IComLeavWe is not just to read about a life that might be incredibly different from your own with the person making very different life decisions, but to also respect and respond to their words. To not just read and click away, but to leave a comment. This works better, as you can imagine, sometimes more than others.
But how far can we take circumspection with a vast and varied Internet--especially within blogs where the writer usually doesn't know all the readers who may encounter the post? The larger the audience--as is the case with a large readership such as BlogHer--the more chance there is to offend because the audience will not all be focused on the same like-minded topic as they do on smaller, themed blogs.
A lot can be learned by examining the two posts and learning not only how to be a better blog writer, but a better blog reader and commenter.
(1) Be concise and clear. The reader isn't inside the author's head and therefore if it's not stated outright, the reader doesn't know the information. Don't assume your reader has read a post--link to it. Don't assume they follow the same people on twitter. And don't make the mistake the original author did when she aimed her post at everyone without children by using vague language. Her apology stated that she meant her original post to be directed at those who are child-free who have attacked her decision to have children. But in leaving her post as an open message to all people without children, she inadvertently hurt everyone who is not a parent. In fact, in her apology, she continues to state that "I (still) do believe that there are certain intangible benefits to being a parent that people without children will never be able to comprehend" still directing her message to all people without children rather than the ones she meant to target.
(2) Be polite. Keep the same level of politeness in the online world as you would in the face-to-face world. People can argue and disagree without being cruel. However you comport yourself as you move though your day extend to your interactions online. Before you hit publish on a post or comment, ask yourself if you would say the same things if you had to look the person in the face and speak the words.
(3) Give details. One of the inherent problems with the original article is that she states that she is responding to cruelty thrown her way without actually stating concrete situations that the reader can use as a lens through which to see her words. Without knowing the circumstances that kicked off the post, the reader is left to decide whether or not the voice is trustworthy enough to follow, and 9 times out of 10, when someone is being vague without reason (the exception being when a person is forthcoming and states they needed to keep it vague to protect another person's identity), their words come across as hollow, without substance.
(4) Respond to the words on the page, not what you believe was the author's or commenter's intention. The only facts the reader has to work with are those that are on the screen. As a commenter, do not use the comment box to spout your own personal message but instead use the post as part of a conversation. We all bring with us our life experiences when we read a post, but when I read something on a topic near and dear to my heart, I don't bring in aspects of the argument that were not contained in the post. In kind, as a writer, be clear about your intentions. As an example, unless otherwise contained in the post, if a writer is speaking critically about the Duggars, they are speaking about the Duggars and not all large families. Therefore, the comments should be about the criticism of the Duggars and not about how the commenter feels offended that the author doesn't support all large families.
(5) Stay away from blanket statements and referring to broad groups of people (either positively or negatively). I think the best comments on the BlogHer post came when people didn't make blanket statements about everyone in a situation but instead had the person speak of their own personal experience and state that they understand that a single experience does not stand in place for a whole group.
(6) If you're not prepared to be open-minded and see the world from a different angle, stay away from the interactive medium of blogs that day. There are days when I just don't want to consider anyone else's life but my own. And those are the days when I don't open Google Reader or surf the Web. I read books, watch television, and do a host of activities that do not have an interactive nature to them. Reading blogs is not a daily requirement like a vitamin--it's okay to skip them if you're not in the right mood.
What else would you add to this list of how to read, write, or comment on the Internet doing minimal emotional damage to others? The reality is that no one is perfect, you don't always know who is reading a post, and the point is not to squelch creativity or free speech, but to help people to speak their mind in a way that is productive and moves us forward rather than circling in our own or another person's anger.
somewhat cross-posted with blogher...