Our gadgets, however, have become a dangerous way to communicate when we are angry, disappointed or otherwise annoyed with someone or something. It used to be that we wrote letters to the editor, picked up the phone, talked it over with a cup of coffee or out for drinks, or in the public policy realm we attended public forums to vent. Things have changed. Now we simply send a text, email, tweet, or post on Facebook about anything and everything. We all have done it, and usually after we hit the send or post button we think better of what we have said and wish we could take it back (at least some of us do).
A perfect example of the boundary we have crossed in our cyber rants, was on display this past week, when veteran writer and filmmaker dream hampton decided to leave Twitter after a series of public attacks on her teenage daughter via her Twitter feed. I personally considered doing the same thing two weeks ago after I took a public stance against same-sex marriage as a matter of my religious faith. I had been on the record for years as a supporter of civil unions and gay adoption. Yet, as a Christian I accept the Biblical definition of marriage in Matthew 19:4, as between "male & female." I (and some others) was "called out" on TV by Professor Michael Eric Dyson as a "sexual redneck" and "religious bigot" for my position. Subsequently, I had a debate on MSNBC's The Ed Show with Dyson. After our debate I received a series of tweets so vile that I dare not repeat them here. My life was threatened. I was called vicious names, and people wished me dead. It was simply mind numbing and scary all at once.
In my case, as a journalist my opinions are fair game for public comment and response, but when expressing our opinions become personal attacks, or worse threats to a person's safety we need to take a step back and evaluate. The goal of this piece this morning is to get us to reflect on why we are so angry, why we react instead of "responding" to what upsets or perplexes us, and why we take it out so readily on social media, texts or emails.
Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions for how we can do better, and know that I am talking to me first and foremost. As expressed in Part I of my "Sisters Heal" series last month here on Essence.com, I myself have damaged (or been damaged by) relationships by reacting to something that hurt me via email or text. I discussed how a dear friend of mine and I permanently severed our relationship after a series of texts and emails that went back and forth over an issue so minor, so ridiculous that looking back in hindsight embarrasses me. The tragedy is that things went so far on our cyber communications that I started tweeting about how (never using her name or revealing identities) we could never get to a place of "talking" about what happened, mending and healing. I can tell you that the relationship is now irretrievably broken and when we saw one another recently we did not speak a word. It's a very tough lesson learned and one that taught me to never again express my feelings or react to feelings expressed to me via cyber connectivity. It never ends well. Never.
Here are my suggestions for keeping it sisterly on social media:
1. When angry, disappointed or hurt, write out a DRAFT of your feelings via email, but DO NOT hit send. Or better yet, cool off, pray, meditate, seek wise counsel on how to respond to the situation in a way that will foster positive communication, not cause further damage.
2. Never send a public tweet, post or anything that threatens, demeans or attacks another human being. This is cowardice in its worst form. Ask yourself would you want someone to do that to you? You would not.
3. Never post or tweet, text or email about your job or position. This can end you up fired or worse, sued if you release confidential information.
4. Celebrities, athletes, journalists, public people are NOT your personal dart board. You do not have license to attack, threaten, demean or expose people on the internet because you disagree with them. We have feelings, too. We have families, too. We deserve a modicum of privacy, too. Give us the same respect you yourself would want if you were in our shoes.
5. Finally, and most importantly, learn to re-engage and reconnect with your fellow human beings, family members by getting OFF social media, email, text and picking up the phone, Skype, or arrange to have coffee in person. When there is conflict, commit to resolving it by communicating respectfully and in person. Emails, texts and tweets do not often come out as we want. Worse, they usually come off as mean, angry or intentionally hurtful ways of communicating. Save your work relationship, friendship or personal relationships by daring to resolve your issues in a way that moves you both forward and allows you to grow as people. This is not complicated stuff, folks. We are all guilty of this in the "cyber age." As I said, I had to lose someone I valued before I truly understood the permanent damage that can be done when we react to a conflict via text, email or Twitter.
Sophia A. Nelson is a contributor to Essence.com and author of the forthcoming Trade Paperback book, Black Woman Redefined which is being re-released and updated from the hardcover May 2011 edition; in stores October 2012.