I spend a lot of time on the internet. As an editor for Global Citizen, part of my job is to keep track of the content we produce, and see how people engage with it. Similarly, I like to see what kind of content other blogs, advocacy organizations, and news outlets are producing, and gauge how their readers respond to the content. What I’ve learned is equal parts encouraging and terrifying.
It’s easy to see that we’re living in an era that’s more politically correct than ever before, which is wonderful. On a macro scale, it means education and understanding are replacing ignorance and fear. On an individual level, it means we’re being more deliberate and thoughtful in our word choice.
As our society is becoming more “PC”, subjects that were once taboo are also coming to light as people feel more comfortable talking about them, especially online. A quick scroll through my Facebook feed leads me to articles on transgender models in the fashion industry, videos explaining privilege, and interviews with top female executives discussing gender equality in the workplace.
With all of this information at my fingertips, I’m empowered to learn about subjects I previously knew nothing about, share that information with my family and friends, and engage with other readers online. How amazing is that?
But I do have one complaint: the police. The PC police, to be precise.
It appears that some people have appointed themselves as police of the internet, bestowing judgement at every possible opportunity. I’m not saying everyone should passively agree with one another or the content they encounter online- it’s through debate that we can grow and evolve. But I get the sense that these “cops” aren’t cruising the internet to engage in healthy dialogue. Instead, it seems they’re trolling to put people in their place.
Through a little self-reflection, I realize that I’m the pot calling the kettle black here, because I too have played the role of bad cop (anyone remember my piece about Halloween costumes?). In college especially, I remember getting all riled up from an impassioned lecture, and subsequently looking for opportunities to demonstrate my moral superiority. It wasn’t my nicest phase, and I’m grateful that my family (who were often the beneficiaries of my lectures) haven’t held it against me.
Here’s something I’ve learned though. Nitpicking and attacking people is never a good strategy if the end goal is to educate. In fact, it’s the quickest way to alienate someone and turn them away from the conversation. Instead, I suggest the following:
1. Ask yourself: Am I trying to prove a point, or educate? Am I contributing to the conversation, or detracting from it?
2. If your goal is to inform, then don’t humiliate. Instead, try to come up with an anecdote or an example that makes your point. And NEVER underestimate the value of a compliment sandwich. I’ll give this example:
I used to work with children with autism. Early on, I learned that if a person has autism, it’s more considerate to say “boy/ girl with autism” instead of “autistic boy/ girl”. A lot of people don’t know this, and unintentionally offend some people as a result. So, if I read this online….
“Check out this fantastic article explaining the role the educational system has in working with autistic kids”,
rather than saying,
“You insensitive cow! I think you mean kids with autism.”
I might say,
“Thanks for sharing this article (compliment). By the way, it’s better to use the phrase “kids with autism” because it places more emphasis on the person, and less on the condition, since having autism is only one part of who that person is (critique). I only learned this a couple of years ago, and since you seem like a thoughtful person (compliment), I thought you mind find that helpful :)”
Smiley is not obligatory, but I’m a big fan.
3. Use a light touch. Rather than bombard the person with an aggressive rant, provide a simple explanation and then include a link to an article you personally found helpful. That way the person feels like it’s their choice to learn more. No one likes being told what to do or think-particularly in long never ending rants.
4. Challenge yourself. It’s important to reflect and ask yourself how you’re advancing the conversation, and always look to see where there’s room for improvement.
So those are my thoughts on that. Of course, all of this applies offline as well. Bottom line- no one likes a know-it-all. If you want to educate someone, that's wonderful- just do so strategically. And let's all agree to leave the badge at home.