Some people shy away from conflict; others embrace it. Some, having embraced it, throw themselves in all guns blazing and quickly escalate the emotional level to potential violence. So in a queue for chips after pub closing time you will normally find me being polite and showing deference, verging on getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
There is rarely a right time to talk to people who tend to escalate the emotional level quickly. It helps to be out of the crowd, sober, sitting down and showing hospitality. Or being vulnerable enough to go into their space (the home visit).
I quite enjoy talking people down and have had some success at it over the years. I commend eight years in a customer service environment as better pre-ordination training than a counselling course (although you may find counselling courses a help if you wish to become a counsellor). My time as an insurance claims handler was invaluable. Our job was to help people who had had a bad experience.
I didn't realise how ingrained this was until my time at the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) when an angry woman demanded to speak to someone's manager and I was the nearest thing we had to that at the time. We were in an open plan office and so my colleagues heard me talk to the woman for some minutes, bring her down, rein her in and sell her some useful books. I got a round of applause.
Sorry about the long, smug introduction, but you need to know those things. You see on social media - which I continue to assert is simply hanging out where people hang out - some of the signs and opportunities are missing. All sorts of people can leap into the middle of a conversation and hijack it. I think we are still working out the cues and prompts of the etiquette and from time to time it gets tricky. I think this is why some people choose not to get involved. You can't tell who is drunk, who is already angry for some other reason and who likes winding people up. But is that a reason to treat it like the post-pub fast-food joint?
I had a difficult time last week and I share it to hear any words of wisdom. This is what happened.
Out there in social media land are some human-generated posters that are deliberately controversial and rely on people, or bots, sharing them. I have a few Facebook friends who tend to share these. Some know what they are doing and others don't. There is, incidentally, a subtle difference between a friend and a Facebook friend. Without going into details now, we need to be aware of that.
So a Facebook friend, a white male, older than me who lives locally, shared a post from 2012 from the Facebook page of Enoch Powell saying 'One day the people of this nation will wake up.'
I commented 'Nailsea getting a bit too multi-cultural for you...?' (Nailsea is about 96% white), tongue-in-cheek but I knew what I was doing.
The response was 'Not Nailsea yet Steve but was in Birmingham last week. Just saying......'
This annoyed me and is as close to racism as you can get whilst still being able to deny it if asked. As Birmingham is close to my heart I replied - keeping it cool:
'What's up with Brum? That's my home. Lovely place.'
The friend 'liked' that and said nothing more. An unknown stranger jumped in with:
'The man was brilliant and ahead of his time. Sadly we are way behind and paying the price!!!'
My friend 'liked' this too.
The correspondence closed at this point. I didn't rise any further as I didn't know the new commenter.
The next day the same Facebook friend shared another post, this time from the Refugees NOT welcome Facebook page. This organisation describes itself as a charity and is inconsistent about whether or not the word refugees needs an apostrophe in its title. Just saying...
'Two poisoned Russians, and the UK declares war on Russia. 500 murdered Europeans by Islam and UK embraces Islam.'
Now Christians Together in Nailsea are making a big effort to welcome and house refugees at the moment. Our town is friendly, hospitable and generous. We have welcomed one family to the area and are hoping to take up to ten more. I doubt that will change the 96%.
So, ignoring the factual inaccuracies that:
We haven't declared war on Russia
500 Europeans were not murdered by Islam
We have not 'embraced' Islam
'This makes me so sad
SG (a stranger) said 'Just cus you're friends on fb...don't try guilt tripping probably one of the most honest and honourable blokes you are ever likely to meet....shame on you.'
I replied 'Sorry you feel like that SG. I just think that people can be honestly and genuinely misguided. I am sad but not ashamed.'
'You may want to consider the possibility that it is actually YOU who is misguided ?? Nope...didn't think so.'
The original poster was kind enough to ask SG to step back from making things personal. He also said:
'Problem is Steve deciding which are genuine refugees and which are not. I have no problem in welcoming those who are genuinely in need but how to filter out the terrorists/health service tourists/spongers. Sorry but I feel, your (sic) welcome here but don't try to force your beliefs on us. Our country our rules.'
It got a bit silly after this as I suggested that the person was thinking of a different country and that my country's Christian heritage made it a place of welcome and hospitality to the alien and the stranger.
The sort of comments that followed were incredibly patronising and I responded to them all with politeness and a suggestion that we talk further over a drink.
But it is hard to hear 'Have you considered you might be wrong; no, thought not' or 'It's been on the news' without being goaded.'
My 'favourite' was when I suggested that one commentator and I might have different understandings of racism and I would be interested to hear her definition. The reply, edited, was:
How dare you question my understanding of racism. You know nothing of my background. I'm not staying here to be insulted.
Me and the original poster are still friends and I will accept the offer of a drink and a chat at some point.
But it has not ended well, I have made no new friends, been unable to convince people that I am genuinely interested in what they have to say and my attempts to lower the emotional energy and be calm have led to silence not helpful discussion.
I also note that the Facebook comment string is very hard to follow chronologically. I had to use my own activity log to piece it back together accurately.
My advice to future me:
- When 'arguing' with people you don't know online use really simple language or they may not follow the line of reasoning. My convoluted style is not helpful in these circumstances.
- Don't be goaded. If someone jumps to insult, don't go there. Bring it back down and apologise that it may be your own fault that you have not been clear.
- Walk away if this doesn't work.
- Look out for gnat-straining and camel-swallowing. I read 'Islam is not a race so it's not racism - QED'. Let the writer's own stupidity condemn them without saying any more.
- Don't let these people leave you with a dodgy opinion of thick-set, vest-wearing white males with chains round their necks, Or bottle-blond, white fifty something women with a smoker's complexion. That is to fall into the same trap as them.
Any other tips and hints? I'm helping run some training on social media use for church leaders next week. I felt that transparency demanded this be chronicled first.