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When provocative posts or politically motivated harmful untruths come across our social media feeds, things often play out in a predictable manner. Someone gets activated and responds in an aggressive or shaming way and we’re off to the races. The opposing sides stereotype one another, resort to name calling, and if all else fails, the “tears of joy” emoji is transformed into a cackle of mockery. The knee-jerk response is to use put-downs to show disapproval, but our primitive and instinctive reaction to pain and fear in these circumstances only perpetuates separation and harm. The result is an even deeper entrenchment in existing belief systems.

Many of us are understandably feeling anger, even outrage at the selfishness, cruelty and hatred we see reported in the news and on social media. We may also be feeling deeply disappointed by the self-serving or misguided beliefs and values of family and friends brought out into the open by the recent unfolding of events. When we feel threatened or we see others we care about treated cruelly, it can be tempting to immediately lash out. We may experience an intense urge to ridicule, shame, name call, or injure in return. We may even find ourselves committing the very same propagandizing, stereotyping, othering, ridiculing, intimidation and aggression that we are revolting against. We might find ourselves thinking, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” or “fight fire with fire”. In our frustration and outrage, we end up violating our own deepest values and perpetuating a cycle of suffering.

The intentional harming of others we call aggression has problematic side effects and can be self-reinforcing. Though a little joke at someone else’s expense may seem harmless enough and gives a temporary boost, it sends a threatening signal, sets a tone, and becomes an example. Aggression and violence may garner some immediate attention to a cause and lead to short-term change, but research shows non-violence is much more effective in creating long term, second order change.

For example, we know when it comes to our children, shame and spanking are tempting, but problematic teaching tools. According to Kathleen Cushman of Education Week, “…shame–just as with anxiety, fear, confusion, and guilt–has the power to stop learning in its tracks.” Research shows that ridicule and physical punishment of children isn’t an effective form of behavior management and can lead to mental illness, increased aggression and antisocial behavior. The harsh punishment of our criminal justice system has also been largely ineffective in reducing crime and has served to perpetuate the very problems is purports to address. If our intention is to change hearts and minds, shaming and harsh punishment is not likely to have the outcome we desire. Yet, the instinct to retaliate is very strong.

Violence, an extreme form of aggression, is widely recognized as a violation of human rights, has huge costs in terms of lives and resources, and often places a heavy burden on survivors including those who inflict it. Harming others also makes an imprint on the one doing the harm. Not only can chronic anger lead to health problems, research reveals that people who score high on measures of hostility and aggression tend to have fewer long-term, close relationships. Violence also rarely accomplishes its deepest underlying goals, which is enduring and sustainable happiness for the perpetrator. It takes a lot of energy to keep the fires of anger burning that could otherwise be harnessed for good.

Aggression and violence serve to dehumanize the perpetrator as well as the victim because it suppresses our inborn and natural capacity for empathy and connection. Some of us have been so dehumanized for so long that we no longer recognize when we’re dehumanizing others. Fortunately, we all have the capacity to rehumanize ourselves. We are beings possessing a large cerebral cortex that, with training, allows us to override our baser instincts.

When we check in on our intentions, usually what we are trying to accomplish through our angry tirades is to protect ourselves and others from harm and to turn hearts and minds toward what we believe is the greater good. Yet, nearly every person who has gone public about their own change of heart says it’s compassion, forgiveness, and a connection with common humanity that inspired them. Christian Picciolini, a former neo nazi who now rehabilitates other white supremacists said, “What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it.” Derek Black, son of a former grand wizard of the KKK who now speaks out against racism said, “I realized that maybe I wasn’t being misunderstood. That perhaps my beliefs negatively impacted people I liked and cared about.” Scott Shepherd, a former Grand Dragon of the KKK and current anti-racism campaigner explained that he began to question his beliefs when he was forced to interact on a personal level with diverse people. He said, “…we sat down and talked to each other, sharing intimate stories. I learned Scott Shepherd didn’t have a problem with other religions or sexual preferences, Scott Shepherd had a problem with Scott Shepherd.”

There’s more than just anecdotal evidence supporting this phenomenon. Research data concludes that persuasion and paradigm shifts are best accomplished through deep listening, social norming, social movements for policy change, and other nonviolent strategies. Nonviolence involves cooperation with what is beneficial as well as non-cooperation with what is harmful. But, it requires preparation, training and organization, long-term dedication, and usually doesn’t have the immediate or dramatic impact of aggression. This is why we don’t often choose it as our first strategy.

A practice of mindfulness can help us to develop the broader view, equanimity, patience, and compassion needed to contribute collectively to lasting systemic change. After all, a vast and powerful ocean is made of many tiny droplets of water. Our practice can empower us to respond more skillfully to harmful views expressed through social media and engage in tough, but needed conversations with friends and family. We become better at noticing anger when it arises before it’s out of control, giving us the chance to respond in alignment with our deepest intentions in a way that might be of most benefit. Practicing even in times of relative peace and wellbeing will help us harness these beneficial qualities when they are needed most.

Once we have cultivated the equanimity and courage needed to respond with compassion and objectivity, we can stage our own personal non-violent protest campaign on our social media feeds by:

  • simply and without fanfare, reporting misinformation when we encounter it
  • responding to falsehoods with reputable references, giving the author the same benefit of the doubt we would wish for ourselves
  • calmly stating what we stand for without shaming or harsh judgment – embodying the change we want to see
  • choosing our words and communicating in a way that embodies the values and principles we purport to stand for
  • recognizing that when someone doesn’t immediately respond to our communications with gratitude or a change of mind, or even when they react with aggression, this doesn’t mean our efforts were “in vain” (change takes time and many other eyes may be reading your replies)
  • humbly admitting our mistakes when we make them, being willing to change our stance when we are proven wrong, and expressing gratitude those who have the courage to point this out to us
  • rejoicing in others’ change of heart when it happens, finding true forgiveness and offering encouragement, rather than retaliating or holding onto fixed views of them
  • consider having these conversations live and face to face so that we might better connect with our common humanity

In order to become a sustainable force for good, we have to practice patience and non-reactivity. We must also let go of our attachments to immediate outcome while maintaining our highest intentions. This is not an easy task, but its a noble one. May your practice be a light in the darkness transforming your suffering into action supporting collective healing and rehumanization.

A conversation can be a contest,
or a game of catch with invisible balloons.
They bounce between us, growing and shrinking,
sometimes floating like cloud medicine balls,
and sometimes bowling at us like round anvils.
You toss a phrase and understanding blooms
like an anemone of colored lights.
My mind fireworks with unasked questions.
Who is this miracle speaking to me?
And who is this miracle listening?
What amazingness are we creating?
Out of gray matter a star spark of thought
leaps between synapses into the air,
and pours through gray matter, into my heart:
how can I not listen generously?

Marilyn Nelson, Generous Listening

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