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Posts published in “Day: July 21, 2021”

Social (dis)Graces

meador

I made someone cry once, when she read my comments in a news forum. She was a person of some note and influence and her tears were not those of compassion or sorrow — she was outraged. I am told she took my remarks to the forum’s publisher, demanding they be removed, all the while shaking and crying tears of anger. Of course, I heard all this third-hand so I have no way of knowing whether it’s true. All I know for certain is my remarks caused a certain amount of offense among those who read them.

The news story was a simple one, describing a new business coming to one of the outlying small towns scattered throughout the Yamhill Valley. Several local residents were bothered the new business might erect a cheap back-lit sign — in not-very-polite terms, I remarked that a shabby little town like the one in the story had greater sartorial concerns than one more tacky plastic back-lit sign. In my defense, as McMinnville has become known as a wine destination, the surrounding communities have jumped aboard the tourism bandwagon, some with greater success than others. The offended woman interpreted my blunt comment as classist, a sweeping insult to people of little means. While my remarks were not intended kindly, they were also not intended as classist.

At the time, I thought her outrage was quite humorous.

I do not find it funny now.

What changed? Well, we all did, most of us anyway. As social media grew in use and influence, we were fairly quick to spot the hazards inherent to posting anonymously. It was easy to see that we and others could and would vent freely when protected by the shield of online facelessness. The venom came quick and it came in unbelievable measure as the public felt the exhilarating freedom of dropping all constraints of decorum when there was no threat anyone would find out what assholes we really were.

Oops. Did I just say assholes? Sorry. I went through dozens of words to fill that spot and there was really only one that fit. I apologize if you find it offensive. I know it’s tacky at best, but so were we when no one knew who we were. Anonymity gave us license to say whatever we wanted to whoever we wanted whenever we wanted with no consequences or accountability — well, with no consequences to us, anyway.

So the responsible among us tried to tone down our anonymous commentary or even stick with posting only under our real identities. Problem solved, right?

Not so much.

What happened next was far more insidious. When COVID hit and everyone was forced to stay at home for unprecedented lengths of time, our dependence on social media grew. Coupled with one of the most politically divisive periods in our history, people just decided being polite wasn’t worth the effort. So no one felt like being nice but at least those of us who had already made a conscious decision to eschew the protection of online anonymity believed we held the high ground — we posted under our real identities so nothing we said could really be all that bad, right?

What was missing was subtle but enormously important.

We’ve become dependent on social media — we’ve become familiar with it entangled in the events of our lives and we’ve become comfortable with it. What’s lost is the nuance of a tilted eyebrow, the barest smirk, a wink, a nod or any of a thousand tiny signals we use to convey the emotion behind the words we speak.

Online, I find myself scolding people who maybe didn’t mean their remarks as I interpreted them. Likewise, I am regularly chastised by people who read negative emotion into a comment I intended neutrally. Or I reread comments I made hours or days earlier, startled to see that they sounded harsher than I intended. Or any of ten thousand combinations of the ways we assign emotion to dispassionate text when we haunt our favorite news and politics pages on the internet.

That’s the problem: text, itself, is totally dispassionate. We can feel any emotion to any degree when we pen an online remark but these words we type are, themselves, unfeeling. Thus, those who read our comments — even if we took great pains to make them reflect our feelings — will assign their own emotions to what we wrote, based on their own perspectives. And vice-versa. I can encounter an innocuous remark about a subject dear to me and I may read all sorts of emotions into those words, feelings the remark’s author never intended to represent. And many of us tend to default to the worst possible interpretation when we do this. Even if we don’t become the full-on a-holes we were with anonymity, we certainly become mini-a-holes, knowing the worst backlash we’re likely to face is a flurry of hateful responses in the thread. No real world consequences. Most of these little snark-a-thons in which we engage online we would never allow to escalate in real life, with a real person in a real place like a coffee joint or a shop.

Most of us would be mortified if we behaved in person like we do online.

Lest anyone think I am lecturing, let me state unequivocally that I am guilty of all of these bad practices. In fact, I examined my own social media use to form the outline of this essay. I am as guilty as anyone.

So what’s the solution? How do we go about implementing the small-but-hugely-important constraints we use when we have a conversation with a real human, face-to-face?

I dislike the virtue-signaling redolence of vowing to ditch social media entirely. For one thing, it’s impractical: so much of our lives are tied up in the events and discourse present in social media. For another thing, few people can make such a commitment and stick with it. Further, swearing off social media entirely throws out its good connective aspects along with the bad. But using social media mindfully — meaning consciously monitoring our use of social media, being careful to balance digital relationships with actual human contact — is another thing entirely. With a little practiced discipline, we should be able to calm the instinctive negative reactions we have to things we read online, making our default interpretations neutral instead of worst-case. If we approach social media with our eyes open and our minds aware, we can begin to fix this monster we’ve created — a monster bent on turning us, ourselves, into mini-monsters who accept menace and suspicion as completely normal.

Where I once saw humor in creating outrage, I am now embarrassed by my own related actions and reactions.

Writing political commentary, I am well aware I will regularly offend people — it’s an unavoidable occurrence when anyone takes a public stance on any controversial issue. But offending people with reasonable dialogue is a different creature than penning intentionally rude remarks that serve little purpose beyond insult. I probably won’t be able to help myself once in a while but I’ve already sharply constrained the way I react to comments with which I disagree or even to the rude words of people doing their level best to offend.

I’ll never be perfect but I’ll tell you one thing: I no longer worry I’ll regret my remarks later. It’s a surprisingly refreshing feeling.
 

Health and death

maloy

Talking with Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher about his recent cancer diagnosis a couple of weeks ago hit home with me. In many ways, being lucky is better than being good.

The congressman’s cancer was discovered in conjunction with a routine physical examination. Fulcher, who normally is a ball of energy, just happened to mention to his doctor that he was not feeling at his normal high-octane level.

The revelation probably saved his life. His doctor ordered some tests and renal cancer was discovered. Fulcher says it’s all treatable and everything will be fine.

I was in a similar situation almost 17 years ago, although my circumstance was related to my heart (and diabetes), opposed to cancer. During a routine checkup, I told my doctor that I was experiencing shortness of breath during my regular workouts on my exercise bike – nothing big, just something that I have noticed over time. My doctor referred me to a cardiologist, and a few days later, I was getting five-way heart bypass surgery.

Looking back, I came close to not telling my doctor anything – a decision that would have put me in a graveyard 16 years ago. Look at me now. I just turned 71 years old and typically walk four or five miles a day, play golf during the spring and summer and bowl during the cold months. As a bonus, I’m still writing my regular political columns, which is my twisted way of “having fun.”

So I have no doubt that Russ – who compared to me is a young whipper snapper at 59 – is going to be fine. I’d say chances are strong that he will be serving in Congress for at least some time after I hang up my keyboard.

But he’s the first to say that he won’t be the same Russ Fulcher that we’ve always known – or the same guy he knows. His goals include being a better legislator, a better person and one who has more compassion toward people dealing with cancer. A few of his perspectives will change, no doubt.

Diabetes certainly has changed my outlook. Over the years, I have spoken to various groups to promote awareness of this “silent killer” and have participated in events in Washington, sponsored by the American Diabetes Association. A couple of weeks ago, as an early birthday present, I was named to the board of directors for Diabetes Alliance of Idaho, which is focused on diabetes education and prevention.

So, what does this have to do with politics? Everything.

Finding a cure for diabetes depends on continued congressional funding for the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. Politics comes to the forefront during discussions over the cost of insulin, or the listing of calorie counts on menu items.

With COVID-19, diabetes has been pushed to the background some, but it remains as a major health crisis both nationally and in Idaho – with an estimated 132,000 having diabetes and more than 100,000 with this ticking time bomb called pre-diabetes.

We’ll see in time where Fulcher’s passion takes him, but he’s a pretty decent guy to begin with. He’s not one of these members of Congress who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth – coming from a rich family and turning his privileged fortunes into a lofty political career. Russ grew up on a dairy farm and spent his life, in and out of politics, working his tail off. He’s an easy guy to chat with and relate to – even for those who might not agree with him down the line politically. Stay tuned to an “improved” version.

What he should realize is that a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence – it’s just something he has to deal with for a while. I’ve had my share of complications and challenges with diabetes over the last 20-plus years, but it has not been a death sentence.

I couldn’t imagine having a better life. I may be into the fourth quarter, but there’s still a good amount of time left on the clock.

Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com