Skip to content
Apr 30 / Great Apes

Outrage, Kindness, and the Benefit of the Doubt

On Twitter we are often misunderstood to be an extreme stereotype of whatever view we’re expressing.  A person who says Corsi is one useful way to evaluate hockey players gets painted as someone who views Corsi as the only useful way to evaluate hockey players.  A person who wants to cut funding for one particular government program that they think is wasteful gets painted as someone who wants to replace the government with corporations.  A person who thinks a particular police officer should be held accountable for killing an unarmed, fleeing suspect gets painted as someone who thinks all police officers are bad people.  And on it goes.

I say “on Twitter” but I suppose I really mean “on the Internet.”  I don’t know why this is.  I can’t remember any instance of this kind of thing happening to me in an offline conversation, but for whatever reason it seems to be a common behaviour in any kind of online community – if someone says something you don’t agree with, they become a representative of the most extreme version of whatever argument they’re making.

This makes it easy to ignore and/or attack the person you disagree with.  “What an idiot who holds these extreme and sinisterly-motivated views that I, the rational person, must tear down!”  The problem with that attitude is that you’re very rarely criticising something the other person actually believes.

As it happens, “They’re dumb!” or “They’re evil!” are very rarely the reasons people disagree with you.  As a general rule, it’s a good idea to assume that the people you disagree with are both rational and well-meaning.  It’s extraordinarily common for people to believe that the only possible rational interpretation of a particular scenario is the one they’ve come to, but most situations can reasonably be interpreted in a number of ways.  Perfectly intelligent, reasonable people can (and do) look at the same things and come to different conclusions.  There are a lot of reasons for this: the ways that their prior experiences have coloured their understanding of the world, their current context, their brain chemistry, and so forth.

So when people are arguing a viewpoint that you don’t understand, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they’re either dumb or driven by some kind of ulterior motive (that you, the pure one, are not driven by), the best response is usually to step back and try to understand why they have that viewpoint.  And if you can’t understand it quickly (which you often can’t), it’s a good idea to step back even further, take some time, and just listen.  That’s not to say that there are no dumb or evil people, only that you should seriously consider a lot of other possibilities before coming to one of those conclusions.

And so we come to the latest “outrage” on social media, where “outrage” is used as a pejorative to mean “any criticism that I don’t agree with.”  In this case, the manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team’s Twitter account was fired after posting a tweet that many people found offensive.  Many people complained that he was “fired for emojis.”  I suggested that might not have been the reason:

You’ll note, I hope, that my language was pretty measured.  My next tweet, I think, was also pretty measured:

At this point I was accused of being an outrage hobbyist and irrational and opposed to free speech and whatever else.  This happened despite the fact that I was not angry and had expressed, I think, a fairly mild opinion.  And despite the fact that, as I pretty clearly said, I don’t think the man in question deserved to be fired. But unfortunately this is how things turn out on Twitter – a person expresses a view that others disagree with, and immediately they’re treated as having fairly extreme opinions that they’ve never expressed and which could not reasonably be inferred.

Here’s why I think this particular story is so instructive: I can see multiple plausible, reasonable interpretations of the Rockets tweet that started this whole thing.

  1. The emojis of a gun pointing at a horse were offensive, but the accompanying text did not have undertones of sexual assault.
  2. The emojis were not offensive, but the accompanying text did have undertones of sexual assault that are problematic.
  3. Both were offensive.
  4. The emojis were not offensive and in the context in which the accompanying text was used, undertones of sexual assault should not be inferred.

Indeed, not only do I think these are all plausible interpretations, they’re all interpretations that I saw.  I happen to agree with #2 and saw many people who I respect have the same response, but other people whose intelligence and intentions I respect had interpretation #4.  But on Twitter when I suggested to people who had interpretation #4 precisely what I said above – that it’s a good idea to step back and try to understand people who disagree with you – I was met with a large volume of tweets telling me there was no need to do that since anyone who had any other interpretation was obviously irrational or just looking for reasons to be outraged.

I still believe what I said – that people who don’t understand why others were bothered by the tweet should try to have some empathy and understand the differing view.  And yes, that’s true to an extent of people who were offended.  But the problem with that view is that in some cases people don’t have the luxury of being able to take time to try to understand where others might be coming from.  People who have experienced traumatic events often don’t get to choose the connotations that occur to them, the things that trigger their trauma.  I’m not one of those people and don’t claim to be, but I do think it’s immensely unfair to say to someone “Why can’t you just not be triggered?” or even worse “Who cares?”  It’s worth remembering that just because something does not harm you doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.

I often see people saying they wonder if they have to think about how everything they say might be interpreted by others (perhaps wrongly).  And to that I would say no, not necessarily.  I do, to a degree, understand the fear that you might say something that people will blow out of proportion and then refuse to allow you to explain or apologise (I tell lots of jokes, and occasionally people get mad at them.)  But at the same time, in general I do believe it’s a good idea to think about how your words will affect others.  This is doubly true when you’re in an open, (relatively) permanent forum like Twitter where you have less knowledge of who exactly your audience is.  And it’s especially true when you work in public relations for a large company communicating with hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of people.

So, as for the tweet made by the Rockets’ PR guy, what do I think should have happened?  I think firing him was an over-reaction.  I give him the benefit of the doubt – I don’t think the disturbing sexual undertones of what he said occurred to him.  But those undertones were picked up on by many people; it was a poorly worded tweet.  If I were the PR manager I would have apologised for the unfortunate wording of the tweet and sat down with the employee to discuss what happened and use it as a learning experience.  Most people make mistakes on the job, and most of the time they deserve to have the chance to learn and move past them.

You may still disagree with me, you may still think it’s all much ado about nothing.  But I hope you will extend to me the courtesy of considering that my view is rational and genuine, and I hope you’ll try to understand why I think how I do.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.