Writing in Public

It happened to me again last week, as it does from time to time.  I wrote something that I felt needed to write, to say something I felt needed to be said, and as a result, some people’s feelings were hurt.

I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.  I suspect you don’t either.  But it’s tricky to move in directions that always result in happiness for all.  In fact, when it comes to issues of change and reform and fiddling with the essential elements of a system built by people, it’s likely that suggesting that something change results in someone taking it personally.

I try not to do that when the change suggested is directed at me.  That said, I feel like we collectively  are too nice to one another in our public discourse, or we are completely monstrous.  The middle ground is narrow and slippery and tricky to navigate.

It’s always easier to talk about big problems at a global level, to suggest change for all, but not change for a specific system, like our own.  But I find that the global comments directed at everyone are also too often directed at no one, and that’s no good, either.

I am reminded as I write this of the Four Agreements, a text that my friend and colleague often reminds me of.  Those agreements are:

1. Be impeccable with your word.

2. Don’t take anything personally.

3. Don’t make assumptions.

4. Always do your best.

I suspect we all struggle to live up to those in all that we do.  And I try to always expect that folks are living by some version of them.  But I fail to not take things as personally as I’d like all the time, and I know others struggle with that.  I also know that I do make assumptions about the folks that I work with – I try to always, in the words of Adaptive Schools language, presume positive intentions in others, even when I’m not sure.  Especially when I am not sure.

But change breaks eggs.  And can hurt feelings.  And it’d be easier to not act for fear of causing harm.  I’ve always been a big fan of the Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, specifically their call to those seeking truth to work, as they aim to tell that truth, to minimize harm.   They advocate that this looks like this:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.

— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.

— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

And they recognize that, while you might cause some harm, there’s often a greater good at work.  Tread carefully, but don’t not tread.

There’s paralysis in the moments after words I’ve written cause someone harm, and that paralysis is poisonous.  It sends my stomach on every roller coaster I’ve yet experienced, costs me sleep, and incites a healthy pile of self-doubt.1  But I realize there’s work to be done, and things to explore and wonder out loud in public about.  Many times in the almost eight years I’ve been blogging, something I’ve written has led someone to question my motives, or to suggest that it’d be better if I didn’t share in public.  Maybe, I’m often told, it’d be safer to not say anything.

And I think that’s wrong.  We don’t share in public enough.  We avoid action too often because we want to play safe and nice and not bother anyone.  That’s not the world I want to live in.  That’s not the person I want to be.  That’s not the world I want my children to enter into.  I want them to be agents for something, rather than passive participants in their lives.

And that’ll cause hurt sometimes.  Okay.  I can live with that.  Right now, at least.  At just this second of understanding.  Which I’ll do my best to preserve and protect.

How do you work to minimize harm while you also work to advocate for the change you believe in?  And what do you do when you cause harm, unintentionally or otherwise?

  1. I’m in the middle of doubting myself right now.  I’m writing right now to try to free myself a bit from that. []

7 thoughts on “Writing in Public

  1. One of the “big ideas” that came from our reading discussions was that “Sometimes you can observe and not comment” We were reading “Crash” by Jerry Spinelli and a student noticed that Penn Webb’s parents (who are Quakers) don’t react to Crash’s talk of violence. We refined our big idea somewhat to “You can listen to others and not respond or argue even if you disagree”. I’ve thought about this a lot this political season especially within the world of Facebook, social media, blogging etc. It’s probably good for me to remember that every post or comment is not a direct challenge to me, no virtual glove across the face with the promise of pistols at dawn. My mother once told me that she expected me to be honest, but that honesty didn’t mean telling her everything I thought, she honestly didn’t want to know. Mother’s have good advice like that.
    Kevin Slick´s last blog post ..The sky was so blue…

    1. I too struggle with the very same thing! I distinctly remember a moment reading something so asinine, quickly writing a comment, and hovering with my finger over the “enter” key like it was a trigger. I eventually decided not to go through with it due to the social consequences, but it was so hard! Remembering that “every post or comment is not a direct challenge to me” I think can be a huge help. Its amazing how much Facebook has caused us to “know” each other. Its created a completely new culture of social etiquette, namely because there are no immediate social consequences to our posts. I also believe that its a crime to sit back and say nothing, which is why I do my fair share of posting about issues that I care deeply about. I don’t do it to be controversial; I do it because I genuinely care about making the world better. If I can continue speaking my truth, and remember your quote, I think I”ll be ok. I love your poem about 9-11. Reading it caused emotions I didn’t expect to feel since it happened so long ago. I’d love to read it to my future English class every year on 9-11!

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