Feeding the wolf

The other day my father-in-law forwarded me a message; one of those inflammatory "statements of fact" that seem to have a life of their own on the internet.

This one was about the ridiculous salaries heads of charitable institutions like Red Cross and United Way make (for more information, check Snopes.com for the actual scoop on this.)

Though the concerns were certainly valid, the information was a minimum of seven years out of date -- the woman cited as head of the American Red Cross had left that position back in 2005 -- and the heads of the institutions who served as suggested alternatives because they made "zero dollars" were in fact all also pulling six-figure incomes.

This is not the first time my father-in-law has sent me such stuff, although usually it's considerably more political and right-wing than this was, and usually I just write back, tell him he's got the facts wrong (again), don't believe everything you get across the net, always check snopes.com -- you know the drill.

But it doesn't seem to make much of a difference, so this time I pointed out some of the specific fallacies in the email, sent him the snopes link, and added two quotes.  The first is one of my daughter's favorites: "When you assume, you make an ass of u and me," and the second was one I encountered in Pema Chodron's wonderful little book, Taking the Leap:

"A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about.  He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart.  One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind.  The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, "The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed."

My father-in-law, who is, despite his prejudices, a delightful and loving man, sent me a cartoon the next morning with a note, "Surely I don't need snopes for this one!"  So clearly he's forgiven my outburst.  My sisters-in-law sent notes thanking me and agreeing with me.  And my husband and his brother both felt I was being too harsh.  So it was an interesting exercise... which I thought of today, while compiling this picture.  (Bear with me here, there is a connection!)

One of the lovely things about living here on the sandspit (unless, like me, you're allergic to shellfish) is that crabs, oysters, fish and clams are plentiful.  The crabs are particularly fun to get -- you just put on your boots and go out at low tide with a rake and a bucket to put them in, and you not only get dinner but you also get that great feeling of accomplishment.

So here's the connection: it seems to me that there are crabs everywhere on the internet, too -- and they're pretty easy pickins: you just troll for negativity and pick up whatever catches your fancy, then feed it to your friends.

But it seems to me that picking up those crabs and sending them off is equivalent to feeding the angry wolf -- especially when the information is false.  You're trying to get people riled up about stuff you think should disturb them: it reminds me a bit of a friend I had at a former job who delighted in telling me the latest stories of bad behavior in the office.  I do understand the concerns; I even understand the impulse to get other folks to do something about those concerns.  What worries me is the consistent delight in negativity.

Perhaps I'm a Pollyanna; it wouldn't be the first time someone has accused me of that.  But it seems to me that there are alternatives to sending out one-sided inflammatory prose; to feeding the angry wolf.  Just forwarding the words seems to me to exacerbate our feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.  Plus you're essentially triangulating, dragging someone else into your feud, trying to expand the number of people who are "on your side." It's the easy way out, it's the obvious way out, and it's much simpler than trying to ascertain the truth and work for change.  But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right choice, and it certainly seems to add to the always persistent problem of polarization.

I'm just sayin...

So here are Ten Things You Can Do when you learn about something that disturbs you.

1.  First, confirm that what you heard is true.  Find some reliable source, and if you can't do that, do your best to become a reliable source: go to the source, find out what actually happened as best you can, and then figure out a course of action.

2.  Give yourself time to cool off before you speak or act.

3.  Express your concerns directly to the person or organization whose actions or statements have concerned you.  Try to do so without attacking or being defensive; use "I" statements.

4.  Encourage them to explain the rationale behind the choices they made that you are finding untenable.

5.  Clarify what you think they said to confirm that you you are listening and doing your best to understand their thinking.

6.  Take time to understand the motivations and explanations behind not just their reactions, but also your own.   Imagine yourself in their shoes, if possible.

7.  Be willing to accept responsibility for your own contribution to the problem.

8.  Be open, both to the possibility that there might be something you could learn in this discussion and to any opportunities for reasonable compromise.

9.  Find something productive you can do to help address the problem.

10.  Thank them for their willingness to listen, engage, discuss, etc.

If, after having taken these steps toward productive dialogue, you still feel grave concerns, then it will be time to embark on a campaign to raise awareness of the particular issue.  But always remember that the objective of that campaign is not to attack a particular individual but to solve a particular problem.

Yeah, I know.  Easier said than done.  And this is just off the top of my head, and probably doesn't apply to all situations.  But still  -- it's at least an alternative to feeding the wolf.

Now.  If I could just learn to practice what I preach -- I might have had a much more productive dialogue with my father-in-law...


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