I was scanning my Facebook news feed, an activity that has become a little too routine I have to admit, when a photo of a naked person popped up – something that is definitely not routine. It caught my attention for the obvious reasons, but also because I recognized immediately that the photo was taken just down the street from the ABQ office.
I recognized exactly where the photographer was standing. The picture was just a snapshot, with the street in the foreground, and across the intersection was a naked person, facing away from the camera, looking into a restaurant’s glass door.
It was an odd, unexpected scene, and the oddity was clearly what prompted the photographer to snap a photo and the poster to share it on social media, with the disclaimer:
“Not our usual kind of post.”
The post came from a local organization I follow with a mission focused on local issues of equity and justice. The photo itself was surprising, and the dissonance between the organization and the post was jarring.
The photo quickly attracted a handful of comments. “Nice socks,” said one person, which made me look back to see that, yes, the person in the photo was wearing socks. Within the space of a few comments, however, the thread started trending from surprise to conjecture to jesting.
I paused, a slight feeling of upset starting in my stomach, a vague sense of dread starting to form.
I could not help but think about how it would feel to have a photo taken of me at a vulnerable moment, and then shared in a public setting for others’ amusement. Before I began typing, I was already mentally entering the conversation: “That person has a story, too. We don't know what is going on in their life.”
Turn Away, Jump In or Change Direction
In less time than it took you to read my description of this event, I had arrived at the kind of moment that social interactions deliver to us all the time: a moment where we decide (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) whether to look away and keep moving, to join the stream in the direction it is headed, or to give voice to our misgivings about what we are witnessing.
Perhaps, like me, you have chosen each of these paths at different times. I have certainly looked at posts, decided not to join the fray, and just moved on. Though I might hate to admit it, I have probably sometimes joined in and helped a thread reach the lowest common denominator, especially among friends, when there was a good opportunity to make a clever joke, when we don’t know or aren’t personally connected to the person at whose expense we are enjoying a good laugh. Maybe because they aren’t physically in front of us, it’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are doing no harm?
But what makes this moment a dilemma at all is the collision of our conscience telling us something isn’t right with the social forces that make us hesitate to speak up and say something: we don’t want to upset people, we dislike confrontation, we don’t want to risk our standing in a group, we think someone else will do it, or – especially in online spaces – it seems futile. We fear that saying something will only lead to an endless argument without resolution.
All of these worries raced through my mind as I looked at the screen, trying to quickly decide what to do. I needed to speak up.
But how should I go about saying something? What I have learned from many years of work in the field of diversity and inclusion is that often people hesitate to say something is disrespectful because they don’t know how to say it.
In an Ask Big Questions conversation, we ask participants to commit to an Agreement of Mutual Responsibility to guide how they will interact with each other during the experience. One of our Agreements states in part, “We will recognize that we are all people in process. We are more than we express in any one moment.”
Just as I wanted the poster and commenters to recognize that there was more to the person in the photo than this moment in their life, I needed to be mindful that I didn’t know the story of the original poster, either. I needed to not come to a conclusion about their motivations or character based on this one post.
In other words, if I wanted the poster to be able to hear my feedback, I would have a better chance of success if I practiced generosity rather than assuming the worst about them. This is a key point: often I think online conversations break down when our feedback is essentially, “You are a bad person because of this thing you have said or done.” (Yes, of course, some people prove themselves to be prejudiced, judgmental, intolerant or hateful – so our strategy would be different in that scenario.) When we allow room for someone to simply have made a mistake, we also allow room for them to make a change.
To give the poster room, I sent a private message:
As a new resident of our town, I have really appreciated the news and announcements you share, especially because of your focus on issues of equity. Thank you for providing this service.
Your mission seems to be at odds with a post I just saw, referenced as “not your usual post,” showing an unclothed person at the door of a local restaurant. I am disappointed to see this. That person has a story, too. We don’t know what is going on in their life. Posting this photo invites us to engage in dehumanizing and mocking comments – a problem that is much too prevalent in our society today. I hope you will reconsider and take it down.
I quickly got a response:
Thank you for your message. About 1 minute after I posted the photo, I took it down. To be honest, I hesitated as I hit the post button. While initially I thought it would be funny and would get a lot of attention, I felt uneasy. I appreciate you letting me know that my gut was right. Thank you.
But instead of just taking the image down, something even better happened: the organization posted again. Owning up to the motivations for the post, they publicly named their mistake:
While initially I thought it was funny because it was an unusual situation that was captured on camera, I realized we don’t know the story behind the photo … I felt that I was exploiting the photo by publishing it so publicly on a Facebook page, particularly my page that addresses some of these issues.
Sometimes when we support people in being their best selves, a chain reaction of good things happens. To use Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, we “gain strength, courage and confidence” to listen to our own instincts. And we help interrupt the culture of ridicule, judgment, shaming, and contempt that is so destructive, to our individual spirits and to our common humanity.