EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATIONS IN ONLINE ADVOCACY
"The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace."
I'm a relative newcomer to the animal advocacy movement and will admit that I'm a social media neophyte as well. However, I'm not naïve about human behavior and given the anonymity of a keyboard and screen, I recognize that people will say almost anything to support their opinion or belief. Far too often, it is vitriolic, and ugly.
For example: When it was discovered that dolphin trainer, Jose Luis Barbero; who was accused of mistreating the dolphins in his care, had committed suicide; I read through some of the comments made by animal welfare advocates and was disappointed to read comments such as:
"I'm glad he killed himself ... good!!"
"Good... burn in hell."
Can you imagine the pain and horror that a member of his family would feel if they read those comments? Can you imagine what hateful thoughts they might have toward you?
If your reply to me is, "I don't give a damn what they think of me!" ... well, you should.
By crowing in delight that a person committed suicide; a person who is sure to be loved by friends and family, you're telling the online world that you are without sensitivity or empathy - none! What does that level of insensitivity and cruelty tell the world about animal welfare advocates?
We are supposed to be the sensitive and empathic ones; able to see clearly the suffering of another animal. We have the empathy to imagine how it feels to live the boring, frustrating and constraining lifetime of captivity suffered by animals.
A common remark I've read from pro-captivity proponents is that we should be more focussed on human suffering and when they see an anti-captivity advocate expressing pleasure that someone is dead, they are vindicated in their belief that we're all insensitive hypocrites.
If we don't display the same empathy and compassion toward our own species, whether it's Jose Luis Barbero or an anonymous someone who disagrees with you on Facebook, you call into question your sincerity, and your motivation for being an advocate.
As I became more involved with efforts to end the holding of cetaceans and whales in captivity, I grew frustrated with the aggressive "us against them" mentality that pervades on both sides of the captivity issue. I realize it's inevitable but I don't see any advantage in widening the gap.
It's bad enough that those who favor captivity resort to insults and name calling, but when my fellow advocates resort to the same tactics, I cringe at the damage they do. When you make an aggressive comment, aimed at someone who disagrees or holds a different opinion, there's only one outcome: they fight back. And as the saying goes: "In a pissin' war, everyone gets wet."
One sarcastic comment or a single insult, and you aren't being listened to any longer and will probably get blocked from the conversation. The short term satisfaction of what you feel is a clever put-down of your "opponent" is, in actuality, a lost opportunity.
If it talks like an extremist, acts like an extremist and attacks like an extremist - it's an extremist.
There should be no pride in being labelled an extremist. An extremist is on the fringe, whereas we want our opinions to be understood and adopted by the mainstream of society. Those people who support having animals in captivity want to label you as an extremist because it weakens the plausibility of anything you might say.
When engaging in online conversations, every insult you spew, every derogatory insult you hurl, no matter how clever you think it is, reflects on your character and credibility. It quashes any likelihood that those reading what you've said, will understand your perspective or believe anything of what you have to say.
In effect, you're doing more harm than good, and probably delaying the success of our efforts. You are simply disengaging people from the conversation and proving the contention that you are indeed an aggressive extremist.
Those who are opposed to ending captivity will say just about anything to defend their beliefs. Eric M. Davis, editor of Awesome Ocean, has labelled Dr. Naomi Rose as an extremist. Anyone familiar with Dr. Rose knows her to be one of the most rational, fact-based and balanced thinkers in advocacy - and I'm sure that Mr. Davis knows it. Ironically, by labelling Dr. Rose as an extremist, Eric Davis is making an extremist claim.
Are you starting to see how it works? The more extreme the statements you make, the more you are exactly what you are accused of being.
Trying to share our understanding with the uninformed, misinformed or the contrarians, can be challenging and frustrating. However, I can tell you with absolute certainty that no one is going to be listening, once you've insulted them, or their opinion.
The people you are talking with will have expectations that you are going to say just about anything to advance your cause and given what I've read from some of the anti-captivity proponents, they have good reason to expect so.
Educate, don't berate.
My advice to you is this: Be a model of intelligent, fact based, rational behavior.
Rather than shaking your fist in the air with righteous indignation and a, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about, you f***Ing idiot!" instead, be reasonable, rational and factual.
By communicating in an intelligent and respectful manner, it demonstrates that you are thoughtful, carefully consider what you say and therefore, more likely to be seen as credible and believable.
It's wise to remember that there may be someone reading through the online conversation that is undecided on the issue, someone who is not sure which side of the debate they are on. They will hear your reasonable and rational comments, compare them with the aggressive words of a pro-captivity supporter, and it might make the choice of the undecided a little clearer.
Road-blocks to communication:
- Insults and name calling: This should be self-explanatory.
- Extreme statements: E.g. "Shut down Sea World!" or "Free the whales." This is unrealistic and will only result in defensive responses. Such statements are simply a call to arms for Sea World supporters, and Sea World employees will fear the loss of their jobs, to say nothing of the thousands of jobs from those businesses that support and supply Sea World. As well, if Sea World were to shut down, who would acclimatize the animals back into the wild or provide long term care for those animals that can't return to their natural environment? Many of the animals currently in captivity were born in captivity and cannot be set free.
- Judging, criticizing: "You are not thinking maturely" or "The trouble with you is..." On hearing a statement like this, whoever you are talking with will stop listening or go on the defensive. In either case, you've lost an opportunity to have a positive influence.
- Sarcasm: This is nothing more than a sneaky means of insulting someone. The moment a sarcastic statement comes off of your fingertips, you can be assured that you've lost credibility.
- Character assassination: For example: This comment was excerpted from a pro-captivity Facebook page. "This man is truly a pathetic, despicable, cowardice scum. How dare he have the ability to get in front of a camera and talk like he has some sense of moral values and intelligence. He is total filth. EFF him. Period." Never make comments like this!
- Perpetuating the "Us vs Them": Making statements like: "We're going to defeat all you pathetic pro-caps. Soon you'll have nowhere to watch your abusive shows. Anti-caps rule!" This only stimulates a defensive-aggressive response and in reality, bonds the pro-captivity side of the debate.
- Be polite and respectful: This is rule No. 1
- Be non-judgemental: This includes refraining from subtle insults, such as: "Perhaps you labour under the limitations of an inadequate education, so let me put it in simple words for you."
- Have facts and references at your finger-tips: Very few people are going to right out accept what you say. Back up your statements with a link to factual and credible sources.
- Facilitate understanding: They are not your enemy, they're your students.
- Be an active listener: Let the other person know that you've heard what they had to say: "You're quite right, Sea World does have an effective rescue program that has rescued many manatees and turtles. All the same, holding killer whales in captivity is not related to their rescue program and is a separate issue altogether."
Aside from being respectful, letting the other person know that you are listening, may open them to being more receptive to what you have to say. Active listening is the first of five steps to having someone see your point of view and hopefully change their behavior, and what they believe:
Use the power of the paraphrase. When the person you are talking with doesn't understand the point you are making, take a moment to think and re-phrase what you are saying. It doesn't always work but it's a better course to take then calling them stupid for not understanding the point you make.
Apologize: You are trying to be patient and calm but a comment just rubs you the wrong way, you lose your composure and fire off a nasty at the other person. A few moments later, you cringe, knowing that it's too late to delete. Your only recourse is to come clean and do damage control. It's time to get all Canadian on them and say you're sorry.
There's been three occasions over the past couple of years when I've had to apologize after I lost my self-control. In each case I swallowed my pride and made an apology. In two of those cases I could tell that the other person was taken off guard. They accepted my apology and the conversation continued with the other person reflecting what I was saying and perhaps, learned from my perspective.
What if you're wrong?
It is incredibly important that you take great care to ensure the information you are offering is factual. Even if it means taking a moment to leave the conversation to double check your facts. If you are in doubt, say nothing at all.
If you say something or make a claim that proves to be wrong, admit it. Always. No matter how painful.
If you don't, and you're caught defending an obvious error, it weakens the validity of everything you've said, and ever will say. As well, all anti-captivity advocates will all be painted with the same brush that you've charged with the wrong color of paint.
You're under attack.
You've been polite, rational and factual but you've come up against someone who is intent of insulting you and raising your ire. There are only two steps to follow in this circumstance:
It's frustrating when we present documented facts or widely accepted opinion and whoever we are talking with refuses to explore the possibility that they are laboring under a misunderstanding. There's the possibility that they enjoy being an online bully and are spoiling for an opportunity to exchange insults. There are those who thrive on acrimony and by denying them the chance to do what they enjoy, you win!
When you encounter a contrarian or bully, take the high ground; be polite, respectful and state the reason why you are leaving the discussion:
- "I can't be a part of this conversation any longer, your insults are unacceptable."
- "I can see that you aren't able to hear my side of this issue. Please, take the time to read this." (Provide a link to reputable information that supports your discussion point.)
Like you, I shake my head in dismay at times. It's difficult to fathom why pro-captivity supporters can't relate to, or understand, the injustice that is done to animals. Perhaps it's due to brand loyalty, objectification, or perhaps they lack empathy because they have an AA gene variant on their oxytocin receptor.
Whatever the reason, the chances are slim to none that you are going to change the thinking of someone who supports Awesome Ocean, Stand With SeaWorld or Anti-Blackfish Movement, and in my opinion, it's simply not worth the effort to hover over those pages and attempt to sway opinion.
Even so, I do take the opportunity to visit their pages every so often, if only to gauge the strength of their following and what conversations are current. At times, when I see an obvious piece of misinformation or a badly skewed perspective, I will make a polite comment or post a link offering a different perspective on what's being said. I'm able to do so because in the past, I've been polite and careful not to offend.
To my way of thinking, being banned from a pro-captivity page is not a "badge of honor." Instead, I see it as a lost opportunity to observe, teach and share.
For the most part, I feel that spending any significant amount of time on pro-captivity pages will not make any converts.
Your time can be better spent by putting your energy, compassion and knowledge to more valuable use by educating the unaware, the undecided and those people who care but haven't yet raised their voice for the animals.
In the end, it's not how loud you yell; it's the multitude of voices, in concert, that wins the day.
This article first appeared as a blog at Fins and Fluke.