How Not To Be A Dick On Social Media During A Terrorist Attack, Natural Disaster, Or Other Horrifying Tragedy

While I'm sure your political commentary is indeed incisive and cutting and generally luminous, maybe hold that brilliant analysis back for a day or two. One thing at a time.
Publish date:
May 22, 2013
twitter, tragedy, politics, don't be a dick

It’s been a difficult several weeks for tragedy in the US, between the Boston marathon bombing, the massive gas plant explosion in West, TX (the cause of which is still being investigated), and now the tornado devastation in Oklahoma. And I’ve noticed something.

It used to be that when disaster struck, the most you might have to deal with is a random acquaintance or co-worker saying something insensitive -- like when September 11 happened and the next day a bunch of my more asinine “radical” grad school classmates were joyfully reveling in the imminent destruction of capitalism with pretty much no consideration for the fact that thousands of people were dead and thousands more were injured and a city was reeling from the horror of it.

That was upsetting enough. Now, with the ubiquitity of public (and semi-public) social media like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and comment threads everywhere, we get to hear the unconsidered observations even of strangers, who can offend us with their obliviousness without our even seeing their faces, ever!

For the most part, I think social media (and Twitter in particular) is a huge positive during disasters large and small, as it allows people to connect and to gain and share information (albeit sometimes bad information or information that ought not to be shared) with a speed and efficiency unmatched by any other form of media.

But there is also a downside, and the downside is that sometimes, people are dicks when publicly responding to tragedy. Even if they don’t mean to be, they are.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard NOT to be a dick in these circumstances. I have learned this skill from copious error and experience myself. I’ve even compiled four simple tips to help you out.

1. Don't tell people how to feel.

Just don’t. If people are angry, don’t tell them they should feel sad. If people are sad, don’t tell them they should be angry. If people want to pray, don't tell them their god is a hollow lie. And PLEASE do not tell ANYONE that they should feel grateful or relieved that it wasn’t "worse" for them.

I can guarantee you that right now there are people whose homes and loved ones survived yesterday’s tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma who are feeling a complicated mixture of relief and trauma and even guilt. Just because a person’s house is still standing doesn’t mean they are not also experiencing the wider devastation in a deeply personal way.

Also, there are degrees of trauma felt even by those who have no direct connection to this particular event. People who’ve never even been to Oklahoma but who were living in Alabama and Mississippi during the April 2011 tornado devastation there are likely feeling some pretty strong reactions because they connect to the experience, and to the images being shared.

It’s best that you simply DO NOT ASSUME how someone is feeling, or how they should be feeling, or most egregiously, whether they are entitled to be upset. Everyone processes tragedy differently; there is no “correct” emotional response, no right way to feel, and even if you think I’m wrong about this, you are not the specially-appointed arbiter of emotions and you do not have a mandate to explain to people why their feelings are bad or inappropriate.

Just let everybody react and deal and be there to listen for people who need you, remembering that deeper conversations can happen later. There will be plenty of time for that in the weeks and months following. When the devastation is still being assessed and people's wounds -- both physical and psychological -- are raw? Not the right time.

2. Don't make public political commentary (yet).

Of course you can have your political takes and opinions. And certainly you can share them with friends or in private groups of people you know.

But social media is public, for all intents and purposes, and snarky quips and jokes about the politics of the disaster’s location, made on Twitter or elsewhere in public spaces online, can be the equivalent of walking into a huge room of strangers with a broad range of personal connection to the tragedy and shouting your clever observations with no regard for people's feelings. Seriously, if someone has just lost their house, a friend, or is generally traumatized, making everything about your own incisive political observations is kind of in poor taste.

A perfect example of what NOT to do is provided by a tweet sent on the Friday morning following the Boston bombings, published by Arkansas State Representative Nate Bell, who mused: “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?” The night in question was the beginning of the manhunt for the two suspects after a police officer was shot in his car and the duo led the cops on a chase and into a horrific gun battle in Watertown.

The tweet has since been deleted, although it was up for a good part of the day, and obviously even removing tweets doesn’t stop anyone from holding you accountable for them, as evidenced by my ability to remember this random douchebag’s name even now.

I suppose it didn’t occur to Bell that police officers, not to mention the bombing victims still recovering in area hospitals, might be dead or injured while he was typing that out? That people all over the region might be working through fear and pain and loss? Such that restraint might be called for? Or maybe he thought that if the victims were “Boston liberals,” or if it was the children of “Boston liberals” who’d had their legs separated from their bodies, then somehow their circumstances were less deserving of sympathy, such that his clever gun rights commentary would be appropriate. Who can say.

Bell’s observation was patently stupid for many reasons. The most obvious is that it’s enormously insensitive to make a traumatic event like a bombing in a public place into a wry political quip before the blood has even dried on the sidewalk.

And besides that, it’s just wrong: even during the terrible gun battle and standoff in Watertown, and that awful Friday spent under a weird sort of martial law, no one I know was wishing for an assault weapon in their house. Indeed, most people I know, myself included, were wishing the bombing suspects HAD NO GUNS AT ALL, and wondering aloud how they got them. So assuming that you know how those affected REALLY feel is awfully presumptuous and offensive. (See item #1.)

In a more recent example, following yesterday’s tornado devastation in Moore, Oklahoma, folks on Twitter and in comment threads took up the opportunity to snarkily chuckle over the destruction and horror as some sickening “payback” for Oklahoma’s two conservative senators having voted against funding federal disaster relief following last year’s east coast megastorm, Sandy, that catastrophically damaged parts of New Jersey and New York in particular.

People were making these comments literally at the same time that Moore rescue workers were attempting to pull injured children from the flattened rubble of their elementary school, while their parents sat waiting to hear whether their kids were alive.

CERTAINLY it is an appropriate time to contact elected officials directly to assert in favor of funding for disaster relief, if that’s what you feel compelled to do, but this is not the same thing as idly invoking Twitter politics from the safety of your non-tornadoed home. It is not the time to slam Oklahoma politics or Oklahoma’s elected officials -- people are suffering, and the focus ought to be on pulling a community together, not rolling out partisan differences and forcing people to choose sides.

As I said on my own Twitter feed last night, Boston did not get bombed because it elects Democrats, and Oklahoma did not get tornadoes because it elects Republicans. Neither of these political positions -- which, I should add, are not uniform across either place; Boston has plenty of conservatives and Oklahoma has loads of bleeding-heart liberals and “red states” and “blue states” are simple-minded bullshit -- means the suffering of their residents is less sympathetic than the other.

Will there be a time to publicly unpack the politics of a situation, and their context, and to discuss the finer points of the situation? Absolutely. But I’d argue that the minutes and hours or even days after a disaster occurs just isn’t the right time to be splitting focus away from the recovery itself to some broader public discussion about fiscal politics, worse yet to use that to imply that Oklahoma “deserves” this destruction in the name of teaching the state a punishing lesson.

We’re better off reserving judgement in the short term if for no other reason than because our initial reaction to these situations is rarely the same one we have after fuller consideration of all the factors involved and the horror at hand -- hence the rush to delete tweets we think better of later.

3. Don't tell people that if they REALLY cared about the tragic loss of life, they would be more focused on Syria or the Sudan or the United States’ drone attacks on civilian targets or some other international injustice of which Americans are going about their lives blissfully ignorant.

This is actually a combination of the above two points, but it’s worth laying out anyway.

Yes, Americans are often clueless about what goes on in other countries. That’s not acceptable. It’s a problem. But there’s a time and a place to draw attention to it, and, generally, immediately following a more local tragedy? That is not the time or the place.

Calling people selfish in the midst of personal loss, trauma and devastation for not immediately caring as much when the same events happen to strangers in warzones in distant places -- even if those faraway horrors are happening directly or indirectly as a result of US foreign policy -- is just absurd, and it makes you an asshole. Even if you don’t mean to be an asshole, you’re going to look like one, even if you’re just trying to helpfully lend “perspective” to those who are sunk deeply in their own loss and tragedy.

Yes, tragedy happens everywhere, and many places in the world see far more than their fair share of it, often owing to no fault of their own. But it is a normal and very human response to feel the pain of it more deeply when it is your town being attacked by terrorists or exploded by an industrial accident or flattened by a weather system.

More importantly, compassion is not a zero-sum resource -- we don’t run out of it because we use it all up somewhere else -- and tragedy is not a continuous world-wide competition. When you publicly respond to a terrible sadness on social media by asserting your own superior worries over some OTHER terrible sadness elsewhere you only look like you’re trying to be politically holier-than-thou and really, this neither helps draw needed attention to the cause you have chosen to champion, nor does it assist the people whose pain you are minimizing and invalidating.

Certainly you can draw connections with terrible events in distant places, but forcing your comparisons on others as though their pain is less worthy or less important than the pain of others -- or as though their pain doesn’t “count” because they are only feeling it when they are personally affected -- is just insensitive. Yes, it would be ideal if everyone on the planet had a built-in compassionate imagination powerful enough to make them feel as strongly for the losses of others as they do their own, but very few people are like that.

Indeed, you actually WANT people to feel their feelings on this, as having had a personal experience with such tragedy and loss can help them to be MORE sympathetic the next time something terrible happens in a distant place with unfamiliar people -- loss and heartbreak are pretty universal feelings, and are not bound by cultural difference.

4. Be compassionate.

Be human, for heaven’s sake. It's not outrageous to ask you to put consideration for the feelings of those most deeply affected before your own in these instances, nor it is unbearably oppressive to your naturally exuberant spirit. You can hold back on sharing your cleverness for a couple of days and survive the effort, I promise.

Just because you are relatively anonymous on the internet does not mean you are exempt from being a decent person, although I realize this is what lots of people genuinely assume. But you know what? It’s wrong. And even if nobody else in the world knows what a shitbag you occasionally are online -- if not in general, since even good and kind people have moments in which they say offensive or troubling things online, because making mistakes does not make you bad, it just makes you a person who is learning, and there is no shame in that -- you have to live with yourself, knowing it.

If you really want to help, then donate something -- if you can give money, then give to the American Red Cross, and if you hate the Red Cross (which many do, for understandable reasons), then find another reputable resource to send funds to. If you can’t give money, then give your time, and investigate opportunities to volunteer your assistance. If you can’t give money or time, then pay attention to donation collections in your area and give some of your stuff -- there will be many people in Moore, OK who will need basics like clothing in the coming days.

And if you can’t give any of that? Just apply some self-restraint on your social media accounts, and remember that these are people suffering, and respect for that should trump your urges to be clever or snarky or right -- even if they are people with whom you think you have extreme political and/or cultural difference. Because ultimately, human suffering transcends ideology, and tragedy does not discriminate.