Reflections of our CEO: How Did Cruelty Become So Easy?

Last week, I saw a Facebook conversation leap from innocent question to cruel, personal attack in a series of just six comments. A few short years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that such a conversation could be commonplace. Today, I worry it’s become normal…. How did cruelty become so easy?

I’m seeing it nearly every day…. Playful one-upmanship devolves into personal put-downs. Efforts at nuanced dialogue about the issues of our time are rejected with responses that oversimplify and dismiss (at best) or belittle and vilify. Innocent requests for insight or information are dismissed with accusations of ignorance, misogyny, xenophobia, or worse.

Is online cruelty eroding offline trust?

It seems most common on social media, but I’m also hearing it in organizations, within social movements, and even in teams that should be collegial and collaborative. In my own experience, it’s eroding trust, fracturing evolving friendships, and ultimately damaging our progress on issues and causes that require us to work well, side by side.

“Don’t you know I’m human, too?”

Perhaps it’s too easy to forget that behind each online avatar is a real person. Multiply that depersonalization by the sheer number of hours people spend on social media (eight visits and over half an hour per day, on average, to Facebook alone), and no wonder it’s affecting the way we behave offline.

Are we really more interested in wit than wisdom?

Then there’s the pace of it all. When social posts rip around the world at the speed of light, we reward the quick response. The ability to nail a catchy soundbite seems to be rewarded, instead of the carefully considered, composed, and constructive response. In conversations that matter, are we really more interested in wit than wisdom?

The impact of immediacy.

Humans have a remarkable capacity to make quick judgments about our context. We quickly see patterns in landscapes, crowds, the world around us, which enables us to navigate the world safely. But in our new, social media-accelerated world, when we’re working to solve existential crises, can we really afford to tolerate snap judgments about ideas? Plans? People?

A friend of mine likes to self-manage in group conversations by taking a pause when he’s tempted to speak. He asks himself a series of three questions: “Does it need to be said?”, “Does it need to be said now?”, and finally, “Does it need to be said by me?” If he doesn’t answer yes to all three, he doesn’t speak…. Perhaps this is a helpful practice to help ensure online debates stay civil and productive?

Here are three more questions that can help maintain a productive, helpful, humane discussion—online or off….

Am I truly informed? A blog post of just 1,000 words is now deemed a ‘long read.’ Does that mean we’re subject matter experts if we’ve read, say, 5,000 words? Depends on the topic, I suppose. But hosting a couple of good meetings doesn’t make me “an expert convener.” Nor does taking an online course and subscribing to Wallpaper magazine make me a “design maven.” (These are actual claims I’ve seen in the past six months.) What if we slowed down and really looked at the depth of our expertise? If you’re legitimately a leader in your subject area, by all means, engage and contribute. If you’re not, maybe it’s time to sit back, listen, and learn.

Am I making unfair assumptions? Instincts are often simply assumptions based on past experiences. But past experiences don’t always apply to current situations. The more important a subject, the more influential a dialogue, the more important it is that we validate our assumptions. Ask yourself, Do you know what was meant by the statement with which you want to disagree? Do you know the hearsay you might be considering is accurate? Do you know your life experience applies in your current situation? If not, start by asking questions…. Validate your instincts before you engage.

Am I addressing the issue—or attacking the person? Topics that are important to us ignite our convictions—as they should.  But sometimes, our passion can burn brighter and hotter than we’d like, burning other people. Once we’ve slipped over the edge from engagement of ideas and onto the slippery slope of attacking people or their character, we’re in trouble. It’s hard to recover trust or re-cement fractured relationships. Worse, perhaps, it robs us of allies in the work we’re so passionate about doing.

Generative dialogue is built on generous engagement.

Patience in the face of vehement disagreement can be hard. It takes a temperate and patient outlook, personal resilience, and a commitment to remaining curious about others’ motivations. How do they see the problem? What are their hopes and plans? Truly generative conversations require all parties to be generous with one another.

Obviously, neither Facebook nor any other social medium is a place for complex discussions or nuanced discourse. But let’s not allow them to erode the quality of our offline interactions as well. That’s a dangerous problem—one we must all work against.

I’m choosing to make more space for juicy, generative conversations with people committed to making their world better. Sound interesting? If so, let’s chat—offline.


Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is one of a series of letters he’s writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era. You can reach him via [email protected].

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