Is Polite Discourse Online a Contradiction in Terms?

When we are engaged in hot-button topic conversations online, tempers can flare. People can flame. Things can get ugly very fast. Does this mean we should avoid those topics altogether? No, not at all. I'm only saying to give it more thought before responding.
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As an author and social media consultant, I have a pretty healthy online presence, as part of my over author platform and branding strategy. I typically share tweets, quotes, pix, and excerpts that have to do with the topics I write about: love, loss, sexual abuse, social media, and occasionally, Nutella (what).

The other day I shared a tweet on Twitter that had something to do with an issue I'm passionate about, that's certainly in the news lately: rape culture. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (at age 11) and attempted date rape in college, I'm compelled to help people find the courage to discuss their experiences to remove the shame and associated stigma.

Joining in a trending meme originated by Zerlina Maxwell, my tweet:

#rapecultureiswhen we blame women for getting raped. women don't rape themselves drew ire from men who told me that 'rape culture was a figment of silly women's imaginations' and other such commentary.

Was I offended? Did I lash out? Let's deconstruct.

We're Real People

Looking at this from the perspective as a survivor and writer who shared my own story (and continues to do so in my upcoming book, online chats and blog posts), I realize that I can use my platform for good, to start and encourage polite discourse on important issues.

I wasn't offended at the men who disagreed with my statements (or about rape culture in general) because I speak from my own experiences, which they can't possibly ever understand. Even male survivors have a different perspective; yet all need to be heard. People have a right to their opinion and I don't have to agree with it, nor them with me.

I'm Offended Syndrome

Many times, it's more about intent than it is reaction... someone just wants a rise or to be heard. But does that mean I need to react to an attack or be offended when someone comes at me in a forceful way with opinions I clearly don't agree with? No.

I will absolutely encourage anyone, writer or not, to engage in conversations that they feel passionate about. However, from a branding perspective (sorry, have to throw that in there), we run the risk of alienating potential readers by taking a stance one way or the other.

Politics and Religion

It's my personal decision to avoid, as much as possible, discussions about politics or religion online as part of one's author platform. I'll temper this by saying that if your books or blog are about those topics, then go for it -- it's part of your branding anyway!

However, if your book is about, oh, restoring vintage birdcages, and you come roaring out of your Twitter stream with something polarizing that could alienate potential readers, you need to think first. Keep in mind, also, that there can be legal ramifications to social media.

I accepted that me writing that tweet could bring out the trollies and the uglies -- and it did. I also realize I probably upset some potential readers -- and that's okay, too. Because not only do I stand behind my assertions, I also realize that those folks are likely not my demographic anyway. And yes, when they called me names or got threatening (and they did), I blocked them.

When we are engaged in hot-button topic conversations online, tempers can flare. People can flame. Things can get ugly very fast. Does this mean we should avoid those topics altogether? No, not at all. I'm only saying to give it more thought before responding.

Business vs. Personal

As authors (no matter how you are published), the onus is on you to connect with readers and create connections. If you are outspoken on one side of politics, you might want to consider creating a 'friends/family' account on Twitter (it would have to be private), or a small personal account on Facebook, in order to engage in those types of discussions without creating issues with your readers.

That isn't to say you shouldn't be your authentic self on your public streams or walls -- far from it. Any author who only sticks to the rote and boring 'Buy my book!' type of updates is doing the opposite of connecting with readers. When we discuss real topics, we are defining our real selves.

Freedom of speech does not give you libelous freedom and deleting a tweet doesn't mean anything -- it's still there in the Library of Congress and can be used in court. Trolls, stalkers, haters, and bullies all need to check themselves -- social media is not and never has been a place to threaten or libel -- and if people are using it that way (and have no doubt, they are), they need to do some serious reflection as to why they are behaving that way.

Be A Voice

It's a fine line: Do we use our platform to be a voice? I have. I started #SexAbuseChat on Twitter (weekly on Tuesdays 9 p.m. EST, open to any survivor or family member) with certified therapist, author, and survivor Bobbi Parish. Our goal is simple: discuss in an open forum the effects of sexual abuse on us -- men, women, girls, boys, spouses, friends, and parents. #NoMoreShame is our mantra.

I'm honored to have a voice and to use it. It would be easy to say, 'Well, if people don't like it, they can kiss my a**,' and believe me, I have. I regularly block trolls who are looking to use my hard-earned platform to push their agenda. But those people are, thankfully, a tiny percentage of the wonderful folks I connect with.

It's harder to allow people we vehemently disagree with to use our forum for their own agenda -- but hey, that's what the Internet and social media and blogging are all about at the core -- discussion, and for that, I'm grateful.

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