Hockey Twitter & Social Change

I have written before about what a powerful tool social media can be in effecting the change needed in societal attitudes toward many different issues. I have encouraged people to speak out about their experiences and to point out behavior and attitudes that are harmful. I firmly believe that speaking up and setting an example ourselves are the only ways to change our culture. Most of the people I interact with do not stand aside in the face of overt racism, misogyny, homophobia and the like. Things are a little different when we look at casual racism, misogyny and homophobia though.

Because I have only experienced misogyny as a straight white woman, I’ll shape my comments in that regard, but I think that the principles of dealing with these issues are useful in a wider scope.

I know some incredibly smart, passionate people through social media (mainly Twitter). I have great respect for the feminists, both women and men, who discuss important issues; who speak up when they see things that are unacceptable or hurtful; who I consider allies in my continued quest for inclusion in sports writing. I’ve learned many things from them and I would like to think that they have learned a thing or two from me and my experiences.

Sometimes it is tough to remember that none of us are right all the time. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes our anger, sadness, frustration and yes, even compassion and empathy, get in the way of making rational decisions. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Speaking out about personal experiences that are painful can be very difficult. Painful experiences are highly emotionally driven as should be apparent to everyone. When people are dealing with something painful and the emotions that accompany it, they do not always respond well to advice or criticism no matter how rational it may seem to the person giving it.  

I wrote about a situation that involved harassment online several months ago and while I know it is there, I have not reread it since the day I published it. It makes me feel a little sick to my stomach to even think about reading it because I don’t want to feel those same things all over again despite the fact that it was simply online harassment and not face to face or physical. I only received a little bit of criticism regarding that situation, but it was really tough to hear at that time. Now it is much easier to look back on it and see that some of the points made, although critical, were legitimate, despite the fact that I still do not necessarily agree with them. The overwhelming response to the experience I shared was one of support though. I felt so much better knowing that people understood how I was feeling and why I was feeling it. It continues to be an important moment for me in terms of my development as a hockey writer and a person.   

It is important that we show support for those who do speak out about painful or uncomfortable experiences. This helps give those brave people a safe place to begin feeling better. It is important to support those who have had these experiences and do not yet feel comfortable speaking out as well. Despite the fact that what many of us call “Hockey Twitter” is a vast space, it can often feel like a very small community. Making it a place of support helps people who have been made to feel uncomfortable feel safe in sharing their experiences. It may seem strange to expect that sort of behavior from a bunch of people who talk and write about hockey; however, this community is unique in that it often overlaps with many major social issues outside of sports.

I will tell you how I view these issues. Of course, you are free to agree or disagree.

When faced with these situations, the real trick for many of us is to figure out how to handle the person responsible for making the one we are supporting feel victimized. Many times, it is easy to decide how to do this because the responsible party has done something we all agree is egregious, such as physical assault, psychological abuse and the like. It becomes much harder when we are faced with actions that some may see as a grey area. Hitting on another person, making a sexual advance or making casual comments that may inherently be degrading to women but have been generally socially acceptable for a long time may fall into this grey area for many people.  

I think that many of us can agree that simply hitting on someone, i.e. asking them out, is not harassment in and of itself. If the invitation to engage in some sort of social interaction is not desired, it will be declined. Consider this caveat however: Asking someone out or hitting on someone you have become friendly with on social media and having that person decline WILL change your relationship with that person. It will more than likely become uncomfortable so that should be a consideration if you are trying to decide whether to do this. I know that seems overly simplistic, but apparently it is not clear to some.

If the invitation is declined, it should end there. Further invitations should not occur. Declining a potentially romantic social invitation once MUST be enough. Continued invitations make the receiving party feel uncomfortable and potentially, depending upon the tone of the invitations, even threatened. This is unacceptable.

Sexual advances through social media are creepy. They make the recipient feel uncomfortable and sometimes even unsafe. At the very least, they make that person feel like their social media community is a place that they must be on guard even against those that may outwardly be seen as nice and accepting people. This behavior creates a feeling of being unwelcome for many women. I am sure that sexual advances are made toward men through social media as well, but I am not familiar with that situation so I cannot really speak to its prevalence.

A good rule of conduct is to refrain from making any sexual advances through the use of social media because often the person making such an advance fully believes it will be welcomed when it will in fact not be welcomed. I realize that morality is different for everyone and I am not judging how people conduct their sex lives; however, your want for a casual or serious sexual relationship should not be pursued in a manner that leaves a trail of people feeling uncomfortable, unsafe or victimized in your wake. If someone does make a sexual advance that is unwelcomed, even once, he or she should be prepared to be regarded as creepy within his or her social media community. If those advances continue to be made toward the same person after they have been rebuffed or even ignored, it is harassment, plain and simple.

In determining how to respond to these types of things, it is helpful to me to think of how these actions would be viewed if they were done in person in a social setting. If you were hanging out in a bar and saw a friend getting hit on, you probably would not have much of a problem with it unless the invitation was declined and the person doing the asking continued to press the matter. Likewise, if someone made a sexual advance toward your friend while you were out at a bar and it was unwelcomed, you would likely think the person making the advance was a creep. If those advances continued after being declined, you would likely get security involved or take some sort of action to stop the advances and make your friend feel safe. Perhaps these same feelings should guide us on social media as well.

When we are responding to someone being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in our social media community, it is important to be supportive of the person speaking out. How you measure your response to the situation in terms of your feelings, actions or words regarding the person making another feel uncomfortable or unsafe is up to you; however, I think the examples about being out with friends that I discussed above may help in determining the level of response. Everyone is different and thus the responses will be different.

The really complicating factor in all of this stems from the use of social media accounts for professional and personal purposes. The line between professional and personal use is often very blurry. Many in the hockey twitter community are paid to write about and/or analyze hockey. Others are bloggers who do the same but often with little or no payment or as a venture undertaken in their free time. Still others are personalities who do not write anywhere in particular, but have carved out a niche for themselves in the community.

When someone uses an obviously personal account on Twitter to act in a manner that makes the rest of us feel like he or she is a creep, harasser or even a danger to others, the response is often public shaming and ostracizing. Extreme cases may even result in action by public authorities.

When someone who is considered a blogger acts in a threatening or abusive manner, the response is usually public shaming and dismissal from the blog he or she writes for or a severe loss in readership. When the actions of the blogger are in more of the gray area of these issues, a loss of reputation or standing is likely, but may be able to be regained.    

When people who have gained their following or audience mainly through a professional, i.e. compensated, venture behave in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable, unsafe or even threatened, using their professional or official social media account, it directly reflects upon the organizations that employ them. Public relations and image are important for the success of these companies and actions will often be taken in response to damaging behavior. If it is a single instance of poor judgment, the resulting action from the employer may be a reprimand or a public apology. If a pattern of this behavior comes to light, it is far more damaging to the organization’s reputation and thus more serious measures may be pursued.

The most important thing to remember in all of this is that the people speaking out about how the actions of another made them feel uncomfortable, unsafe or threatened are ENTITLED to do so. The response to how they were treated is entirely up to those observing it. If it is something in a rather grey area such as asking someone out, the result is likely to be some embarrassment or a slightly damaged reputation if that person is a professional. Once we move past simply asking someone out, the results, particularly for a person using their professional account to carry out such behavior, are more dramatic.

Again, the response to such behavior is measured by the people observing and reacting to it, not the person bringing the behavior to light. Speaking out and saying “this is what happened and here is how this behavior made me feel” is NOT what determines the resulting reaction from the general community. The ACTIONS undertaken by the person engaging in the inappropriate, unprofessional, questionable, offensive or abusive behavior ARE what determines the type of response that follows.

We are each responsible for responding to these situations in a manner we believe to be appropriate. If the person is a professional, then his or her employer is responsible for determining the appropriate action to take in response to the behavior depending upon the severity of its impropriety.

How the hockey twitter community responds can often take on a mob mentality. Sometimes we get so caught up in the mood of the response of others that we do not take the time to think about what we feel an appropriate response really is from our point of view. This is a fairly common occurrence outside of social media as well, so I do not think this is in any way unique. We are each responsible for our own reactions. Sometimes issues arise and upon first glance do not seem all that out of the ordinary or all that egregious. It is only upon hearing more back story or more information on how a certain type of behavior is harmful that we start to rethink our opinions. If we want others to rethink their views on issues of societal importance, we MUST be willing to discuss those issues.

Willingness to discuss an issue is not the same thing as angrily calling people names or labeling people because they do not see something in the exact same way that I do. So long as the person with whom we are discussing an issue is not simply engaging in harassment or name calling, we should be willing to talk. We should be willing to explain our position without simply dismissing the thoughts on that issue from others. We should be willing to answer questions.

I have often seen an issue of societal importance come up with a disappointed or disapproving type of response that prompts others to say “Can you tell me why that is so bad?” or something similar. Yes, context is hard when it comes to the short bursts of written word on social media, but it is important that these questions get answered. When someone asks a question like this about an issue that holds import for you, it is your opportunity to explain your thoughts. At that point, you are being offered a platform from which to explain something important.

Sure, one out of every ten of these questions may be from someone looking to be a jerk, but the majority of these questions, at least in my experience, are genuine. The conversation may not be an easy one. It will probably result in a litany of questions or positions expressed that have been shaped by years of misunderstanding, cultural misconceptions, ingrained attitudes or simply unfamiliarity with the issue, but it is of the upmost importance that these conversations happen.

Ask yourself:

How often have I seen someone change a long held understanding of or opinion on an issue simply because they were told they were wrong?

How often have I told someone “your entire way of thinking about this is wrong” and had that result in the person suddenly changing to the opinion I desire them to have?

If we want to consider ourselves leaders in effecting the change we want to see in society with regard to the issues we hold dear, we must be willing to explain the reasons the change is necessary and important. Change, growth and learning are all challenging to various degrees depending upon the issue. People need a sufficient reason to make a change. The reason must, in some way, validate them as a person. Those validations may be very simple, such as “this attitude negatively affects people I care about and I don’t want to do that” or “the things I thought I knew about this group of people are not true”, but they are necessary nonetheless.

I am not advocating tolerating people set upon harassing you or trolling you. Those people thrive off of the misery of others and will likely not change even for the most persuasive of reasons. Do with them as you will. I am advocating for an open discussion with participants who, even if not entirely enthusiastic, are at the least not intentionally disrespectful.    

Explaining why something is wrong or harmful when it seems like it should be so obvious is a frustrating and at times even maddening process. If you do not choose to go through it, that is understandable, but know this: social change does not happen when we ignore undesirable or harmful behavior and attitudes. Demanding that people change their long held attitudes just because someone tells them they are wrong is not an effective means of persuasion. Meeting respectful, sympathetic or at minimum, interested but questioning voices with hostility kills the environment needed for open discussion and growth.

I have failed at following this idea before and I am fairly certain I will fail at it again, but I am going to try my best. I hope you will do the same.

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