I was first introduced to social media on April 16, 2007, the day of the Virginia Tech shootings. My niece was a sophomore there. As I watched the horrific television coverage, I heard many references to something called Facebook, where students were communicating with family amidst lack of phone service and other communication. I promptly logged onto my laptop and searched for Facebook. I found that Stephanie was safe, although shaken, having been in class in the building next to where the shooting happened. One of her professors and two friends were among those killed.
At the time, I thought of what a blessing Facebook had been, to be able to breathe easier after finding out that Stephanie was okay. Following that horrible day, I became obsessed in finding other family members and friends I had not seen for many years. It’s been a joy to reconnect and keep updated with more than just the yearly Christmas card.
But there’s been a dark side to social media. I don’t know what it is about a person alone at a keyboard spewing vitriol he/she would never even consider saying face-to-face, or even on the phone. It’s like toddlers playing peek-a-boo, who hide their faces and think you can’t see them.
Once you say something in anger, you can’t take it back. You can apologize, but often the damage is already done. At least if you write a letter, you can always rip it up before mailing it. Or if you’re sending an email, there’s the delete button. But people seem to forget to count to ten or take a deep breath before saying or writing something they may later regret. They speak before thinking, type before considering how their words may be perceived.
We live in a country that values its free speech. Over the years, that has been expanded to mean actions as well. We forget that with rights come responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is that your right to do something should not encroach on another’s right. We have a responsibility to speak the truth, not our version of the truth. Opinions should be based on fact, not just what someone else says.
As a writer, I’ve learned to research extensively before I write a word. What would a writer of children’s books need to research, you ask? It goes without saying that if I’m writing nonfiction or historical fiction, my words need to reflect factual information. But even in my Mortimer and Me series, I researched moose and Wisconsin before I even started outlining the story. I may have taken artistic license a bit, like Mortimer solving Jimmy’s subtraction problems, because it is, after all, a fiction book meant to entertain. But the bulk of my information is factual and realistic. If I’m writing about seasons in Wisconsin, there’s going to be snow on the ground in the winter, mosquitos in the summer, tons of leaves to rake up in the fall. I spent hours researching stories about Bigfoot before writing The Bigfoot Mystery, and how to build a treehouse while writing Moose For Hire. I want my stories to be entertaining, but as accurate as possible.
Social media is a forum to share feelings, frustrations, celebrations, and yes, even political opinions. Somewhere in all the rhetoric, we let emotions get in the way of common courtesy, conclusions jumped to before all the facts have been fleshed out. Debates are reduced to name-calling, cursing, and downright rudeness.
When I taught school, I tried to instill in my students these questions to ask themselves before speaking out in anger: • Is it true? • Is it kind? • Is it necessary? • Will it help the situation? • Will it make a difference five years from now?
I read a meme on Facebook just today that said, “Speak to people in a way that if they died the next day you’d be satisfied with the last thing you said to them.”
We are a divisive nation. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. I’m entering the seventh decade of my life. I lived through the “duck and cover” exercises in the ‘50’s when we worried about the atomic bomb. The nightly news in the ‘60’s showed civil rights marches, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the number of people who had died that day. We’ve survived president assassinations (yes, I can tell you where I was when JFK was shot), terrorist attacks, economic recessions. And yet, we’re still here. Calm heads must prevail, rights need to be respected, and differences recognized.
And in the still silence that remains, let your voice be the one to speak the Truth in Love.