12/09/2010

Oh No You Didn't: Emotional Regulation and the Online Community

We've all done it: we've blurted out something we wish we'd bitten back. We've made a face or indicated our displeasure or contempt when it would have been better to maintain the appearance of neutrality. We've all, I'm sure, written something we wish we could take back.

On the first two, speaking or physically expressing, I understand that the actions may be have been involuntary (nonverbal communication) or not reflected on (speech), so I am inclined to cut some slack. We have, according to Paul Ekman, refractory periods in which the emotion first begins and we are not capable of reappraisal. We are in the heat of the moment. Think of the adults you might know who have mini-tantrums whenever something goes differently than they were expecting; there is an initial outburst, perhaps with a fair amount of foot stomping and cursing, but within seconds the outburst is over and the person calm again. A longer refractory period makes it more likely that the person will have these temporary emotional outbursts than someone who has a shorter refractory period.

The written word, though, is different as there is deliberateness, intentionality, in the act, and while I'm inclined to consider where the other person is coming from, I'm less inclined to give a pass. Yes, we bloggers have a tendency to write in the flush of an emotion, but, ideally we're going back and rereading before posting (if you're not, you should). I think, though, that when we see the ugliness, the vitriol, out there on facebook pages and blogs and newspaper sites, what we're seeing is rarely unintentional. The people who post vile things know what they are doing and choose to do so, often with great delight.

Misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication are one thing; we can work to fix these things, engage in civil debate (even energetic debate), and I'll allow that I see nothing wrong with an occasional intentional and deliberate dumbass, asshat or douche when nothing else will do so well. They're not nice words and just calling someone that without providing back up information isn't particularly effective at explaining why one felt the need to escalate the rhetoric. Yes, it would be shorter, simpler, easier to expel a slur and be done with it. Engaging those one considers at best wrong and at worst an asshat takes up considerable time and effort when one works to make sure the information backing one's arguments up is sound. Sometimes, it's a matter of knowing when to disengage; when there's obviously no real exchange occurring, it's time to move on to better things, like watching paint dry.

It's clear, though, that many people find the exchange of names and insults to be a productive and invigorating use of their time, and it can get ugly out there. Really ugly. Because writing is an intentional act, I think it's reasonable to conclude that it occurs after some level of reflection and a consideration of the consequences of the act, and I think it makes it less excusable. As an example, while I dislike intensely the use of any version of r*t*rd, I'm inclined to allow that it slips off the tongue unintentionally in some cases, but if I see it written, I don't consider it unintentional. The person chose to type those letters, and when the person chooses to do that in disparagement of another person even after reflection, I'm not nearly as forgiving. In other words, there's a world of difference between a slip of the tongue while in a refractory period and the intentional act that occurs after the refractory period is over. So, I'm going to own that if I've called a person a dumbass, I can completely understand why he wouldn't be inclined to give me a pass. I assure you, if I called the person that, it was deliberate and intentional, and I meant it and I believed the person's actions merited that name.

If we inadvertently cause another harm and we're made aware of it, the right thing to do is make restitution. Often, though, we must rely on the other to indicate that harm has occurred in order for us to know, so that we can fix it. Miscommunications do occur and ideally should be addressed as soon as possible. We ought to be open to those transgressions so that we can smooth it over, make it right. How we handle intentional transgressions is more problematic; I'm forced to admit that I have no ready answer for that one. We can be genuinely sorry for hurting the other person or we can draw our line in the sand: we can understand that we've caused the harm, we're aware of it, and we stand by it (oh, like Stagliano is doing). Well, I guess, we're all well and truly screwed then, because no reconciliation is going to occur in that case, as no remorse exists. An ingroup and an outgroup exist, and that is that.

What do you do then, with the nastiness that is so often displayed in our autism community? I think most people don't see this side, and I'm hopeful that they go about their online activities getting support from other community members. I can't tell you how wonderful it feels after wading through the bilge that is at places like Age of Autism to go on over and read some of the bloggers on the directory. Their posts will be often be personal, family-related posts, and the comments will almost always be warmly supportive. It is a blessing to realize that this occurs and that it occurs a lot.

Obviously, I think that it's important to note the nastiness when it occurs, to stand up for those who have been on the receiving end of that ugliness and hopefully to do it without slipping down to the level of those who dished it out. I think I get better at not slipping to that level over time. I think that it's easier to do when we redraw the lines for who counts as a group member and who doesn't. The Autism Blogs Directory, by being inclusive, allows the lines to be redrawn, to change the perception of otherness. It changes the way I address issues and divides in the community. It makes me more reflective. I think this is a good thing.

There is a lot of anger out there in the autism community, along with bitterness and feelings of impotence. Some of this is folks just lashing out in pain. And to be honest, some of it is people with significant mental health issues. We should be sympathetic while working to combat the harm we believe they are doing. I think this requires a level of reappraisal on our parts of our emotional reaction to the individuals we find ourselves  engaged with, a level of introspection that makes us pause to reflect before we act.

We're gonna screw up. We're gonna dogpile occasionally. We're gonna zig when we should have zagged. If there's a moral high ground to be had, it will come in recognizing that and owning our mistakes. It will come in not demonizing the other side; it will come with not seeing it as the other side, not seeing it as a war. It will come with engaging in emotional regulation and logical action.

2 comments:

kathleen said...

yeah..*sigh*..I wish there weren't sides..I wonder how many online communities deal with the same sorts of things? I agree..when you write-it is different than when you blurt..editing is your friend..wish more people realized that..:)

Elise said...

I have to say that I do take a step back when I am called a name by someone in the autism community. Either due to social issues or co-morbid issues you have to take what is aid in context with whom the person happens to be. However, there is also a tremendous amount of disturbed individuals who use ugly and violent language and that should never be given a pass no matter what the underlying issues.

It is intersting that I jsut discussed with the hubby abou the arguments that abound in the autism community and how I don't' see that in other areas. He very gently as is his way, corrected me saying that I don't' really know. Being deeply embroiled in the autism world I am privileged to know an understand all the issues, but am not aware of what happens in the cancer community, the AIDS community or any other community beset by medical issues.
So as usual he tends to be correct.