I recently attended a panel discussion in Los Angeles, moderated by our friend Steph Belsky, addressing the current and most severe drought California has ever experienced.
The event capitalized on the trending “social media week los angeles” (#SMWLA) to explore how social media could play a role in addressing how LA conserves and uses water.
Have you ever been in a conversation and heard a problem-solving suggestion that scares you? And then heard people agreeing that it sounds like a viable option? That evening at the event, I found myself in that very predicament.
Among some very thoughtful discussion, the consideration for drought-shaming was brought to the table. If you haven’t heard, #droughtshaming is a very real tactic being applied via Twitter to, Shame Neighbors Who Waste Water. The question was posed, “do you think there are some merits to this approach?”
I could feel my body getting warm. And as some comments came back along the lines of “maybe that’s one avenue,” the heat inside me increased. All that I heard in my head was, “no, no, no!”
The reason for my strong somatic reaction: I’ve gone down that path before.
Yes, I’ve used shame to further my agenda, feeling justified by the ends I had in mind. For example, in the past I’ve written on the issue of gender expectations. This one time, I found myself writing an article that not only defended men, but essentially called out anyone who disagreed with me as ignorant. I was being snarky, aggressive, and closed-minded. In other words, a bully.
On the one hand, I wanted to share my perspective publically so that it could be considered. On the other hand, I had the conflicting intention to make sure those listening had no choice but to agree with my point of view (i.e. I wanted to control them to get what I wanted). This controlling part lives in me around gender expectations for two reasons:
- I experienced bullying in high school as a result of being skinny and unsure of myself—two things that scream, “not enough of a man” from a mainstream viewpoint.
- I have a belief that we don’t yet live in the world that looks the way I want it to—where the common reality is respect for each other’s differences and being who we are instead of who the mainstream says we ought to be as males, females, hermaphrodites, transgenders, etc.
And there I was, in my article, making others wrong for what they believed, and in a subtle way, wrong for who they are. I was addressing bullies by being a bully—being something I was against just to get my way.
When we see the possibility for our world, it’s all to easy to say “shut up and just do what I say.” And if everyone listened and did what I said, then we’d all be better off… right?
I don’t know about you, but being shamed or coerced into change has never inspired me into action. Peter Senge, a thought leader in the field of organizational development, points out that, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”
It seems that the way we go about change matters as much, or maybe more, than the change intended. As thought leaders with a message, we must care for the way our message is shared. On a very real level, our message can hold both the DNA of our vision as well as that which we claim to be ‘against.’ For example, if we believe in world peace, we cannot get there through war. Though many wars are fought with this aim. If we believe in an education that respects the individual student, we cannot get there by disrespecting our current educators. Though so often we turn on each other because it’s easier than being with the suffering that comes from a situation.
When I heard #droughtshaming being considered as a tactic to address our dire water situation, I grew angry and sad. Angry that others would entertain the notion, and sad that I had done something similar in my past.
In that room, I waited for enough of a pause and spoke up saying, “I want to say something about shaming.” Now, I’d love to be able to quote myself word for word, but the truth is that I have only a vague notion of what came out of my mouth. I was so caught between my anger and sadness, feeling so very serious, that all I could do was breathe and let the words come as they may.
In essence, I said something like, “We live in an age of the witch hunt—where it’s so common for a group of people to band together and point fingers at others with the intent to reject and humiliate just to get what they want. This is a form of bullying. If when you say ‘shaming’ you know a way to do this that is respectful and comes from love, by all means go for it. But please watch that fine line between raising awareness and bullying.”
Another crowd-member, Katrina, piped up to support the point. She said, “I want to add to what Matt said. My boyfriend saw a man in his neighborhood watering his lawn. All he did was walk up and say, ‘hi, you may not be aware of the drought we’re in. It turns out the watering you’re doing, etc…’ In other words, he was human. He addressed this man as an equal. And the neighbor listened and chose to tone down his watering for the following weeks. Not from shame, just from being informed with respect.”
The world we want to create is underway today, should we choose to see things that way.
Our vision for a better world shows up in our actions, in how we communicate with others (including online in social media), and in our mindset. When we push our agenda, we come from the pain of the past, unable to ‘be with’ a world today that appears to not be good enough. But when we act and speak and think in accordance with our vision for the world, we let others feel that vision through how and who we are being.
Shaming and bullying to bring our visions to light does not work, nor does it feel good to anyone. It only gives us a short-term sense of control. In her TED talk “Fighting with Non-Violence,” peace activist Scilia Elworthy poses the question, “How do you deal with a bully without becoming a thug?” and makes the point that non-violent approaches work much better in the long-run than violent ones. Of course, it’s also a harder road because you have to start by ending the violence inside yourself first.
As Ryan and I have said to some of our clients, “you don’t ‘need’ that fighting energy directed at others to motivate you. You can use the same internal fire to get internally aligned and stand for what matters to you. In that way, ‘fighting’ can be more about self-discipline, focus, and trust.”
I can imagine how tempting it must be to tap into that #droughtshaming meme as an attempt to raise awareness as soon as possible. After all, there is a real problem in our faces and an audience standing by, ready to act on behalf of the agenda to address the drought head-on. And who with a message doesn’t want to increase their audience so their vision can come to be sooner rather than later?
Based on what a few people said to me afterwards, my sense is that my message of saying “no” to the option of shaming was heard. And that is enough for me—to be heard and have my perspective considered. What others choose to do going forward is up to them. I want to leave you with this question…
In our desire to change the world for the better, how can we see the ‘situation’ as less than ideal and not each other as such?
Perhaps holding this question lightly as we go about our days, we can usher in change as an invitation or a reminder of possibility rather than an imposition.