4 practical tips for coping with controversy
Two creators share their expert strategies for mediating and diffusing conflict.
At its best, the internet is a haven for thoughtful discussion and lively debate. At its worst, it’s a cesspool of toxic rage and controversy. If you’ve been online for any amount of time, you’ve probably either watched conflict unfold or gotten caught in the middle of it yourself. So how do you prevent, cope with, and overcome controversy that might arise in your community?
In a recent discussion, as part of Patreon’s Hot Topic series, Tyler Thrasher, a science-based artist, creator, and proud member of the online plant community, and Regan Byrd, an anti-oppression speaker, trainer, consultant, and activist, delved into their own experiences with navigating controversy and conflict. Here, they share the tools they’ve used and the practical methods they’ve learned to take it all in stride.
1. Treat others with humanity
The golden rule might seem like an easy enough concept to understand, but it’s notoriously difficult to employ, especially in the wild environs of the internet. For Tyler, the first step in effectively acknowledging others’ humanity is simply acknowledging your own.
“We’re often encouraged to present ourselves as a character or an avatar instead of as an actual, genuine, full-fledged human,” Tyler says. The downside, of course, is that presenting one’s self as a personality instead of as a person can make someone easier to pick on and pick apart, essentially turning them into what Tyler calls a “one-dimensional punching bag.” But, he argues, that people are more gentle and compassionate than they give each other credit for.
To circumvent becoming the metaphorical equivalent of a piece of boxing equipment, be up front about who you are: Someone who is fully human, messy, and continually learning. “People are actually more receptive [to] having these conversations if you are a human that deserves some benefit of the doubt rather than a personality who didn't behave the way they thought this personality would or should,” Tyler says.
2. Instead of calling out, consider calling in
When you see something harmful or offensive unfolding online, is calling out the person responsible the way to go? Honestly, it depends, says Regan. On the one hand, calling out can be a useful strategy, especially when you’ve already tried taking a softer approach for a while.
“Just saying, ‘What you just said is racist,’ ‘That was painful to hear that,’ or ‘That was not okay’ — there may be times where that’s warranted,” Regan says. But she emphasizes that calling out is just one strategy, and it’s often overused.
“People think that they're doing something really transformative or productive by just saying, ‘Hey, what you said is racist, go educate yourself, bye!’” she continues. Instead, Regan urges others to focus on “calling in,” or truly engaging in a curious and compassionate way with the other person rather than with the intention to attack or prove wrong. “[It’s] actually more helpful when you’re like, ‘Hey, I think you share my values around this, but I think you’re missing something or not seeing this, [so] let’s have a conversation,’” she says.
Finally, be mindful about where the conversation takes place. For instance, if a person writes something offensive in a thread on a Facebook post, chatting privately on the phone or in a text message might be the best, least harmful option for everyone involved. But sometimes having a conversation in public on the original thread might help other people in that forum observe, learn, and grow from your experience — and it can serve as a model of how to have productive conversations in the community spaces you moderate.
3. Set realistic, specific boundaries for yourself
We hear the phrase “setting boundaries” a lot these days, but what does that really look like in practice? For Tyler and Regan, it means getting honest with yourself from the beginning about your values and how they inform what you will or won’t do as a creator. That way, when a boundary-testing moment arises out of nowhere, you can look at what you’ve already outlined and not second-guess yourself — and avoid making a decision you’ll regret later.
“You have to have the ability to admit you don't have the mental capacity to engage with everything.”
Consider some of these tips for setting up boundaries that can work for you:
Decide what you’re willing to share or engage with on social media
Anything that you put on social media can be misconstrued or taken out of context. Make a decision early on about what you need to keep to yourself, for your own peace of mind. “I have a full life outside of this, and I have a family, and I have a son, and I have things I'm preserving, like my mental health,” Tyler says. “You have to have the ability to admit you don't have the mental capacity to engage with everything.”
Let someone else do it (no, really!)
Consider what your audience gains from your contributions. Do they need your attention 24/7? Are they paying you for every little response? You don't have to answer every question online.
Some creators might not even realize the powerful tool they already possess: highly engaged and passionate community members just waiting to chime in and share their knowledge, answer a question, or settle a dispute. Promote these folks to be community moderators, for example, and let them have their moment in the spotlight. And don’t forget that sometimes, a comment doesn’t need a response at all; recognize that folks are more than capable of doing their own research and educating themselves without having you at their beck and call.
Be choosy about your collaborations
It’s tempting — especially when you’re in the early stages of crafting your brand — to want to pounce on every opportunity that comes knocking at your door. But it pays to identify the kinds of opportunities you actually enjoy and make sense in the context of your greater brand story. "I don't just completely open up my art and my craft to anybody," Tyler says. “When you do, you don't get to pick who comes in and kind of gets to ‘rearrange your house.’” Instead, focus on collaborations that are truly mutually beneficial with folks who understand and respect your boundaries.
Promote a shared understanding of personal boundaries
Finally, encourage others to form their own boundaries, too. Whatever steps you take for yourself, share them with others and tell them to do the same, whether it’s going to therapy or putting away your phone during dinner time. This encourages a shared understanding of what it means to set boundaries — and it might even inspire others to take an important step for their mental, physical, and emotional health that they hadn’t yet given themselves permission to take.
4. Commit to learning
There’s no surefire way to completely avoid or perfectly handle conflict, but making the decision to keep an open mind and listen to opinions that are different from yours is a good start. While it’s important to know how you feel on a subject, Regan says it’s just as important to consider other perspectives within the community.
A single comment can elicit a wide variety of responses within a community, so when all else fails, don’t underestimate the impact of simply stepping away from a situation. Regan suggests taking a walk, calling a friend or family member, or getting coffee with a pal to allow yourself time to mentally recharge. If all else fails, the best course of action can be to simply make a commitment to keep learning together and from each other.
“As long as you are learning and you are receptive to change and those observations and the needs of your community, I think you’re doing a great job,” Tyler says. “We have all the tools together, but not one individual has all the answers and tools separately.”