A friend of mine is experiencing a personal attack online. He is struggling to respond in a way that doesn't make it worse. So, how should we deal with online smears on our character?
For the record, I've been accused of all those things and had my reputation smeared, and I'm ok with that, because I know the attacks didn't have much to do with me. I don't talk about some of the things I've gone through because I like to focus on the positive, but I've definitely been attacked and had people attempt to ruin my reputation.
Here is the note they sent me when I tried to remind them to respond with their better nature, with compassion.
"I'm strongly pro-compassion. And I certainly think some of the pushback I got was just as you said. But if someone posted that you are, say, a bigot, a vicious open sexist and racist and told hundreds of people on another continent, people you don't even know, that you're just such a vicious open sexist and racist and that you should be shunned at all costs or flushed like a turd, I'm guessing you wouldn't treat them with compassion or conclude that it had nothing to do with you."
Well - that's totally happened to me. I'd be surprised if you haven't heard horrible rumors about me 10 ish years ago through the grapevine because of it. I didn't view it as a problem when it was happening and I didn't respond with anger or fight back because I didn't need to despite the active campaign to discredit me in certain circles of which you are a part. I got through that fine and my reputation is still good and at no point did I get angry or fight back. I wasn't being victimized. Someone in a lot of pain, made me the target of their anger. It wasn't about me. It was about them and the pain they were in at the time. The person in question clearly needed to vent.
I've had random anonymous people post what I think are insane reviews of my books that have nothing to do with the book and everything to do with what appears to be a personal vendetta against me.
There is also video of me when I was young in a conversation about race where I was TOTALLY wrong and had no idea. I know the video is used as an educational tool about how white fragility prevents actual discussion on race - and I have zero problem with that because - that's exactly what it was and what I did. And I didn't bother getting upset at the time they started using it which was immediately after it happened, because I knew it wasn't going to impact me in real life. I'm sure if I ever ran for office, that video would surface again and I still wouldn't be bothered by it because, I was text book in denial to be honest. I have learned a lot since then and can recognize the mistakes I made at the time as mistakes.
Then there are all the personal attacks in the various places I have worked as people try to discredit me that I have weathered. I literally was accused of hitting on a donor's son inappropriately and of wearing inappropriate clothing to a cocktail party. These attacks were PERSONAL and done by colleagues, and were, quite honestly - disgusting. I didn't get mad or respond with anger at the time because I knew those attacks weren't really about me. They were about a person who had lost power in the organization fighting back in an undignified way. Handling myself with dignity and compassion is why I won that battle - and it was a battle.
So - to answer your question - NO - I would not respond as you are responding and I know I wouldn't because it's happened multiple times throughout my life and I got through each incident well and with my reputation intact by responding with compassion. I know from experience that it's not necessary to attack as a way to defend yourself.
I also know that the one time I did attack and try to defend myself, I prevented myself from listening and learning to something hugely important, which was that a) I was wrong and b) the pain other people were in was more important than my discomfort at listening to them tell me about their pain.
Why on earth would you care that 100 people on another continent have been lied to about you? Behave with dignity and prove the lies wrong. Don't destroy your truth with the hands you are using to defend it.
What was happening?
This whole situation started because they posted something that caused a lot of people, me included, pain. It had to do with gender identity and discrimination that people of certain genders and particularly people whose gender doesn't fit in a binary, experience. His post was well intentioned, but tone deaf. So, people responded by expressing their pain. He responded by acting as if he was under attack and it wasn't helping him.
My advice for anyone dealing with something similar
The correct response to someone sharing pain with you is to acknowledge that pain and show compassion. The incorrect response to someone expressing pain is to get mad at them for not acknowledging how good a person you are. Their pain predates you. All you have to do is acknowledge their pain and NOT make it about you.
The worst thing you can say is that your own pain is worse than their pain. That is what Donna Hicks describes as a dignity violation pissing match. Your dignity has been violated, so has the dignity of the other person. It doesn't matter whose dignity violation is worse. Both of you have had your dignity violated.
The reality is - no one can take your dignity away from you. YOU either act with dignity or you don't. The correct response to someone being in pain, is to show them compassion.
There is a reason compassion is central to a humanist viewpoint and why every spiritual leader and philosopher throughout history teaches it as a response. By exercising compassion with people who are actively trying to hurt us, we not only protect ourselves, we re-affirm our own dignity at the same time. Mostly, if it turns out we were at fault, acknowledging our fault and correcting our mistakes helps us fix the problem instead of making it worse.
If you want to learn how I do this and have been doing this and being successful at it - using compassion, let me teach you. I have a 6 hour course called living made simpler. I have one whole lesson devoted to actively applying compassion to difficult situations and how exactly it works to help you cope.