The Booby Prize: When small-town battles are fought on social media, everyone loses

A local café recently posted a sign that was appalling. But the respond on social media was a car wreck you couldn’t look away from.


"Wow. Just watched a small-town business go up in smoke in the most public way in a matter of a couple days."


That was the observation posted by a Vancouver friend who had been watching our local drama unfold from a safe distance on Facebook. It was as poignant and balanced as any comment I'd seen. Sometimes it takes getting out of the small town to clearly see the small town. 


Without hashing out the details, over the course of a couple days the spectacular downfall went something like this:


  • Local restaurant posts sign asking women to cover up when breastfeeding.

  • Sign is shared on social media.

  • Local women are, understandably, indignant.

  • Post is shared by Vancouver mom blogger with 17,000 Facebook followers.

  • CBC picks up story.

  • Small-town business’s Facebook page is swamped with negative reviews, its almost-perfect 5 rating dropping to 1.5 in a matter of hours.

  • Business announces its closure.


Now, to be clear, I’m not here to debate a woman’s right to breast feed her child in public, covered or not. I was — still am — a nursing mom who, when my daughter was younger, wouldn’t have been able to visit this establishment under the posted policy. (Which, as it turns out, is illegal.) The sign was a not-well-thought-out, knee-jerk reaction and a terrible way to deal with the situation.


I’m not here to discuss the sign. So let’s move on.  


What interests me is the swift trial-by-fire on social media that took place over the couple days that followed. And what really, really fascinates me is the larger discussion it presents around communication, community and compassion.


As the conflict picked up steam, so did the haters, emboldened by some of the nastiness being spewed from the safety of our Internet devices. Then haters started hating on haters. It was a hate fest. It was hard to read. And even harder to turn away from.


A darkness hung around me for days. I was long over the sign itself before I could fathom that people in our community could be so cruel to one another (having, admittedly, jumped on the initial bandwagon with a comment to the effect that I wouldn’t be visiting the café anymore). Posts to the business’s Facebook page brought up sexual orientation. They brought up religion. They brought up nationality and race. They even questioned the restaurant owners’ relationships with their own mothers.


That’s right, folks — all in the defence of tolerance. At a certain point, you have to think this is no longer about a woman’s right to breastfeed. 


Have you ever uttered something that sounded defensible at the time but with more thought and discussion turned out to be embarrassingly ignorant? Did you regret it later? Did it cost you your livelihood? Probably not. Fortunately for you. 


I’ve been trying to think of an example of when I’ve royally screwed up. I had to dig deep — these are the things we tend to bury. But I’ve got a good one. You may be familiar with it.


In 2004, when I was working as an assistant editor in community news, a murder was committed in our idyllic mountain town and a body discarded in a local park. At press time that same evening, with no suspects, somehow I was convinced that publishing a photo of the body would help the case. It ran on page 3. 


The community response was swift and fierce. A week later, the editor was shuffling ads to clear a two-page centerfold spread for a selection of the dozens of angry letters letting us know how much we sucked. The photo’s legacy haunted me for years and, to be honest, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to bring it up here.


Again, I don’t want to belabour the event itself. Point is, regardless of our reasoning, we had alienated ourselves from the community we relied upon. We totally f'ed up. 


The thing is, we all screw up. We all change and evolve and learn, and our opinions and stances change with experience. So what you think you know today might be what someone else figures out tomorrow, or what another person already knew. Or what someone else already knows might be difference from what you already know and vice versa.


Takeaway: Be kind and compassionate. Always.


That applies to signs posted on bulletin boards. It applies to grocery store line ups and traffic jams and when you're trying to claim the seat you bought four months earlier on an overbooked Air Canada flight when that short, stocky man casually elbows his way to the ticket agent ahead of you despite your overtired toddler running circles around you and you lose your temper. (Sorry about that, sir. It had been a long day.)


It sure as hell applies to social media, where we are too often emboldened to overshare our every thought and deed and self-righteous know-it-all-ness.


We live in a world where social media decides our fate. One poorly thought out sign can cost you your business, the community an excellent restaurant and both sides a chance to learn from one another. This isn’t an Ivanka Trump boycott we’re talking about, folks. It’s a small-town business. Think of it as an endangered species. 


In a rural community, we have the opportunity to knock on each other’s doors, to talk in person. We have the choice to empower one another, create open and respectful communication and better understand where each of us is coming from.


Or we can just tear one another down.


When that happens, everyone loses.


I’m happy to report that the café decided to stay open, something that should please us all. If there’s one thing every mother needs, somewhere behind her girlfriends and the right to feed her child wherever, whenever, it’s a cinnamon bun the size of her head.


Tired of the bitterness? Sweeten things up with this recipe for some awesome lime sugar “boobie” cookies. Best served with milk.

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October 31, 2017

November 8, 2012

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