Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Personal Ethics & Social Media (part 1)

Note: The blog post below was originally published in July 2013. Recent events have me pondering the same questions again. I hope to write more about this and realted topics in the coming weeks and months, so I thought it would be a good idea to start by revisiting the original post. 

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Here's the question: How do I apply my personal ethical code in the realm of social media?

But first, a story....

When I was in seventh grade, I received a three-day out-of-school suspension for fighting. In gym class one morning, during a game of kickball, the class bully (a tough girl we'll call Veronica) began to berate and belittle a girl on our team who had mental and physical challenges (a sweet girl we'll call Sally). Sally had gotten the last out of the inning, and Veronica was pissed about it.

I hated gym class, but I hated cruelty and injustice more. So when Veronica started in on Sally and Sally looked like a deer in headlights, I spoke up without even thinking about it.

"Leave her alone, Veronica," I said.

"What the hell did you just say to me?"

What the hell, indeed? Here I was, a goody-two-shoes with pink glasses and a fluffy perm. And there was Veronica: wiry, scrappy, and probably twice as strong as me. I was booksmart. She was streetsmart. Even the boys were afraid of her, though most of them wouldn't admit it.

"I said leave her alone."

I think I started to walk away after that, but I must have turned around again because when she pushed me, I stumbled backward.

My father had taught me exactly one thing about fighting: Hit back. We had never gotten into the specifics of how to hit, but the message was clear: If someone else starts it, you defend yourself.

I pushed Veronica back.

I think she was as surprised as I was.

Then she shoved me so hard I flew into a wall.

In the second it took me to recover and start back at her, the gym teacher stepped between us. The fight was over before it really started, and I was secretly grateful. Veronica could have kicked my ass, no doubt. And no doubt, I would have gone down fighting.

Instead, we were dragged upstairs to the principal's office, and I spent the rest of the morning sitting there in my shorts and tee-shirt, waiting for him to decide on a punishment, and then waiting for my mom to come pick me up.

When the principal asked me privately if I understood why he had to suspend both of us -- even though I had been defending myself -- I said something like this: "I understand that you have to follow the rule of no fighting on school property. But I don't think it's right." 

I haven't been in a physical fight since seventh grade, but I've had plenty of verbal spars. I've challenged relatives who made derogatory statements about people who are homosexual. I've chastised family friends for making sweeping statements about people who are homeless. I've had calm debates and shouting matches with some of the people closest to me when conversations about race and nationality have gone awry. I've tried to correct co-workers' misconceptions about certain religious groups. I've argued politics with friends. I'm the one who speaks up in a group when someone tells a misogynist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise degrading joke. I'll tell a perfect stranger, "That's not cool," if they say such hateful nonsense to or near me.

I'm not pretending that I'm a perfect paragon of tolerance, acceptance, and love. God knows I have my own private prejudices and small-minded moments, no matter how much I strive not to.

All I'm saying is this: I'm generally not shy about speaking up if you slander a person or a whole group of people. 

In fact, I think silence can make you complicit with such slander.

So back to that question:

How do I apply my personal ethical code in the realm of social media?

The Internet is a vast and unruly beast of opinions. It's fantastic that anyone with a blog, Twitter, or Facebook account can share their thoughts. The power of being able to make your voice heard, and to find like-minded people, is great. The Internet is an amazing tool for learning new things and being exposed to different points of view, both of which are tremendously important to being a well-educated, broadminded, and kindhearted person. But the Internet, specifically social media, is also a minefield of ethical questions.

Last week, after the "not guilty" verdict in the case of George Zimmerman, I saw several Facebook posts that questioned why people and the media were making "such a big deal" about the jury's decision. The general feeling in these posts seemed to be that the media was "race baiting" and making a mountain out of a molehill. These Facebook posters couldn't understand why other people were upset enough to take to the streets in protest of the verdict. One person ranted against the "riots" taking place by "ANIMALS" across the country (this person's words and capitalization, not mine). When someone challenged this statement and pointed out that there were plenty of protests but no real riots happening, the original poster basically said, "Well, it's not over yet. We'll see." In that person's mind, the people protesting were "animals" who would no doubt resort to violence.

Okay. I need to take a deep breath.

I'm going to avoid getting into my specific opinions on the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Zimmerman verdict, because that's not really what this post is about. Suffice it to say that I disagree with the people who think that this case shouldn't be such a big deal, and I disagree with the implied statement that black people staging a protest makes them savages hell-bent on rioting. (Yes, non-black people protested too, and I suspect that the person who called the protestors "ANIMALS" would argue that this label applied to "rioters" of all races. But given this country's history of -- and current issues with -- non-white people being portrayed as less-than-human, the term "animals" is a loaded one, whether you mean it to be or not.)

But my question goes beyond these specific Facebook posts and beyond the Trayvon Martin case. My question is how do I stay true to my moral and ethical standards in the world of Twitter and Facebook?

If these statements had taken place during a face-to-face encounter, I would have spoken up and engaged in conversation about them. If someone had posted them to my blog, I would have dealt with them directly, either by responding in the comments or deleting anything I considered to be over the line. Conversations that happen in-person and those that take place on my own website are part of my immediate sphere of ethical responsibility. 

On the other hand, conversations that take place on someone else's blog or another website are outside of that sphere. I usually walk away from those situations without commenting. After all, the Internet is a vast and unruly beast of opinions, and a bleeding-heart liberal like me can't spend all day sticking up for what she believes in. One could argue that my ethical responsibility extends to those other spheres, of course. But this is the general policy that I adhere to in order to keep me sane.

Social media sites are a strange, in-between space. What's my ethical responsibility to speak up when these situations show up on my Facebook feed? It's not as though those people were talking directly to me. And it's not as though they posted these things directly to just my Facebook page. But there they were, confronting me as I scrolled through the status updates.

So what were my choices here? 1) I could have chosen to unfriend them or hide their updates, but most of what they post isn't offensive to me. (In fact, I mostly believe that their offensive comments was born out of true ignorance and not malice.) 2) I could have chosen to engage in conversation with them via the comments. 3) I could have chosen to be silent.

In this case, I chose to be silent. I didn't think that I could have a meaningful conversation about the issue through the medium of Facebook, and they're not people that I would choose to email directly about such a thing. In these particular cases, I felt that saying nothing was a better option. I chose to let those situations fall outside of my sphere of ethical responsibility. 

But I'm conflicted about this choice.

Right now, I'm thinking about the different spheres of responsibility as though they're social gatherings, parties, perhaps.

  • On my blog: I'm the host; it's my party. I'm responsible for what happens here.
  • In-person conversations: I'm an active participant, a party guest with a right (duty?) to speak up. I'm responsible for my actions and interactions if I've chosen to attend the party.
  • Other websites: These are like parties in other people's houses, and I know that some of them won't be my scene. Sometimes it makes sense to avoid those parties altogether or to hightail it outta there if I happen upon the wrong kind of party.
  • Social media: Facebook and Twitter are like huge warehouses where everyone has their own little party room, and we each have keys to the rooms of our "friends" and people we "follow." If I wander down a corridor to another room and pop in to see how that party's going -- or if a promo flyer for that party lands on my doorstep -- and it turns out to be ugly, what do I do? Leave? Kick that party out of my warehouse altogether? Tell them that their party sucks? Offer tips to help improve the party?

It's not a perfect analogy, I know. And I'm not trying to incite anger with these questions. But I think this is an important conversation for all of us who interact with others online.

What do you think? How do you handle these situations? How do you apply your own ethical and moral code of responsibility in the murky realm of social media?

I welcome your comments below, and I hope you'll join this conversation in a spirit of respect and thoughtfulness.


"Playing in the Shadows" (Essay published in Mabel Magazine)

"Roller derby has taught me to be in my body without shame and to use it as a powerful force. I've learned that "athlete" and "artist" are not antithetical terms. I’ve learned to be brave and to take pride in bruises. I've learned how to fall down and how to get back up (every damn time). I've learned to recognize my limitations, and to push against them with determination instead of desperation.

"But mostly, I've learned the power of practice and play—on the track as a skater, on the page as a writer, and in my everyday life."

(excerpt from my essay "Playing in the Shadows," Mabel Magazine No. 2 "Own It")

I'm so pleased to have an essay in the latest issue of Mabel Magazine, a lovely print publication that is all about "making a living and creating a life." The theme for the second issue is "Owning It." My essay "Playing in the Shadows" explores how learning to own my identity as a roller derby player has helped me to stay committed to my work as a writer and creative entrepreneur.

Thank you to Stefanie Renée and Liz Kalloch, the co-founders and co-creators of Mabel, for including me in this issue. And a special thank you to Tabitha Bowman for the great photos she took for the article.

This issue features work by musician Jonatha Brooke, writer and teacher Laurie Wagner, artist Jennette Nielsen, and many more colorful, creative, and courageous women. You can order a copy of Mabel Magazine here.

(If you're interested in reading my other roller derby essays, check out my ongoing series, Roller Derby Makes Me Brave.) 


Can You Hear Your Creative Fear?

I stopped hearing my creative fear.

I don't mean that I've stopped listening to it or being manipulated by it.

I mean that I stopped being aware of its existence and power.

I've been suspended in a fear-coma without even knowing it.

This week, I woke up.

I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Pittsburgh on Monday. At the start of the evening, she announced that she'd be talking about creativity and courage, which, honestly, wasn't a topic I thought I really needed to hear about. Don't get me wrong: I was excited to hear Gilbert speak and interested in the topic in a general way, but I didn't feel as though I needed a pep talk about being brave in my creative work.

Who's afraid of writing and has two thumbs?
Not this girl!

Gilbert talked about how our fears constantly shout at us, trying to keep us from doing things that might result in us getting hurt or being disappointed. Fear keeps us from creating by threatening us with impending humiliation. Fear makes us perfectionists. But, Gilbert reminded us, "done is better than perfect."

I have many issues surrounding my writing, issues that keep me from being as prolific as I'd like to be, but I don't identify "fear" as one of them. My problem is more one of motivation or clarity or project management or lack of tenacity. I put things off. I sit on ideas (for essays, for books, for entrepreneurial projects) for months -- even years -- at a time. I cringingly admit that without an external deadline, I have problems with procrastination and lack of follow-through. On the other hand, I'm also known to do quality, timely work for my clients or when I have a specific writing assignment. So what's the disconnect? What lurks beneath these issues that I have when it comes to self-directed creative work?

After Gilbert's talk, I had a niggling sense that maybe it's actually just plain old dumb fear.

I say "dumb" fear, meaning stupid fear, but now I'm thinking that the other definition of "dumb" might be more appropriate. Dumb: lacking the power of speech.

I'm having an epiphany over here.

Let me back up and tell you how Gilbert deals with the fear that shows up for her at the beginning of each new creative venture.

She said that each new project is like a road trip for her, and that she has two constant companions on such trips: Fear and Creativity. They all pile into a minivan, but before they start out, she has a conversation with Fear that goes something like this:

Hi, Fear. Welcome. I know you're going to be joining Creativity and me on this trip because you always do. And I know you believe that you have a very important job to do: to scream things at me such as "No! Don't do that! Watch out! Be careful!" And may I say that you do your job superbly! But I have a job to do, too, which is to stay focused and to work. Creativity will be doing her job, as well, which is to stay interested and excited about things. So we'll all be on this trip doing our jobs. And you, Fear, don't get to have a say in where we go or how we get there. You get a voice, but you don't get a vote. You don't get to touch the radio, you don't get to choose the snacks, and you sure as hell don't get to drive.

I thought about this and wondered: Is Fear shouting at me all the time?

I listened, but I didn't hear anything. And the silence was troubling.

Somewhere along the way, my Fear has stopped yelling. It's stopped yelling because it doesn't have to yell anymore to keep me in line. It's gone quiet because it has done such an effective job of screaming in the past that now all it has to do is sit in the backseat of the minivan and hum softly. It can even stay completely silent and simply raise an eyebrow at me when I glance in the rearview mirror.

My Fear has done its job so well that I no longer even notice it. Or if I do notice it, I identify it as something else: laziness, confusion, lack of skill, fatigue, boredom, procrastination, anything but Fear itself.

What a sneaky bastard!

As of this moment, I'm demanding that Fear show up as itself from now on. No more masquerading as something else. Fear thinks too highly of itself. Fear believes that it has special knowledge and insight. Fear believes it can drive around me and Creativity. Not so fast there, Fear! You get a voice, but you don't get a vote. And you sure as hell don't get to silently, stealthily put us on autopilot.

I'm giving Fear back its voice.

If Fear wants to have an opinion, it's going to have to state its case clearly. I don't really want Fear's blathering to cause a racket in my head, but I can't allow it to be a silent dictator anymore. If Fear is forced to speak up, at least I'll be able to recognize it for what it is and deal with it directly.

I am beginning to see my perceived issues (laziness, confusion, bad time management) for what they really are: Fear of not creating something perfect. Those perceived issues feel like personal failings, like character flaws. But Fear feels like an external force working upon me. This is radical: Maybe I don't have to fix a slew of personal shortcomings in order to be more prolific and productive. Maybe I just have to hand Fear a bottle of Coke and bag of Cheddar Combos and tell it to let me know when it needs a bathroom break at the nearest rest stop.

And make sure you speak up so I can hear you this time, Fear.

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"What Is Your Emergency?" Essay Published by New World Writing

I'm pleased to share that my essay "What Is Your Emergency?" has been published by New World Writing as part of a special issue selected and edited by Pia Ehrhardt, author of Famous Fathers.

Here's the essay's opening:

We both saw it coming. How could we not? It's a straight shot from the top of the hill through several intersections to the bottom. The driver must have seen us. Surely she was slowing down. You can't miss a big-ass Buick in the middle of the road unless you're just drunk enough to fail the sobriety test the police will give you....  {keep reading}

The whole essay is short (just over 1,000 words), which I tell you in a blatant attempt to entice you to click over and read it.


Dealing with Writer's Doubt (and the If-Then Loop)

There's something just as bad as Writer's Block. In fact, I think it's probably what leads to a lot of cases of being blocked. It's insidious and pervasive, and if you're a writer, you probably know it well. I'm talking about Writer's Doubt.

Let's say that the writing has been hard lately. Say that the doubts about your ability have been boisterous. Say that you've considered giving up this pipe dream of being a writer and buckling down into a more practical field, maybe nursing or dog walking. Say that you feel like a fraud, an imposter, a wannabe.

Say you're stuck in an If-Then Loop:

If I could just take more writing classes....

If I could just get an advanced degree....

If I could just get this story published....

If I could just finish my manuscript....

If I could just get an agent....

If I could just get a publisher....

If I could just get a great review....

If I could just get more publicity....

If I could just figure out what I'm going to write next....

The problem with this If-Then Loop is that the "then" is an empty promise. If this, then what?

We think that if we do or have or achieve something on the list, then writerly fulfillment or fame is just around the corner. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

I've had several conversations lately with various writer friends and clients at various stages of their writing careers. We've talked about facing Writer's Doubt and the ways those doubts chip away at our motivation and self-assurance. The fascinating thing is that I'm hearing the same kinds things from writers across the experience spectrum, from relative beginners to published authors.

So many of us, no matter where we are on this spectrum, keep thinking that the writing will get easier, or that the rewards will somehow increase if we can just close the gap between if and then, between here and there.

But we're all coming up for air a bit bedraggled with the realization that there is no "there" there.

You can't get there from here because there is nowhere to get to. 

Here's the best advice I have for both myself and others right now:

I hope you'll work through or just leave behind those doubts you've been feeling. I say "leave behind," as though I know how to do that myself. Let's be honest: Doubt is part of the creative process. Hell, it's part of life, I suppose.

We doubt and worry about the things we care about. Maybe those don't ever really go away, even after we've been practicing our craft for a long time, even after we've seen our own progress and celebrated some successes. But I think we can learn to acknowledge that the doubts are there and then keep on truckin'.

I think that being a writer (or any kind of creator) means that we're always chasing a moving target. The target is somewhere across that gap between our creative taste and our creative abilities that Ira Glass talks about.  

As we practice writing, we do narrow the gap, but then the target (which is called how-good-we-want-to-be) moves, so that we never close the gap for long. This can be a source of great frustration, or it can become a source of comfort for us. Maybe we can find a way to use it to stay enthusiastic and in love with our craft. Maybe we can use it to quiet the voices of Writer's Doubt.

Here's the thing: If the gap never really closes, then we're never really failing.

We're just always on the creative journey. We're doing our work, we're diving deeper, taking creative chances, putting in the time to learn and bloom. We keep following the star or ember or distant shimmer that we're always chasing, and we writing it down as best we can in that moment. We keep doing it, we keep doing it, we keep doing it. Doubts and all.

So, you ask: If this, then what?

I don't know. But if not this, then what else?

I can't cure your writer's doubt for you, but I can show you ways to move through it to the other side.

I offer mentoring, coaching, feedback, and editing services for beginning, intermediate, and advanced writers.

If you'd like some support for your writing life and creative work,I'd love to talk with you about scheduling a single writing mentoring session or customizing an ongoing writing apprenticeship for you. Interested in learning more? Please get in touch with me.