Tranquil Beach illustrating mindfulness

Practicing the Pause – Mindfulness on Social Media and in Crisis Communications


Written by Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich

Have you ever been cancelled online? I have. Well, there has been an attempt. I am “conspicuously white” and a white woman is simply not trending in the “Oppression Olympics” of competitive victimhood right now.  Never mind that I am a single mother of four having just lived through COVID.  Never mind that no one online asked me what my role was – or was not, in a problematic incident. Never mind that I have a set of relevant credentials or experiences and dedicated my career to a sincere attempt at allyship in our work in the Canadian legal profession towards equality. Never mind that, occasionally, I might have a point to make. it is easy for me to be dismissed and called Karen or Becky, which are problematic yet somehow widely accepted misogynist slurs against white women, the latter of which is also my actual name.

My key point in writing this blog post, for corporations, institutions and social media participants is to practice a mindful pause before participating in or reacting to social media criticisms and respond only after careful investigation. Now, I say this as a flawed human actor who didn’t go to law school because my tendency is to shy away from conflict. I have had my own scraps online. Take it from one who has made mistakes: pause before responding.

In the socially mediated world of the 21st century, corporations, politicians, writers, and anyone with a public profile, are vulnerable to attempts at cancellation made online. As President Barack Obama said when he enjoined people not to engage in cancel culture: “people who do really good stuff have flaws.”  A key problem with the social media world, which is the seedy underbelly to the democratization of knowledge that we are able to experience when everyone has their own channels on YouTube and accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and etc etc etc, is that there is no credentialing of the source, and a further problem is that there is no necessity for weighing or proportionality in remarks. There is no procedural fairness obligation, no natural justice made manifest in a fair hearing. Comments are made instantaneously with massive consequences. We face the spectre of material consequences to criticism online – or accolades, less frequently – made by uncredentialled, often anonymous, frequently malicious, often unqualified, and not infrequently unhinged, people. If they even are people. Some critics are bots. Armed with keyboards, wifi connections, and hashtags, and often misplaced, moral outrage, a disembodied army of voices will relentlessly name, blame, and shame individuals, businesses, and institutions, when we speak, act, are the subject of groundless rumours, or simply exist.

The situation is complicated by the fact that some of this criticism is justified, some of the time. People, corporations, and institutions make mistakes. Entities often in fact make big, glaring, stupid mistakes. Critics who are uncredentialed or unqualified can be correct and even astute.  Putting it in the personal, yes, I make a good living, Yes, I am middle class and white. Some people don’t like me. I have flaws.  No I am not the most marginal person who ever lived. As the old saying goes, even broken clocks are right twice a day. Usually, however, there remains value in considering carefully the source of any comments.

It is tempting, as participants in social media, to engage in these call out smear campaigns, to amplify the public shaming and rebroadcast the call out against or cancellation of someone.  I would recommend you do not.  First, the type of “cancel culture” that is rampant on social media diminishes empathy. Competitive victimhood is, according to psychological research , motivated by a desire for power. It is problematic because it pits us all against one another, each person looking to win the “Oppression Olympics”, rendering our gaze less empathetic to one another and to ourselves. Second, cancel culture and call-out culture are often detrimental to progress and change: calling someone out makes them defensive. Calling them “in” through private feedback is more constructive. Certainly, there is behavior that cries out to be publicly denounced, but much of what is panned in social media is in the nature of clumsiness and error, that people would remedy given a chance.  Third, it flies in the face of the principles underlying our justice system, which happen to align with the philosophical logics of rational thought, to assume that something is true – positive or negative – just because someone has said it on the internet. We should critically evaluate all claims, particularly negative claims against someone or something that can have material consequences which harm them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Oppression Olympics can frustrate or prevent people from building coalitions or even seeing common themes that actually align our interests. Cancel culture is counterproductive to the very principles its participants say they seek to advance.

So, please take a mindful pause before you share, amplify or rebroadcast criticisms of people, institutions or corporations. Investigate all claims made.

On the receiving end of attempts at cancellation, it is also useful to practice a mindful pause before reacting. It can be extremely disconcerting and can cause panic to feel the spotlight of social media criticism, whether or not it is warranted. There is a compelling temptation to act immediately, and particularly to scapegoat someone for the issue alleged in a corporation or institution, just as scapegoating is the prototypical response to any moral panic.  And, just as theorists have shown in other contexts, scapegoating in a moral panic alleviates the sense of crisis and prevents systemic change. It may well be that someone should be held accountable for an error, but simple scapegoating leaves the underlying causes of the problem intact and not addressed.

My advice when a business entity or public figure receives online criticism is to acknowledge that the criticism has been made. Let the critics know they have been heard. Then, in due course, and with proper methodology, investigate. And, if the investigation reveals something has been done wrong, then apologize and remedy the situation. 

Even better, as a business or institution, don’t wait for social media criticism to come your way before addressing it. Prepare for the eventuality of social media crises in advance. Have a response team ready with clear lines of communication and authority.  Structurally prepare for the onslaught, not to evade responsibility, but to take responsibility appropriately. Engage in best equity, diversity and inclusion practices to ensure equality rights are respected for your employees. Have solid ESG governance.  Operate from clear principles, from governance, guidance, and advice that are credentialed, credible and clear.  Own what is true about you. Refuse to participate in the Oppression Olympics.

Practice the pause when attacked online. Trust me. Becky is my actual name.

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