As I scroll down my Facebook wall, I skim across a horrific image of cruelty that someone has posted, with a caption that merely says “This has to stop!” and no other information.
The image is so traumatizing that I quickly skip by it, and even consider hiding that person’s posts from view.
Right there was an important opportunity missed.
The person who shared that image clearly has a compassionate heart and wants to help stop suffering and cruelty. But not only was the image posted so difficult to look at that I immediately turned away, there was no information about whom to contact or any ideas about how to help.
How often do we as humane educators and activists share graphic or despairing information with others, ourselves shocked by the horror and wanting to inspire others to take action — but we stop short of providing a way for people to take action? Every time we do so, we’re missing an opportunity to inspire and empower others to become positive changemakers and are potentially contributing to them shutting down and closing their minds and hearts.
When we offer accurate information and educate others about the challenges of our time, it’s important that we do so mindfully and in ways that encourage working toward positive solutions. Here are 6 tips to help you consider what to share and how.
1. Decide how graphic is appropriate.
Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate and necessary to share graphic images, video, or information. But the audience and circumstances have to be right. For example, college-age students tend to be more open and responsive to graphic images. If you’re sharing footage from an undercover investigation, that can be very useful. But we don’t want to traumatize people so much that they can’t or won’t act. We have to ask ourselves: Who is our audience? Might young children see/hear this? What is our goal in sharing this information? Is this more likely to make people want to act or cause them to turn away? Have I struck the right the balance between engaging people with the issue and not making them shut down?
2. When possible, frame the issue so that it’s “graspable.”
Sometimes you just want people to know that an issue exists. But whenever possible, work to reframe an issue you want to share about so that people can feel connected to it. For example, don’t just talk about the horrors of poverty or child slavery; tie it to a story you read about one person’s experience and how that person was helped, or relate it to what’s happening in your own community.
3. Give context.
Most issues are complex, and it can be misleading if we only give a simple black and white explanation. When possible, give context. If you’re concerned about, say, the poaching of elephants in Zimbabwe and other African countries, don’t just talk about the horrors of so many animals being killed; also talk about why the poachers are killing elephants; talk about what’s already being done to address the issue and what options are available for doing the most good and least harm for all.
4. Give them resources to help them find out more on their own. Especially when you only have a few moments with someone and don’t have the opportunity to provide much context or detail, be sure to offer resources to help people find out more on their own. Let them know who’s working on the problem and who can provide them with more information that’s accurate and credible (and that leads to positive actions they can take).
5. Provide them with specific, realistic, actionable ideas.
What do you want them do to about this issue? If the most effective action is for them to write a letter, then provide them with the correct contact information, and perhaps even some talking points. Especially when it’s a complex, global problem that seems insurmountable, it’s essential that we offer specific, concrete (and hopefully convenient) ideas for taking positive action. Providing information without providing the means to do something about it only engenders feelings of helplessness and apathy.
6. Offer to collaborate with them.
It’s easier to act when we have support, so when appropriate, offer to collaborate. Sponsor a letter-writing party (virtual or in person) if that’s the most effective action. Work together to get the law passed or change the system or develop the policy. Or, if you can’t work with them, point them toward someone who can.
It’s not always realistic to follow these guidelines, but we can at least bring mindfulness to what we’re sharing and how, and ask ourselves questions like: Am I sharing this just so that I’m not alone in feeling pain about this horrific thing, or will sharing this actually help the situation? Have I helped make it easier for people to do something about this other than feel despair or disgust? Am I going to leave people feeling paralyzed, or empowered?