Confirm Before Overreacting

Posted: December 17, 2017 in Powerful Ideas
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by Richard Martin

This is my last Stand To! of 2017, as I’ll be taking a break until 7 January. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2018! May all your goals and plans come to fruition and may you have all the resolve and resilience you need to be ready for change and uncertainty in the coming year.

With that said, I’ve noted a disturbing trend that undermines good will and social accord. In recent weeks, a message has been circulating through numerous networks on Facebook concerning Muslims in Montreal. Muslim parents of children attending a school in Dorval Quebec allegedly requested that pork be removed from the cafeteria menu. The mayor of Dorval supposedly penned a letter refusing the request on the grounds that it goes against Quebec culture and customs. The “letter” is the object of Facebook sharing, with hundreds of people weighing in with their “attaboys,” and worse in some cases. Well, it’s a fake. It goes back to 2015 and even earlier, as it appears the meme originated in 2013 in the U.S. Just Google it to see.

Another occurence last week in Montreal shoes how the media and wider public are quick to overreact to purported outrages when it corresponds to prejudices or biases. The imam of two mosques in Montreal allegedly requested that a construction site near the mosques remove the women working there as this is against their religion. The Commission de la construction du Québec investigated it quickly and it is, once again, a fake. The TVA television network had to recant its story on Friday and apologize for its sloppy reporting, i.e., failure to go beyond what had been claimed and verify the source. The mosques have since received threats and there are hateful messages circulating on Facebook, that fount of calm and intelligent consideration.

Now, I’m not picking on Montreal, French Canadians, or Quebeckers in general. There’s plenty of intolerance to go around, regardless of nationality, origin, or religion. I’m not even pro or anti-Muslim. Though I come from a Catholic background, I’m an atheist, philosophically and practically. However, I am a firm believer in freedom of religion and freedom of speech. People can say and do whatever they want, so long as they don’t harm others. On the other hand, spreading hate propaganda of any kind, whether it’s anti-Muslim, antisemitic, or anti-anything goes against these principles, because it produces a climate of hate, fear, and mistrust. It feeds on atavistic tendencies in all, and that includes me. We can all be guilty of reacting with emotion when we should be reacting with our head.

When I commanded troops on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia, our motto was “First information is always wrong, so don’t overreact.” Whether we’re journalists, business people, politicians, managers, or just plain citizens, we owe it to others (no matter how different) and to ourselves to validate information before we start climbing the barricades. A simple test is to ask ourselves if the information conveyed in a message corresponds to a popular belief (not necessarily founded), a prejudice, a bias, or a stereotype. If yes, is it possible that the message is just repeating a “meme”? The latter is a bitesized piece of information that is designed, usually unconsciously, to be repeated and spread through a population, just like a virus.

The first question we should always ask ourselves is whether something we hear or read–in some cases, even claim to see–is true. Is the information valid? Does it come from a trustworthy and valid source? What is its provenance, i.e., can we trace it back to an actual author and follow the “paper trail”? The second question is, do I really need to react to this information? Is it of vital importance to me or others? Will I make things better or worse by weighing in? Can I back up my opinion–because that’s all it is, opinion?

I’m not saying people should keep their opinions to themselves. Rather, I’m saying that freedom of speech, association, thought, worship, etc., carry privileges, but also responsibilities. Retransmitting hateful propaganda or messages of dubious origin and validity are rights, certainly. But they are also actions which can have harmful or hurtful consequences. We must be smarter than the low-lifes who start these hateful memes and propagate them to satisfy their own twisted purposes.

I may not be religious or a believer, but I don’t think one needs to believe in God or Allah or Shiva to hope and act for peace and goodwill to all men. Amen!

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

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