How do I want to be?

Dec 12, 2013

I had the honor and privilege of participating in a social media panel discussion — Academics and Unseen Publics: Approaches to Putting Yourself and Your Work Online — at Duke University earlier this month.

As the room filled and people ate their free lunch, I chatted with my longtime blogger-friends Cara Rousseau, Jeff Cohen and Jean Ferguson, and briefly glanced at the monitor in the side room to see that the World Cup 2014 draw was taking place. (I learned later that the U.S.A. drew the Group of Death. Go Netherlands!)

When it was time to start, and since I was seated at the end of the table, I got to speak first, introducing myself and sharing a few minutes of my online story. But the best part was listening to the other panelists: Gary Bennett, Kieran Healey, Caitlin Margaret Kelly, Robin Kirk, Ava Lowrey and moderator Paolo Mangiafico. Each has been online for a long time, and each has used blogs and images and social media tools to do good: Kelly featured photos of women living with HIV, Lowrey as a 15-year-old in Alabama created the Peace Takes Courage website for her 120+ videos about the war in Iraq, Healy found Paul Revere, Kirk advocates for human rights, Bennett explores and expands our understanding of obesity, and Mangiafico encourages open-access publishing. Listening to their stories and experiences was humbling.

As Paolo and others in the room asked their questions, and we panelists answered with more reflections, our comments kept touching on issues of identity and online persona, and of juggling professional, academic and personal interests. I had been taking notes throughout the discussion, and I started to jot an outline of something to say about online codes of conduct (yes, as usual, I was going to mention the points in my 2006 essay, When blogging, face the conversation.) But then I found myself thinking — Who do I want to be? and How do I want to be? — and I realized that, from my earliest days blogging, my approach to those two questions has been the heartbeat of my online activities. So I mentioned that to the room, trying to explain that I’ve consistently wanted to represent the fullness of my self and interests and experiences (the Who), and that it is the second question (the How) that is the one I most focus on, because I want all my words and actions, online or off, to make me a person of honesty, integrity, fairness and justice. This goal, I said, is reflected in my version of the golden rule: I want to blog about others as I would like others to blog about me.

(On a long phone call the other night, a colleague and I got to talking about a single word that, to me, is so hard to define but that beautifully describes a life lived in honesty and integrity and fairness and justice: grace.)

(My focus on honesty and integrity and fairness and justice predates my online activity, because those values have been the foundational values of my entire existence, instilled in me by my parents and grandparents, my pastors and coaches, my friends and my spouse. And these values, and a life of grace, are what I hope I’m teaching my own children.)

After I shared my thoughts, I sat back and continued listening to my co-panelists. Still, part of me kept processing the idea of integrity through words and actions. (Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 the day before, was on a lot of our minds.) Still further, a part of me for the last couple of months has been grappling with the question of how silence and inaction might undermine integrity, because, as I explained in my spoken This I Believe essay, my online voice has been shaken by the travails of my friend Bora and an ensuing discussion about the trials of women in science — and, really, women in general — who are not treated with honesty or integrity or fairness or justice.

To be honest, I want my actions — including and especially my interactions with women, minorities, those in need or persons who get missed — to speak louder than any words I might utter or write. Not that I don’t know the power of words. When I was in high school, twin cousins of mine, who were a year ahead of me and explosive wrestlers, joked that I might not be as physical and fearsome as they were, but I did have the ability to “hit ‘em with a verb.” Since before high school, though, I’ve strived be a pacifist, in word and deed. As I’ve written before (in my essay about wanting to be a priest and a father), I wanted to use my voice to teach and tell stories. When Erin and I got married, the gospel reading at our wedding mass was Matthew 25:31-46 (“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…I was a stranger and you invited me in…”). Words to live by. But the Christian gospels are also filled with examples of doubt. Naturally, I ask myself, often, Am I doing enough?

Anyway, a woman in the room had asked about strategies for dealing with online comments and abuse, and Ava Lowrey was telling about the sexist comments and death threats she got as a teenage blogger, and I was writing at the top of my notes: “women online, society – injustice – must fight this.” Then, Kieran Healy was adding that a strategy of thick skin and ignoring the trolls can work for some, but for others dealing with hostile online commentary can have a real personal cost. I recognized the anodyne life I’ve lived online, yet I also understood immediately and intuitively that Kieran and Ava and the other panelists were highlighting (for me) a challenge to act on the opportunities to stand up, speak out and make way for others.

And at that point, I realized that what I had told the room at the very beginning — that what I do and say online is intended to get people having face-to-face conversations that build stronger and more peaceful communities — is a way of being that I must continue. And through this, and the people I meet, I shall strive to find the words to advocate for justice and fairness, and the actions that help others to find grace that makes beauty out of ugly things.

Afterword
At one point during this panel, Robin Kirk mentioned that she goes offline each Friday evening and Saturday for an internet sabbath. Last month, I’d urged something similar, at least for the day after Thanksgiving. On that day — the National Day of Listening — I went to the cafe with my father so that I could listen to him tell me more about his life and the lessons he’s learned. The next day, he and Dot (they were married soon after they visited me and Erin in Vanuatu) watched our children so Erin and I could go across the Triangle for a night away at the luxurious Umstead Hotel and Spa. Erin challenged me to unplug, and I must say, being offline — and dripping in the steam room — was very nice. An internet sabbath seems like a very good ritual.

Anton Zuiker

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