Melania Trump and the Antidote to Social Media’s Toxic Sludge

More and more often, as America pushes ever closer to November’s Day of Reckoning, I’ve found myself curled into the proverbial and literal fetal ball by the toxic sludge that passes for this election season’s social media commentary. Perhaps I’m going full-on ostrich, but popular Twitter hashtags go mostly ignored; clicking usually exposes trolls, misinformation, and some horrifically bad language (grammar, usage, and–ahem– word choice) I’d rather not see.

Melania Trump’s recent campaign speech curled me up and made me profoundly sad. She’s not a comfortable or accomplished public speaker; when she married, I doubt she anticipated stumping. After all, those who begin wedded life as a political couple have usually bought in together; without communal vision and shared focus, odds are good the union dissolves long before one or the other campaigns for higher office.

But in 2005, Melania and her fiancé were in business, not politics. Did she seek out this supporting role and its accompanying scrutiny? Her Republican Convention speech was a plagiarized disaster and since then, she’s been treated more as a pretty doll than an equal campaigner. As a result, I reflexively cringed for her before I heard the speech.

Mrs. Trump ended with an outline of her focus project should she become First Lady:

“…I want our children in this country and all around the world to live a beautiful life, to be safe and secure, to dream freely of love and a family of their own some day.

“We need to teach our youth American values; kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, cooperation. I do worry about all of our children. As we know, now social media is a centerpiece of our lives. It can be a useful tool for connection and communication. It can ease the isolation that so many people feel in the modern world.

“Technology has changed our universe. But like anything that is powerful, it can have a bad side. We have seen these already. As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile. They are hurt when they are made fun of or made to feel less in looks or intelligence. This makes their life hard and can force them to hide and retreat. Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers. It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied, or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground.

“And it is absolutely unacceptable when it is done by someone with no name hiding on the internet.

“We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other. We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media.

It will be one of the main focuses of my work if I’m privileged enough to become your First Lady.”

How could she could be so absolutely right and cluelessly wrong in one short speech?

Flowers in background with text: Kindness, Honesty, Respect, Compassion, Charity, Understanding, Cooperation
Melania Trump stressed these seven values to combat online bullying among children. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

6 Essential Truths For Social Media Health

Mean Words and Lies Are Wrong

“As adults, many of us are able to handle means words, even lies.” Is this an appropriate translation–that it’s okay to say horrible things to and lie about adults because being older builds a thicker skin? That verbal abuse or slander and libel don’t matter if folks can get up and go to work the next day? Mean words and lies hurt adults, too. False accusations can ruin lives. “Being able to handle” something doesn’t grant permission for it to be borne. People “handle” unspeakable tragedy every day–tragedy they’d preferred to never have experienced in the first place.

Protection from Online Abuse Isn’t Just for Kids

“Children and teenagers can be fragile. They are hurt when they are made fun of or made to feel less in looks or intelligence.” Every parent knows the pain of comforting a crying child who’s been crushed by unkind words. Perhaps only someone as beautiful and privileged as Mrs. Trump could dismiss the hurt in this for adults. Does anyone who’s ever been denigrated, mocked, and humiliated online for their appearance, intellect, or beliefs feel okay about it? There’s a cliche: Everyone is somebody’s child.

We All Get To Stand in the Sun

“This makes their lives hard and can force them to hide and retreat.” Online abuse has this effect on adults, too. That’s why armies of trolls have been set into action to suppress actors, cow journalists, defame rivals, and curtail public political participation. Each of us has the right to express our opinions and live freely–as Olivia Pope of “Scandal” and white-hat-wearing fame would say, “to stand in the sun.” But rampant online abuse is plunging America’s virtual society into a dark age.

Civilized Exchange is a Must

“Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers.” I don’t believe that American culture has changed for the worse. When actual people interact, I experience goodness, politeness, and neighborliness. Virtually? Those character values Mrs. Trump stressed as “uniquely American” are often abandoned. Haters have exploited social media, creating a battlefield with a “slash and burn” mentality. Children, spouses, politicians–everyone is fair game for abuse, and nothing is off limits.

Physical and Verbal Intimidation Not Allowed

“It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied, or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground.” Verbal and physical assaults are not healthy face-to-face interactions, nor is bullying ever appropriate. These types of abuse are not good for people of any age, and they’re not appropriate on a playground, at a campaign rally, or in a public debate.

“And it is absolutely unacceptable when it is done by someone with no name hiding on the internet.” Whether identified or anonymous, intimidation and attacks are unacceptable. The idea that there’s some honor or acceptability to verbally assaulting and harassing people online using your own name is reprehensible, too.

Walk It Like You Talk It

“We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other. We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media.” Yes, it’s crucial that we strive to create a better place for our children, especially amongst social media’s often toxic sludge. But this statement is so ironically shortsighted it made me physically slump. Taken out of context, her words should be cross-stitched on samplers all across America. In context, however…

I despaired that Mrs. Trump could compartmentalize so completely between the kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, and cooperation she desires to foster among Americans in the virtual community and the way social media behavior (Twitter in particular) has been modeled by the Trump campaign.

Flowers in background with text: Kindness, Honesty, Respect, Compassion, Charity, Understanding, Cooperation

Mrs. Trump, with these modifications, is correct: Every American, regardless of age and social position, should exemplify and experience these essential values when using social media.

But by focusing only on figurative children in a virtual world, Melania Trump missed an important opportunity to speak meaningfully about what is needed from each and every American citizen to keep social media great in reality.

 

Click to read the full transcript of Melania Trump’s 11/2016 campaign speech

 

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