Where is YOUR line? When people are flinging outrage, where does it stop?

Photo Credit:  Dialogue Partners

Photo Credit: Dialogue Partners

I recently had the privilege of teaching back to back sessions of IAP2's Emotion, Outrage and Public Participation 2 day training program to large groups of participants from the same organization. The course is designed to help people identify and understand the triggers for outrage and high emotion, to assess the potential for opposition, reaction and concern, and to plan and implement public engagement processes and approaches designed to support people to engage effectively, and to adapt projects and approaches to include and accommodate the concerns and issues that are raised.

In group discussion of Strategy 6: Pay Attention to Unvoiced Concerns and Underlying Motives, some thought provoking questions were asked.

In a world full of real and manufactured outrage, with people focused on moral indignation and righteousness, polarized conversations, and an occassional sense of being “entitled to my entitlements”, we can sometimes lose track of what is really going on for people.

Photo Credit:  Dialogue Partners

Photo Credit: Dialogue Partners

It also seems we can lose track of the moment when there is a SHIFT from being people who are deeply passionate about an issue that really matters to people who justify abuse, disrespectful behaviour and mistreatment in the name of passion.

As a public engagement practitioner and facilitator working in the space of outrage and conflict for more than 20 years, I’ve had many experiences where things like this have been said to me:

  • Who do you think you are? A white girl riding in on her white horse thinking she is going to save us? What gives you that right?
  • YOU are hurting our children by talking about these issues.
  • YOU can’t be trusted.
  • YOU don’t give a shit about me or my community. You are just in it for the money. Once you get paid you will be gone, like all the rest of them.
  • Who the fuck do you think you are?
  • People will die! And this will be on your head.
  • You are a stranger to competence.
  • Don’t you have a man on your team I can talk to?
  • How much are you being paid to destroy our [community, lives, organization, families…]?
  • I hope you can sleep at night.
  • You should be careful. You never know what can happen when you leave the meeting.
  • Maybe I should pay a visit to your family. And talk to them like you are talking to mine.
  • I don’t want these [hateful names characterizing all sorts of people] in my community. I don’t want to talk to them at this meeting. Why did you even let them in?

I’ve got a library of these things. And it turns out I don’t have to dig very deep for them. The question that came up in the class, and that often comes up for me personally is WHERE IS THE LINE?


When we talked as a class about what had been said to participants, we heard things like:

  • Someone shut that bitch up.
  • YOU are destroying my life and poisoning my children.
  • YOU are creating a bombed-out ghetto here.
  • So your job is to make the lies sound credible? You must be the spin doctor!
  • I’d like to talk to a REAL engineer (i.e. a man).
  • I’m going to run you over with my car in the parking lot.
  • I hate you.
  • You are just making crap up.
  • Everyone knows humans are smarter than engineers.
  • One participant was even shot at.

Where is the line when someone goes from being deeply passionate about issues that matter to abusive behaviour? To abusing or discriminating against others? To a level of disrespect where I can’t effectively or constructively participate with them? And what happens to me in those moments?

When have I lost the ability to serve their needs, to seek to understand their concerns, to support them to participate constructively and am only focusing on my own outrage, fear, anxiety or shame?

As a group, we pondered whether the line included:

  • Sexist, racist or hateful comments towards one person or other participants
  • Profanity
  • Threats of physical violence or harm
  • Emotional abusive or degrading comments
  • Comments that are interpreted or received as disrespectful

One participant asked if the “Ground Rules” should be posted by the facilitator so that everyone knew what behaviour was expected. [My response to this was NO, don’t tell people how YOU expect them to behave and assume that like children they will follow your rules. In situations of outrage, controversy or conflict, that only sets you up for a reaction. For more on this check out a blog post on Ground Rules.]

I think it is possible that the line MAY include all the things noted above.

But I also think we each need to know where that line is for ourselves.

How do you balance generosity with boundaries?

Because if we are no longer able to engage, to seek to understand, to support participants in their moments of challenge….then we’ve lost the ability to be guardians of the process, to uphold the principle of ensuring that every participant has a right to a voice, and for that voice to be heard. Of course, in raising that voice, we also have a responsibility to ALL participants, to ensure that the conversation does not create harm, abuse or disrespect.

For me, the line does NOT include profanity. Many people have a hard time articulating their thoughts when they are upset, and profanity emerges. I can tolerate the occassional f-bomb in the interests of learning more about their concerns and needs. But I understand that for others, their line includes profanity.

For me, the line DOES include abuse, discrimination, racism, sexism or threats towards any other participant. I believe all participants have a right to basic human respect, and will intervene thoroughly when others are in potential way of harm.

For me, the line is FAR OUT THERE for racism, sexism or hateful comments sent towards ME. I can let a lot of them go in the interests of the conversation. That doesn’t mean they will all go by, but I can breathe through many of them in the hopes of getting to a more constructive place.

For me, the line INCLUDES threats of violence or initimidation — toward me or anyone else. We’ve all got a right to safety.

When it comes to “disrespectful” comments, I think we all need to define that for ourselves. What is disrespectful to me may just be an opinion to someone else. What is disrespectful to someone else, may be a fair comment or question to me. Things like “you can’t be trusted” or “you are a spin doctor” or “you are a stranger to competence” may require a little therapy and a bottle of wine after the meeting, but in the moment are comments I’m prepared to take if they mean we can continue the conversation and get to the REAL issues. That may not be true for others.

As a practice, I think we have a responsibility to advocate for civil discourse.

As a practice, I think we have a responsibility to engage all participants, citizens and stakeholders in a conversation about the “new rules of engagement” so that together we re-define that space for high stakes, high impact, high passion conversations.

I’d like to see that conversation about responsibility for civil discourse result in a new Code of Ethics for participants and practitioners alike.

Where is your line? What is your role in advocating for civil discourse?