Our Opinion: Use a civil approach, not social media

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In this age of social media keyboard warriors and snarky, inflammatory cheap shots, adults would do well to listen to the messages about cyberbullying that are being delivered in our schools. "Pause before you post" is one common refrain.

We wish others had followed that advice when a recent social media firestorm over a misconstrued Halloween decoration degenerated into death threats.

It all started during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend when complaints surfaced about a skeleton hanging in a tree at a private business on Western Avenue in Brattleboro. The skeleton was wearing a black hoodie underneath a prison jumpsuit, holding a sign that read, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." Some passersby interpreted it as a racist display, referring to the black hoodie as "an effigy with blackface."

But the woman who hung the skeleton had a different take on the display. She says it was meant to reflect her frustration over an issue she was having with one particular individual, that there was absolutely no racist intent.

This is clearly a case of opinions being heavily influenced by whatever perceptions a person brings into this situation, based on their own history and past experiences. But just because someone doesn't recognize how others would perceive it as a racist display does not in itself make that person racist. Uninformed? Certainly. Insensitive? Perhaps. But racist? Is it fair to start spreading that label all over social media and publicly chastising that person without fully considering intent and/or knowledge of offense?

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Kudos to Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell and Brattleboro Police Captain Mark Carignan for simply knocking on the woman's door and explaining the situation to her. She was stunned when she saw the skeleton display through another's eyes and immediately agreed to take it down.

"Even after I had seen up close that the display was not what it seemed to be from the street, I still believed it would be in everyone's best interests, hers and the community, for it to be removed," said Elwell. "We handled it in a respectful, person-to-person manner in a way that achieved exactly what the outcome should have been ... an amicable removal of the item so that it would no longer be a disturbing image in our community."

The civil approach was the right one to take here, as opposed to jumping on the social media bandwagon to publicly shame this woman whose only sin was being misunderstood. The online vitriol degenerated into death threats in both the virtual world and the real one.

"There were people driving by yelling and screaming, throwing the finger and eggs," she told the Reformer. "I was so scared ... not knowing whether my house was going to be burned down or something was going to happen to my kids."

Appropriate apologies were made after the misunderstanding was cleared up, and we hope transgressions can be forgiven and the community can move forward. But most of all, we hope people remember this episode the next time they're tempted to jump on the attack without fully understanding the situation.

That this all came to a head during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend begs the question, how would he have reacted to this situation? Would he have created the firestorm on social media or sought a more peaceful solution by opening a dialogue? The answer is clear.


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