Friday, April 22, 2011

Needling in threads: Discussion board threats surprise

One of the stronger suggestions I’ve encountered over the past several years while looking for new employment opportunities is that you have to set up a profile – essentially an online resume – on the professional networking site LinkedIn, and then you work to build as many connections, or a network of associates, as you can to help you find a job.

Initially, I was skeptical. It seemed to me to be less than genuine and more like a manipulative and self-serving activity than anything else.

However, I was looking for greener pastures back then (that was before I was laid off – now I’m simply looking for green pastures) and thought I could enter into this realm and try to give back more than I took out.

Despite my misgivings, there were no hands to shake or babies to kiss, and I thought I could step into the world of professional networking without feeling like a politician out to press as much flesh as he can on the campaign trail.

Three-plus years later and I mostly have great things to say about LinkedIn. Particularly since I was laid off in December, people on the site have been very kind and very encouraging. In fact, at least two individuals in my LinkedIn network, one of whom I do not know very well, sent me job leads soon after I was laid off. Each time left me teary-eyed with appreciation for the undeserved kindness they had shown.

More recently, however, I’ve encountered a few negatives, both in the last month as I began participating in discussion boards, which is one way to get to know and cultivate relationships with people within your field of interest.

You need to get involved in the discussion boards to build your network, strengthen those relationships and get your name out there, I’d been told,

So from time to time over the past three or so years, I have ventured into these discussion boards. The threads on some have been relatively sedate – I either had no desire to engage or, conversely, when I did, I simply popped in, posted my comment and moved on.

In addition, by the way, when you do post a comment, LinkedIn will put you on a list to receive an e-mail whenever someone posts a comment to that same thread, so that you can keep up on the ongoing conversation if you would like.

A member of the outer fringe

But of course there’s always a hot-button minefield somewhere, and I stepped boldly into one about a month ago and unwittingly stumbled into a second about two weeks ago.

In the first, I was thrashed as an anti-Semite because of my feelings against the oppression of Palestinians in Israel; in the second, one poster strongly implied I must be Jewish because I was skeptical of certain allegations about covert Israeli ops in the United States. Actually, there is more to that second incident, which I’ll explain later.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m from a German-Irish family in which arguing and debate seemed to be an innate talent whose exercise often is followed by good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. In fact, in my college days, the beer-swilling German in me would sometimes argue with my inner Irishman about whether I really wanted to drink whiskey.

If the German won, I’d awake the next day hung over and filled with remorse for having had too much. When I drank whiskey, however, my inner Irishman usually woke me cheerfully in the morning to pull the cotton out of my mouth and lead me to a piping hot shower. And no hangover, which is probably why my inner Irishman always seemed so cheerful.

But I digress.

About a month ago, one of my LinkedIn e-mail updates showed that a gentleman from this area and a member of the LinkedIn group for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) had started a discussion dubbed “The Helen Thomas Affair.” Helen Thomas is the former longtime White House correspondent who came into the spotlight – and subsequently lost her job – for remarks she made last summer in support of the Palestinians in Israel that were labeled anti-Semitic. Thomas is the daughter a Syrian couple who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon, and has made no bones about her criticisms of Israel.

At age 89, after more than 50 years covering the White House, she lost her job over her remarks. In addition, journalism schools – and the SPJ itself, which had named awards in her honor – suddenly dropped the awards entirely. The SPJ “retired” the award to which it had given Thomas's name.

And my response, after reading the accompanying interview with Thomas that had been posted as background for the discussion, was to express compassion and sympathy and even understanding. Thomas had watched for decades as this nation gave its unwavering support to the Israeli government, despite actions by that government which have resulted in the oppression of the Palestinian people, with whom she felt some kinship.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I know it’s complicated. But no matter how justified the Israeli government may feel it is in doing what it does, the Palestinian people in Israel are oppressed in ways that remind me of how blacks in this country were oppressed before the civil rights movement took hold and began reshaping our nation’s conscience. Conversely, I'd be an idiot to ignore that the actions of some Palestinians in Israel are among the reasons for the oppression.

So this discussion thread was intriguing – the comments ranged widely and were largely thoughtful and compelling. But one of the posters seemed intent on engaging me directly and kept asking how I could endorse Thomas’ anti-Semitic views (I do not – understanding someone's views and the context that gave rise to them is not an endorsement). This individual seemed convinced Thomas was some kind of ogre and that no one should have any sympathy or compassion for her. And at one point in the thread, this individual just fell short of labeling me an anti-Semite and did express her belief that I am among the radical fringe, whatever the heck that is.

In the cross-hairs over compassion

The second minefield I entered initially seemed far less volatile – the topic of discussion started two weeks ago and focused on the question, “Have you been threatened because of an article or column you wrote?”

Among journalists, the topic was genuinely interesting, and I contributed a comment or two and then decided to simply wait for others to post their experiences. I (rightly) assumed others' would be far more interesting than mine.

But before long, one post materialized that seemed to me more worrisome than intriguing. The individual wrote of being tortured over nearly a decade with an array of weapons ranging from radio frequencies and satellite feeds to directed energy weapons. A later post by the same individual talked of Israeli agents doing such things at the behest of their government but in the United States. Now, I loved X-Files but am just a wee bit skeptical when folks start talking conspiracy.

Besides, this whole episode was reminding me of two individuals I had known in college who displayed what seemed to me to be similar, delusional types of paranoia when they went off their meds for bipolar disorder, and each one ended up in a hospital.

In two other instances, I had run-ins with delusional people at newspaper offices where I worked. In at least one of those instances, the individual was a schizophrenic who likewise had gone of his meds.

And because these posts resonated so strongly with those memories, I sent the writer a private message, borne of compassion and without any desire to cause public humiliation or embarrassment. Still, I asked point blank, “have you recently quit taking or begun taking any medications?”


(And somewhere in Lisle, even now, I can here one of my former Sun-Times Media colleagues calling out “rimshot.” Another in Aurora likely is shouting “jackass.” Addendum: The former colleague working in Aurora messaged me today that she prefers to call me "jackass" to my face. Gotta love that!)

Except that I was not being a smart aleck.

I naively thought that perhaps the individual needed help and could be persuaded to seek medical attention.

Instead, the individual copied my privately sent note and posted it on the discussion board, and then proceeded to publicly vilify me. And, of course, the individual asked if I was Jewish and later threatened to have me prosecuted – I’m still scratching my head over that last one. Prosecuted for what?

The attempts to humiliate me in that discussion board have gone on for about a week now, and I bowed out Thursday after the moderator asked us both to stop the personal attacks, although I had attacked no one. Still, the hostility was detracting from the thread, and I can appreciate any frustration he might have felt over that.

It could be worse, I suppose. The person I pissed off could live a block or two away instead of on the West Coast (after some of the things written about me on this, you bet I checked).

And, frankly, while I did not intend to offend, I was fully prepared that this individual might get angry. I spent the better part of a day considering this before I sent that message and understood it could cause anger. At worst, I thought, if the person was embarrassed by my question, it would be in a private venue. At best, the individual would seek help,

And of course I got swatted down like a bug.

So I guess that sometimes it is true when they say, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

But I think I’ll keep plugging away at it anyway.

Oh, and I don't think I'll stay away from the discussion boards, either. I am, after all, entitled to my opinion. But I am not out to step on any toes.