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posted: 1/24/2017 4:43 PM

Editorial: New Twitter episodes show harm of ridicule, value of compassion

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  • Insulting tweets over the weekend created problems for a television network comedy writer and for suburban school board member.

    Insulting tweets over the weekend created problems for a television network comedy writer and for suburban school board member.
    Associated Press File Photo


Dathan Paterno has resigned from the school board of Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District 64, and he wasn't planning to run for re-election this April anyway, so in a way the firestorm he lit with a series of ill-advised Twitter comments may not stay hot for long. But for those candidates across the suburbs who are seeking school board and local-government positions in just over two months, his experience still bears reflection.

Indeed, considering the timing of unrelated but similarly thoughtless tweets that may have cost a national comedy writer her job, the controversy provides yet another opportunity for those of us who enjoy sharing our wit, wisdom and political views in social media to do some soul searching about the our words, tone and subjects.

"Words are sacred," says a character in a Thomas Stoppard play. "If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."

Paterno and Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich found over the weekend that the wrong words in the wrong order also can have power to move the world, and not necessarily in the right direction. Nor can they easily be apologized away.

Rich's sin, a crude joke built around President Donald Trump's 10-year-old son, has its own inherent lessons for anyone who tweets, among them, remember that the people we ridicule on social media -- whether they are individuals marching for a cause or the children of someone famous -- are people. Exploiting them to demonstrate our own hilarity can be not just rude but hurtful.

Paterno's experience, in which he published several crude and insensitive posts about participants in the national Women's March, offers an additional lesson. In his apology, he emphasized that "posts on my personal Twitter account unwittingly spilled into my role on the Board." Public servants should not have to give up all privacy rights, but they should never forget that anything they post in a social media environment by natural extension spills into their public leadership role.

At the risk of sounding like the universal Mom, what each of us posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit or anywhere else is a reflection on us as individuals. When we are holding ourselves out to be community leaders, our public comments are reflections additionally on our leadership qualities.

Much has emerged in social media to erode civility in our public conversations. That's a consequence not likely to be reversed anytime soon, but it doesn't have to be the final verdict on the medium. Restraint surely is one of the lessons here, but it's not the only one. We also can't overlook what such controversies show about the value of kind and empathetic hearts. When they are missing from our conversations, online and elsewhere, much harm results. If they are included, much benefit proceeds.

So, we'd all do ourselves and our culture a favor if we would remember a couple of things before we click on the SEND button. One, few of us are as funny as we think we are. Two, how is the story of that tweet going to sound in a headline?

If you think your post could ignite even a mini-firestorm, maybe, ironically, it's not really all that hot.

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