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Ethical Responsibilities in E-Mail - Creating and Forwarding E-Mails
By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

Have you ever received an e-mail from someone else about a political, religious or social issue and then forwarded it to all or most of your address book?  Most of us probably have.

Did you take the time to research whether the original e-mail was factually accurate, or who the person or group was behind the content and what their viewpoints are?

Over the past year I have become increasingly concerned about the relationship climate we are creating in our society and in the world by what we forward to others through e-mail. Each of us is eithically and morally responsible for not only what we create, but for what we forward from others – and for the consequences those e-mails create in the relationship climate of the world.  Many good people co-create damage to the reputation of individuals or groups, promote ignorance and fear, and feed prejudice -- not because they are mean-spirited people, but because they do not take the time to think it through, check out the facts about what they are sending and make up their own mind. It is a way we can create very negative effects with an intent to do the opposite.

It is high time that we all take full responsibility for what we send or forward to others.

I have friends, family, colleagues, clients and acquaintances from many different racial, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. So we disagree on different topics, which only adds to the richness of the relationships. I know they are good people.

What is the difference in those e-mails that can challenge our thinking by presenting a different point of view, and those that I am saying do damage? 

I’ll start by giving some examples of just a few I've received that I think create damage and feed conflict and prejudice in order to illustrate how we can become more responsible and stop feeding prejudice:

•  Obama is the anti-Christ
•  Palin represents the shadow side and the worst of who we are as human beings
•  We are a Christian nation and how horrible it is that someone said we are a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists
•  Islam in America’s Classrooms: History or Propaganda from ACT for America
•  The proposed healthcare reform on page 425-435 says that mandates end-of-life treatment and that the government will decide for us. 

What bothers me is that I have received these from well-meaning people who did not make one iota of effort to think through or check the allegations before they sent them to many people -- who then forward it to all the people they know.

Language creates attitudes, ideas, and leads to behaviors and we need to be careful about what we create. (See What World Do We Create With Our Language?)

Whatever your beliefs or political choices, take time to follow some basic guidelines with e-mail chain letters:

1.  Check out the facts of the e-mail before you pass it on.

a) It is unethical to pass on statements that are untrue or that defame, demean another person or group or feed prejudice. Not only general ethical principles, but most religions have teachings about the harm of making false statements about another person.  I think that also extends to what we say about groups of people and even important issues that affect all of us.

b) Everything you say, do, fail to do or say, the way you say or do things creates the climate of individual and group relationships.  (See What IS Relationship?)  You are putting pollution into relationships and into the world when you pass on gossip, slander, defamation or even inaccurate information as if it is THE truth.

c) In some cases, it is illegal.
“In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. Slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism.” (Summary from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation)

d) Spreading lies and inaccurate or misleading information shows your ignorance and your failure to take responsibility for what you send – and even for what you think.  Explore the issue and make up your OWN mind. Don't just pass it on like a sheep.

For example, in the Obama is the anti-Christ e-mail, part of the e-mail claims that in the Book of Revelations “The anti-Christ will be a man, in his 40’s, of Muslim descent . . .” No mainstream Bible mentions a man in his 40’s in the Book of Revelations, and none mention Muslim.  Nevermind the fact that Islam did not come into existence until close to 600 years after Revelations was written.

In the “Muslims were told to get out of Australia e-mail”, not only was it not Prime Minister Rudd, but the e-mail headline is misquoted and taken out of context.  Actually Australia’s Treasurer under the former prime minister said: "If those are not your values, if you want a country which has Sharia law or a theocratic state, then Australia is not for you.  This is not a country where you would feel comfortable if you are opposed to democracy, parliamentary law and independent courts. " (http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2005/s1444603.htm It is a very different thing to say that Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told to get out, versus those who want a country governed by Sharia law.  The first implies a religiously observant Muslim.  The second includes those who want a theocratic state.  One statement gives a fact of what was said. The other makes it sound like all religious Muslims should get out of the country.  You create two distinct climates in the world, depending on how you speak or write the words. The same climate goes on to give the impression the Prime Minister is speaking, directly related to the Muslims, when in fact what is quoted is a chain letter that has been modified several times and misquoted an article written by Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia legislator, who wrote it in a different context and in response to a different incident.

Sarah Palin is the shadow and worst of who we are as humans. Pathologizing her because you disagree with her is in the same category as "Obama is the antiChrist" genre.

Proposed h ealthcare reform is NOT mandating or ordering certain end-of-life care, it is simply adding a consultation with your physician as something Medicare will now pay the physician for his time to discuss if you and your physician want to.  It is in the same section of the Social Security Act as psychiatric care and dialysis – neither of which are mandated.

In my opinion, all of these are examples of appealing to and stirring up fear. The part of our brain that processes fear is the same part that animals use -- the amygdala/limbic system. It's the part that gets activated in road rage. Is THAT what we want making our life decisions or decisions in our country? Fortunately we have other parts of our brain-- the cortex and its frontal lobes--that allows us to take filter our fears and other emotions through our reason and consideration of our goals and the consequences of our actions.

e)   If you are considering forwarding an e-mail with several statements, only forward those parts that you check and confirm.  Don’t forward the whole thing just because one or two statements might be correct.

2.  Check out the sources of organizations, groups, or individuals that send out e-mail messages before you pass them on.  Is this an organization and person that you have investigated their views and with whom you fully agree?

By promoting a quote from an organization, you imply that you agree with what that organization says not only in that e-mail, but in general – unless you make that distinction in your own e-mail.

For example, I really don’t think that the person who sent me the article about Islam in America’s classrooms actually read the full report (which also states how horrible it is that students are taught about the religious and social structures of Islam as part of the social, political changes that occurred in Europe from 500AD – 1789 AD and that no Muslim or anyone who supports Islam should have any input into how Islam is portrayed in textbooks).  Further, the person who wrote the report and who runs the organization who was promoting it, was asked in a news interview about the well-known contributions of Arabs to science and history. She stated that none of the known contributions to science came from ‘Muslim brains’, but from people who were conquered by Muslims and that the only contribution of Islam throughout history has been butchering and killing people.

The statement is historically false and clearly reveals the prejudices of the originating organization. When you blindly pass on an organization’s e-mails, make sure it is what you personally believe. If so, then use your own words and arguments about the report and take responsibility for your own views.  If not, be clear about making the distinctions between what you believe and what you don’t both in the e-mail at hand and the organization behind it.

3.  Respect difference and don’t pathologize or demean those with whom you disagree.

The article that went around on Palin being the shadow side of Obama who exhorts people to obey their worst impulses.  Carl Jung, a disciple of Freud who differed with him, called the ‘shadow’ “a reservoir for human darkness” and said that it is an aspect of the unconscious consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. The writer then goes on to demean and deride what Palin said was important to her and what she believed was important to this country.

When you disagree, give your reasons without bashing someone else’s who happens to disagree with you.  You can argue your case without denigrating the person or group that thinks differently from you.

4. Be careful of extreme or volatile language -- like describing the healthcare reform proposal "downright evil" and "death panels" or "Hitler-like".

5.  State YOUR points as your opinion or belief, and support your ‘facts’ with references that you have checked out as best you can.

What bothered me about the Palin article, and most others, is that the writer’s opinion was presented as THE truth.  It might have been HIS personal view or truth, but when we, like the writer, find it necessary to demean those who disagree with us, it is usually from the arrogance of “my way is the only way, , and THE one and only truth.”

One of the great things about a free country and interchange of ideas is that you have the opportunity to hear the concerns, fears, hopes and dreams of people who think and experience life differently.  Difference does not mean someone is bad, wrong, or crazy for thinking differently from YOU!

6.  Claim your own identity from your deepest values and dreams instead of basing it on ‘us vs. them’ or on demonizing the ‘other’.  (See What World Do We Create With Our Words?)

This is a variation of what I was just talking about. I am me. You are you.  The ‘my way is THE way’ mentality came through in the e-mail that lamented the fact that Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists were named as part of our nation and that we are not exclusively a Christian nation.  Making room for difference does not mean you cannot exist as who you are.  We can be who we are as individuals and groups without needing to exclude others.

When individuals, groups, or countries base their identity on who their enemy is, it paralyzes progress, creativity and embracing the best of what we all bring to the table.  I don’t believe in being stupid and assuming everyone is my friend.  Clearly there are individuals and groups who want to destroy others.  But when you focus nearly all your energy on self-protection and exclusion out of fear, you restrict your capacity to join with others who DO share common goals and a vision for peace, justice, progress – even if they come at it from a different approach.

7.  Be specific instead of generalizing when talking about people of different religious, racial, ethnic, political or other groups.

8.  Step up to the plate and formulate and put out your OWN thinking and ideas instead of simply sending around circulating e-mails that express the opinions of someone else.  If you disagree with a person or an issue, present your own thoughtful ideas of an alternative.

What is the kind of world YOU want to create?  What are YOUR hopes, dreams and fears?

I personally have much more respect for someone who speaks for themselves, than those who constantly take the easy way out of passing along someone else’s stand on issues.  Even when I completely disagree with someone, I can understand and respect their concerns, dreams and position when they show me part of who they are inside in expressing their point of view.

Stop and think before you automatically forward e-mails. Think about what you are creating and do so consciously and doing your best to agree or disagree constructively and respectfully. Our words create the climate and actions of our world.  We are all responsible for what we put into the relationship space of our common humanity.


© Dawn Lipthrott, LCSW, 2009, Renewed 2013 www.relationshipjourney.com

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