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A time and a place for everything

The factual bits:

A charity announces its forthcoming annual balloon release.

A campaigner highlights the environmental consequences of balloon releases, and posts his objections–backed up with references–on the Facebook page of the charity.

The references look to have a sound scientific foundation.

The campaigner uses a civil and unemotive tone.

The charity supports those bereaved through the loss of a child.

The supporters of the charity express outrage and condemnation towards the campaigner, and some quickly adopt an abusive stance.

Accusations are flung around on Twitter, Facebook, publicly and privately. It all gets rather nasty.

And what to make of these facts?

Should the campaigner have done it?

This is a pretty good case of “someone is wrong on the Internet” (and indeed, in the environment). But is it all one-sided?

Clearly both sides in the dispute see the other as having crossed over important boundaries.

The charity (and its supporters) are guilty of environmental vandalism, according to the scientific evidence. But they are not interested in scientific evidence. This is their tribute ritual, and the emotions surrounding it are so high as to seemingly overshadow any attempt at rational engagement. That’s “wrong”. [Clarification: the environmental damage is "wrong". Emotions are emotions. Can't really call them right or wrong. Sentence structure could have been better there.]

The campaigner believes that his cause–the potential damage to wildlife and the ecosystem in general–justifies raising awareness in the way he has. But does that make his actions entirely “right”?

I found this case particularly interesting for two reasons: the suspension of rationality, self-justified by those doing it because of the very real grief and suffering they are experiencing, but also by what it tells us about the nature of online engagement spaces.

And ultimately, was the intervention effective? Did it “raise awareness”?

Might it stop this charity doing the same thing next year?

Probably not.

Might it have an impact on those involved in less sensitive matters who might have thought about releasing balloons at some point?

Very possibly.

And does that positive effect in other places justify what was undoubtedly a painful experience in this forum?

I suspect that the campaigner, who I know personally to be highly altruistic in general, acted with a wish to help, not harm. But I wonder if he misjudged to some extent the nature of the space in which he engaged?

That Facebook page might have been billed as the discussion forum for the charity–a place in which, for any generic organisation, one might reasonably expect to conduct debate about the organisation’s aims and objectives.

But in this case, the space clearly has a different purpose. A place of mourning, of solidarity, of remembrance.

The campaigner caused distress in there. It has to be a matter of judgement as to whether the wider awareness of this environmental hazard justifies that. On balance, I think it might have been possible to raise the issue, and create a dialogue with the organisers, in a space other than the “holy ground” of this particular community–perhaps on an environmental blog, or the campaigner’s own online estate. It might not have been as effective in spreading the message, of course.

But it’s very difficult to know. Judging the mood and purpose of an online space, separating its form from its function, is hard indeed. Just because something looks like a discussion forum doesn’t always mean that it actually has that characteristic.

What do you think?

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19 Responses

  1. Dave Briggs says:

    Interesting one this!

    I know and like Andy too, very much, but I can’t help but feel that his was the wrong course of action here.

    The Facebook page was clearly set up for a single purpose, and that was most definitely not dispassionate debate of the issues around releasing balloons. It was an argument he could not win with people who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to even have the discussion.

    If Andy felt he *had* to say something, I would have thought it sensible to perhaps make a single post, point to the evidence, and then retire from the fray, and not respond or discuss any further.

    I do see this actually as another example of where there is clash between internet veterans like Andy, steeped in Usenet and years of online interaction, and those coming to the net relatively recently, with a quite different attitude and approach to what used to be referred to as netiquette.

  2. I’ve been following this as well over the last few days – only met Andy once and he came across as a genuinely nice bloke.

    I can completely understand where Andy is coming from, and he is right to raise awareness of the damage this event can do to the environment, and he presented his arguments in a rational and calm way. Which is i think where things fell down a bit.

    Having experienced a loss myself, you are hyper sensitive to the tone of someone’s languange, and reading tone from the written word can be very difficult.

    While i’m sure many can see Andy’s responses to be nothing but rational and fair, with no abusive undertone, people in an emotionally unbalanced place can easily read them to be a cold, uncaring direction on how they should mourn the loss of their child.

    Andy obviously didn’t mean to convey those sorts of feelings, but i can see how they would come across that way to others.

    Having said this, nothing excuses people resorting to foul language and insulting comments, which appeared to arrise from a few people on Facebook aimed at anybody who dared suggest Andy had a point.

  3. Paul Coxon (@Paulcoxon81) says:

    I totally support and agree with what Andy did, which is why I commented (and ultimately got a little share of the tirade of abuse directed at him)on the issue.

    Most people would not have raised the objection to the Life After Loss balloon release that Andy did and, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure I’d have got involved, despite my objections to the practice, had Andy not raised it first. Andy’s a better and braver man than I am and the world needs people like him who are willing to stand up and challenge things they disagree with, even at the risk of criticism and abuse.

    This said I don’t feel good about anything I said that upset anyone, but I am confident that I followed Andy’s lead and kept all interactions polite and courteous, even in the face of a huge amount of hate (yesterday I blocked more Twitter users than in the whole 2 years I’ve been on the platform).

    I do think Life After Loss, as an organisation, managed this in the worst possible way.

  4. Bereaved Parent says:

    I was glad to see a more rational analysis of the horrible debate which took place online over the past few days. However the picture is much bigger than your article and I myself have been disgusted by things I have witnessed. A lot of comments have now been deleted which do not reflect how nasty the opposers became. One particular comment, I believe from someone who has commented on your article above was “Is an oil spill also an appropriate way to rememer your dead babies?” This was not only hurtful but absolutely daft in my opinion. I agree that things have spiralled to a place I doubt (would sincerely hope) no one would have like them to have gone. The way I see it as that there is a time and a place – as you have alluded to in your article – and an online support page was not it! If I am correct, Mr Mabbett was commenting on photographs of grieving parents from the day if the balloon release- on the day of the balloon release, this was inappropriate and not the time or the place. I also believe he had tried to stop the event but having been unsuccessful, why not focus attention elsewhere or write a letter to authorities/ the charity to find a compromise for future events? Why continue “after the horse had bolted” on a support page when grieving parents were already emotional from what I have no problems in admitting was a poignant and comforting day. Are there more environmentally friendly ways of pyhysically remembering our babies? Sure! Was the the way to address that? Absolutely not! And shame on Mr Mabbett (and his willing followers) for being so blinded by his own cause that he didn’t stop to think how his actions, words and course of action might have caused pain to the humans he also shares this planet with.

    I am sure I will be negatively judged by many of you but that is up to you.

  5. Andy Mabbett says:

    I made no comments about photographs of grieving parents (nor of any other individuals).

    No one said “Is an oil spill also an appropriate way to remem[b]er your dead babies?” – What someone asked of LifeAfterLoss (and it’s still on Twitter, not deleted) was “Can I presume you would not pour oil into the sea as an act of remembrance”.

  6. Bereaved Parent says:

    You appear to be relentless with this and I simply refuse to get into pedantic arguments with you. I hope you can find some peace after all the hurt you have knowingly caused and that you are big enough to learn some lessons from this disaster. I will pray for you. Really no need to stoop to petty corrections of typos, but as is your will. Comments have indeed been deleted on twitter and if diluted versions are reposted, again, up to you and your followers! Also, as a final point – from me at least, the comments quoted in this very article were comments on a photo album from the charity’s facebook support page. You cannot deny that, though perhaps this simply proves what the author here is highlighting regarding emotions and rational engagement. I sense you too have now found some emotions.

    I in know way mean to attack you, Mr Mabbet, as I said I will pray for you and hope that you may find ways to improve on any future attempts at affecting change that are more sensitive to the feelings and emotions of humans.

    You will not hear from me again.

  7. Andy Mabbett says:

    Comments have not been deleted and diluted versions reposted; each tweet bears its original timestamp; in this case 16:06 on Monday 17th (yesterday, as I type). Furthermore, the original reply by one of your fellow defenders of the balloon release still points to it; timestamped 18:13 the same day.

  8. Peter says:

    There are numerous reports about balloons and balloon releases harming the environment on the Internet, in major newspapers and even on TV news programs. Even though his intentions were honourable, he was supposed to know that anything released into our environment should be carefully thought out and done with respect for nature.

  9. David Jones says:

    As I have also written on The Ranger’s Blog:

    As the father of a cot death baby, I was dismayed to read the comments, hatred and anger on the facebook pages. This is wrong, in so many ways.

    I know the feeling of this loss. I understand it. It hurts, is a hole inside of me, and never goes away. And if you haven’t lost a child, your own child, then you will never understand it.

    But that does not give me the right, or excuse, or justification to swear, be abusive, threaten violence, or hope that someone “chokes”. None of those things bring back my child or yours. None make us feel better. None are the example we would have hoped to have shown him, had he grown. You lose a child, but then hope that someone else chokes to death? And 18 people “Liked” that comment – you “Like” someone else dying, after going through the hell – and it is hell – of the death of your own child?

    Think about it.

    On the balloons. I hadn’t thought about the balloon issue until my attention was drawn to this debate. It doesn’t take much research to see that, with animals and birds being killed by balloon remnants, it isn’t a sensible or appropriate method of commemoration. Celebrating a life by possibly killing a gull, razorbill, cow or sheep is not right.

    We remember Simon in our own way. We raise funds for the children’s unit in the hospital who cared for him. It’s positive. It’s not selfish. It gives the nurses who get little pay, and even less credit for their work and hours, acknowledgement. And it helps future children, and parents of children. It therefore seems, to us, the right and appropriate thing to do.

    This will probably be the first and last time I write of this. I would hope that people who have read this awful debate would realise that not all bereaved parents would think, or write, the same vitriolic, inexcusable – and there is no excuse – comments that have been written in the last day. Some of us want this to be a better, more positive, less selfish world; if not, sadly, for our own children, then for other peoples children.

    Thank you for reading this.

  10. Oh internet… I find myself more and more assuming the “facepalm” pose these days. (like so: http://s3.amazonaws.com/kym-assets/photos/images/original/000/001/582/picard-facepalm.jpg?1240934151)

    As with Dave and Carl, I know Andy well from Twitter and numerous gatherings we have attended. I agree with comments that, perhaps, y’know, this wasn’t the time or place for a public discussion on this. I know from reading the Rangers Blog article that Andy is, at present, contacting various charities involved in these activities and asking them to reconsider – I have no problem with that; I think it’s a worthy cause, however a private word to the organiser is probably better than what could be seen as tantamount to trolling (sorry!) :(

    BUT… that is all by the by when you look at the responses to this; the amount of hate, bile and vitriol poured into the anger thrown back at Andy. And that’s plain wrong.

    But is this a problem with the internet? Is it beginning to drive our civil courtesies and ability to coexist regardless of opinion out of the window? Is it making people believe that they can, frankly, behave like utter shits! The net should be a place for discussion, not the formation of virtual lynch mobs. But I see this more and more frequently on social networks; people hiding behind their routers and modems, feeling like they can throw a casual insult or wish of death into a discussion.

    I don’t always like to involve myself in things like this (if it were a pub, I’d be the one heading for the exit if any trouble started brewing) but everyone really needs to start having a little think before they post something online these days…

  11. Andy Mabbett says:

    Andrew B & others,

    Others contacted LAL before I did, directly and in private, and were rebuffed. I also contacted them via their own blog, and they have so far declined to publish my comment.

  12. Eleanor Ellerslie says:

    Can I just clarify that Andy Mabbett DID NOT contact us personally, he tried to post his article on balloon releases on our site the night before the balloon release, as with every new member on the site a first post has to be approved to prevent spammers.

    He is now targeting the family and friends of Harry Moseley as they are planning a balloon release to mark his funeral tomorrow. Shame on him. He obviously does have a grudge against bereaved parents. We are soft targets.

  13. Paul Coxon (@Paulcoxon81) says:

    He does not target bereaved parents, but everyone who plans balloon releases. You’re actually employed by Life After Loss (regional organiser, no?)perhaps a bit of professionalism might be good, I appreciate you can’t control your members, but you are the representative of your organisation, a smear campaign against Andy does not exactly put you in the best light.

  14. Eleanor Ellerslie says:

    No Paul, I am not employed by Life After Loss, I am Regional Co-Ordinator on a voluntary basis because I am passionate about the charity as we provide support to people who are suffering the worst thing they have ever been through, losing their babies. We lost our 30 day old son Adam when we had to withdraw life support as his bowel had died. I have strived since then to help others in this position.

    I am not waging a smear campaign against Andy, he is the one who refused to reply to me privately when I messaged him and he continued to upset our members. As this article says there is a time and a place and Andy just ignored this, as did you when you came on upsetting our members as well with your comments.

  15. Paul Coxon (@Paulcoxon81) says:

    I’m sorry for your loss Eleanor, I honestly am, but I have been nothing but polite and respectful to your members despite that not being reciprocated.

    I notice you have left the thread open on the Facebook page despite it containing almost solely hate directed against Andy and myself.

  16. Eleanor Ellerslie says:

    As my son put in another blog…you may have worded your comments in a what you deem a polite fashion without the use of swearing…however sometimes the tone of a comment is much more hurtful than the words said.

    We had the blessing from the MCS for this balloon release, Dr Robert Keirle wrote to me personally and said he could understand why we found it significant and for what it was worth we had his blessing for this balloon release and any subsequent one.

    These posts are going to be removed today, we left them on so people could see the hurt and anger you and Andy evoked in our parents.

    This is all I have to say on this matter as I have better things to put my energies into.

  17. Paul Coxon (@Paulcoxon81) says:

    I notice decision was taken to leave the post in place despite your words above. Okay your call, can’t help but feel LAL now seem to be ensuing their members remain angry…In fact the charity’s PR seems to be doing a grand job continuing to provoke and maintain high levels of rage. Perhaps this is for the extra publicity you’re getting…

  18. Andy Mabbett says:

    Yes, Robert Keirle wrote to you *personally* – that’s not a blessing from the MCS.

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