How to commit acts of consumer advocacy during a season of hate

By now, it’s obvious to everyone except maybe the presidential candidates themselves that this is the most hate-filled political campaign in the history of American political campaigns.

But this isn’t a story about politics. You’ve already let me know, in no uncertain terms, that you would prefer to stick to the advocacy on this website. I respect that, and I will.

Instead, let’s talk about the challenge of waging advocacy against a backdrop of venom, ad hominem attacks and “anything goes” playground insults this summer.

It’s not easy.

I know, because the site attracts more than its fair share of trolls and haters. For almost two decades, we have been the targets of relentless attacks by company operatives, credit card shills and contrarians who were dedicated to our total destruction. (That’s not hyperbole. Several years ago, they even organized a campaign to persuade all of my editorial outlets to fire me. Those attempts failed, obviously.)

So, how do you stay the course without getting distracted? I mean, it’s human nature to want to retaliate — to say “I’m not a jerk, you are!” And, of course, that takes you away from your mission, which is to help people. That is exactly what they want: to not advocate.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand: Critics don’t matter. Their opinions don’t matter. Even your reputation doesn’t matter.

Only one thing matters: the mission.

One of my most outspoken critics likes to use straw man arguments to try to discredit our advocacy. When someone does that, your first reflex is to rush to your own defense, even if you know the rhetorical trick being used against you sets you up for an unwinnable argument.

It wasn’t easy, but blocking the chatter was the most important lesson I learned in dealing with these internet bottom-feeders. And by “block” I mean literally use the block function on Facebook and Twitter, and even going so far as to preventing the hateful sites from linking to your blog. (Yeah, you can do that.)

That shuts them down. When no one can hear what you say, what’s the point in saying anything?

Ah, quiet.

That, in turn, creates a lot of free time — time you can use to productively advocate for people or research company contacts or even spend with your own family.

I think we are now faced with a similar decision, but on a bigger scale. It goes beyond the corrosive campaign rhetoric of late and extends to the very people we are trying to help.

Hate’s second cousin, entitlement, is a common problem on this site and in our forums. In the last several months, I’ve seen our forum moderators use the “ban” function more often, as consumers spin out of control with wild allegations and over-the-top requests, finally hurling their angry words at us, the very people trying to help them.

Hate is an interesting thing. I mean that literally.

When readers become angry, they say the most interesting things. It can be entertaining and even funny.

For years, that anger drove the narrative on this site – anger against companies, against careless consumers, and eventually, against our advocates. Other blogs have nurtured the hate so that it could be trained on a target, like a weapon. One day, it’s pointed at “liberals.” The next day, the crosshairs are on well-meaning government regulators. And the next, the hate-weapon is trained on a writer whose media outlets you covet.

But there’s something I know about hate. If you let it fester long enough, it can metastasize into something incredibly destructive. Look no further than the frequent terrorist attacks against Westerners abroad or the homegrown terror that brings death to our own backyards. That’s hate.

We can’t let that become us. So the simple answer to my question – how do we carry on when everyone around us is hating? – is that we tune out the voices that would distract us and that would lead us down the road to more hatred.

Focus harder on the thing that we’re here to do, which is to help, not hurt.

It has taken more than 20 years for me to learn this key lesson about advocacy. I’m sharing it with you now, during this summer of hatred, because I think you need to understand what we’re up against.

The angry voices that tell you that we are stupid for being on the consumer’s side are leading you to a dark place. They misappropriate other words, like “freedom” and “liberty,” to beckon you to a place filled with paranoia, fear and terror.

The path to consumer advocacy does not go there. It takes you in a different direction, one filled with love and understanding. It’s a place where you compassionately listen to a problem and then dispassionately present it to a company so that they can address the issue. It’s a course that leads you to acceptance, not uncontrolled fury.

If you’re reading the site, you’ve already taken the first step down that path. But some of you hesitate. You still think helping people is a game, and the cases we present are here for your amusement. They are not.

We are going to survive this summer and come out better than before. We are too good to fall for the vile rhetoric and to give in to the rage. At least, that is my hope.

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