Don’t fan the flames

The Gulf News (Port aux Basques) - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 36 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@thetele­ — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

Al­most ev­ery jour­nal­ist has a Mike or two on the pe­riph­ery of their life.

Some have a half a dozen or more. (Mike is a pseu­do­nym, by the way.)

What’s a Mike? A Mike (or a Michelle, for that mat­ter) gets in touch to tell you about a great wrong done to them: the first call of­ten starts off rea­son­ably enough, but there be­gins to be sub­tle tell-tales that the story isn’t what it seems. Great con­spir­a­cies are de­tailed, right down to con­stant sur­veil­lance by an ever-chang­ing ro­ta­tion of ap­par­ent strangers.

Some­times, signs of the con­spir­acy are di­vined from colours seen on things like gro­cery store fliers, or from the num­ber of tele­phone util­ity ve­hi­cles work­ing in a neigh­bour­hood.

They can be con­vinced that they see mes­sages de­lib­er­ately hid­den in news­pa­per sto­ries and directed solely at them.

They call or email, some­times re­lent­lessly.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, a frus­trated Mike will make an oblique — or even di­rect — threat against you. Some­times, they call back to apol­o­gize. Some­times, they don’t, leav­ing you won­der­ing.

It be­comes ob­vi­ous that they are suf­fer­ing from ill men­tal health of one kind or an­other. And the calls keep com­ing. All the while, even though you have plenty of other things to do, even though stay­ing on the lat­est call has noth­ing to do with your job — be­cause a story will never sur­face from the imag­ined wrongs they are de­scrib­ing — you have a feel­ing that you have to move slowly, that you have to choose your words with care.

Don’t en­gage in their delu­sions, for sure, don’t am­plify them, but keep in mind, re­gard­less of any­thing else, that the per­son call­ing you is le­git­i­mately tor­mented by what he or she be­lieves is hap­pen­ing, even if it isn’t real. That they are real, live peo­ple, and that they are in pain.

Above all, try not to make things worse.

Some­times, things take such an un­set­tling turn that you start to take pre­cau­tions; I’ve stored obliquely threat­en­ing emails, shared and dis­cussed them with my boss. We’ve even talked about whether things are reach­ing a point where we need to in­volve the po­lice. And, at least once, I’ve had to do ex­actly that.

It’s a step you don’t want to take, be­cause it has se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the per­son in­volved. If they are con­tact­ing you from their work com­puter, for ex­am­ple, you can imag­ine the prob­lems when the po­lice show up at their place of work.

You could, of course, be far more cal­lous. You could just start hang­ing up, or, if you’re cruel enough, you might even toy with your caller, fu­elling their para­noia — you know, the equiv­a­lent of pok­ing an open wound with a stick

Of course, you don’t do that — be­cause, if some­thing ever did go wrong, if Mike snapped and lashed out, you would know for­ever, even if no one else did, that you had a role to play in that.

Now, imag­ine you’re a prime min­is­ter or a pres­i­dent: just imag­ine how many Mikes and Michelles there are out there who may find in your words li­cence to act.

Don’t you owe your na­tion a duty of care not to use in­flated rhetoric that might tip them over the edge? And if you do choose to in­flame, what’s your blame­wor­thi­ness in it all? It’s sim­ple enough to say you didn’t or­der any­one to pick up a gun and start shoot­ing, or to point out that there have al­ways been peo­ple who com­mit hor­ri­ble crimes.

It’s also a lie.

The an­swer is sim­ple: if you know­ingly add gas to the fire, you share the blame for the burns that re­sult. And if you can sleep well de­spite do­ing that, well, you’re not a very good per­son, are you?

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