I’m a big believer in the power of social media as a force for good. Time and again, in both my own personal life and in the wider world around me, I’ve seen the ways in which it can help serve to create community and unite people in new ways.
Which is why some of the social media firestorm that’s happening as I type makes me more than a little bit sad.
No, I’m not talking about Yoga-Gate (although that surely deserves a post or two of its own). Instead, I’m talking about the whirlwind that’s erupted around the now-infamous Facebook post by the owner of The Frogstone Grill in Maple Ridge in response to the rapidly spreading story of a breastfeeding mom who posted about her experience being asked to cover up while feeding her infant.
What was originally a Facebook post by the mom in question, Brianne McNally, gained more news traction after News 1130 followed the story. (Check it out here.)
The original story said the restaurant had refused to comment, but today, a Facebook post signed by Frogstone Grill owner Todd Pratt (see a screenshot attached above) is going wildly crazy on the Internet.
I’m left with weirdly mixed feelings about the whole affair.
Let’s get something clear up front: I am a huge believer in breastfeeding. I breastfed my daughter from birth on. (In fact, I am still breastfeeding her as a nearly-three-year-old, and I am certain that fact unto itself could ignite a whole other debate.) I have breastfed in many public places over the course of her young life. I wholeheartedly support the right of all mothers to breastfeed their babies wherever and whenever they need to.
So, yes, I am one hundred per cent in support of, and in empathy with, Brianne McNally. She was fully within her rights (her basic human rights and, yes, actual legal rights enshrined in B.C. law) to feed her child at the restaurant (and, frankly, I suspect the other diners would have been more unhappy about a hot, crying, fractious, hungry two-month-old than about the possibility of accidentally seeing some boob).
What saddens me about the whole thing is how fast it turned nasty.
Before social media, the whole thing would have gone down very differently. The embarrassed mom might perhaps have asked to speak to a manager or the owner, or perhaps called the restaurant later, when she got home; best case, she would have received a quiet apology or a free dessert or a gift certificate for a return visit. Story done, case closed, moving on.
In this social media world, however, that didn’t happen.
Instead, this one exchange between two individuals became the catalyst for a very public and very nasty fight about something that should never have been a fight in the first place.
I have no idea what was going through the restaurant staffer’s mind when she asked the mom to cover up. I have no idea how much of said mother’s breasts were, in fact, showing (and let me add, it doesn’t matter to my support of her one way or the other – discreet or highly visible, breastfeeding is breastfeeding; it’s not sexual, and people need to get over it).
Maybe the restaurant staffer was busy and harassed and dealing with a complaint from another unhappy customer and just thought she’d try to handle it the best way she could. Maybe she came across as abrupt when she’d have been much better off being calm and pleasant. Maybe she really has no experience with kids or breastfeeding and was herself left quite embarrassed by the accidental sight of another woman’s breasts (after three years of breastfeeding, I wouldn’t so much as blink if I spotted someone’s nipple, but I understand not everyone is as accustomed to the sight). Maybe she was just not sure what was allowed in the restaurant (“no shirt, no shoes, no service” and all that) and was hastening to intervene before something she considered untoward might happen.
Maybe she was just plain rude and totally out of line.
I have no clue – and neither does anyone who wasn’t there.
This is where I have issues with incidents like this becoming “causes” on social media.
Because what should have been one human interaction between two people (or three, if you count the baby in question) has become a hugely nasty public scene, with insults flying from all sides. And it hasn’t been at all productive for anyone.
You can argue there’s a certain value in issues like this going public. Yes, it’s healthy to have public discourse about the rights of women to breastfeed in public. People need to understand that breastfeeding is normal and healthy and that there’s nothing sexual about a woman feeding her child.
It isn’t healthy, however, when the whole thing just becomes one big mud-flinging-fest – and, sadly, that’s the road that Facebook and Twitter seem to lead us down far too often. There’s no room in its unsubtle, unnuanced universe for information and education and communication and understanding: instead, every dispute spirals into a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, all-out-war.
Do you think there’s a single person who wasn’t already in support of public breastfeeding who’s going to come around to the cause when the public discussion turns nasty? I think it more likely that those opposed to public breastfeeding, and even some of those sitting on the fence, are by now feeling kinda sorry for Todd Pratt and the way he was taken down by an entirely one-sided campaign that demonized his restaurant before anyone from his establishment had even spoken publicly about it.
Let’s be clear – the one-sidedness of the campaign appears to be largely his own fault.
The restaurant owner didn’t do himself any favours by not responding to news calls on the issue in the first place (if, in fact, reports are true and he didn’t return those calls). As a reporter, that to me is just lesson number 1: If you want your side of the story out there, you had damn well better call the reporter back. But I get why someone inexperienced with media relations might not see it that way - “I don’t wanna touch this one with a ten-foot pole, let’s not call that news outlet back and just hope they go away” is the more likely response from your average person who knows he’s stumbled into a hornet’s nest and is just trying not to get stung.
No question, either, that Todd Pratt didn’t do himself any favours with the final line of his Facebook post: comparing a breastfeeding mother to a “topless bar” is just going to take the discussion nowhere but downhill fast.
But blame for this whole thing – even that crazy line about the topless bar – can be laid squarely at the feet of social media, and the way it turns us all into a pack of frenzied sharks who’ve scented blood the moment we see something that offends us. That topless bar sentence looks, to me, like the line of someone who felt attacked and did what we all are programmed to do: lashed out in self-defence.
Was it a stupid defence? Yup. But you know what? I bet he’s gained some fans for it.
Which, frankly, leaves us all worse off than we were before this whole thing went public.
Instead of two adults speaking directly to each other, sharing their concerns and arriving at an understanding of what happened in this exchange, we’ve got two highly opposed sides who will never find common ground.
On the one side, we’ve got angry moms threatening a “nurse-in” outside his restaurant (that hasn’t happened yet to my knowledge, but it may yet) and more vowing they’ll never set foot in the establishment again. Fair enough. I get it.
On the other side, we have a restaurant owner and staff and supporters who are likely seeing red and will undoubtedly now be on the defensive – and may choose to blame all breastfeeding moms everywhere for their woes.
Wouldn’t we have just been better off if there had been an adult conversation between two individuals that ended in an amicable understanding – and some much-needed education for at least one person who wasn’t aware that public breastfeeding is, in fact, a woman’s legal right.
I’m truly sorry that Brianne McNally had a bad experience. I’m impressed with her willingness to go public in the hopes of helping other mothers and helping to ensure that embarrassments like hers don’t happen to other moms – especially those who might be less comfortable with the idea of public breastfeeding.
I’m even more sorry that her story got caught up in this weird world that social media creates – this world that leaves no room for ordinary people who make decisions, who make mistakes, who sometimes use poor judgment, who deserve a chance to be heard and understood.
Social media has no time for that. In Facebookland, in Twitterville, it’s all hero and villain, angel and demon, all black and white with no shades of grey.
One restaurant staffer made a poor call one night, and as a consequence thousands of people now hate a bunch of folks they don’t even know.
No matter how you feel about public breastfeeding, you’ve gotta feel sad about that outcome.