Oh, it’s been a while since I wrote about this, but the issue of balloon releases seems to have raised its head in a particularly bizarre and upsetting way recently. Readers who’ve read this blog for any length of time won’t have missed my thoughts about this issue – but if you did, have a quick refresher by reading Balloons – how they kill wildlife, and what to do about it. Or smirk at the slightly more tongue in cheek Smoking for Turtles on the same subject.
The bottom line is that I’m worried about the damage balloons cause to the environment, and I wish people wouldn’t release them or encourage others to do so. Yes, even when it’s for a really good cause. And that’s the difficult bit, because some dreadfully worthy causes seem to adopt balloon releases as their chosen method of fund-raising or commemoration or whatever. Then it becomes quite hard to criticise the medium without being seen to be criticising the message itself.
The latest person to face up to this particular Gordian knot is well-known Midland bird-watcher and seasoned internet debater Andy Mabbett, who’s one of the few people in the UK licensed to wear a Father-of-the-Internet beard without irony. Andy Mabbett has been approaching various bodies that are undertaking balloon releases and asking them not to do so. I won’t go into the debate for or against balloons – I’ve covered it exhaustively elsewhere. But I do want to examine an aspect of this that’s caused me some concern. Recently Mabbett approached Life After Loss, a Northern Ireland-based organisation for bereaved parents. The results were unexpected.
Anyone who uses the internet for a while will soon become wearily familiar with the way that online arguing tends to go. There’s a tendency to descend into belligerence and rudeness that doesn’t always reflect how face-to-face arguments would go. One of the better-known analyses of this was Paul Graham’s famous 2008 post ‘How to Disagree’. But despite this predictable degradation of manners few I think would have expected that a group of grieving parents would have unleashed their vitriol in this way.
Look carefully at that last one above – yes, eighteen people reading the Life After Loss Facebook page are willing to go on record endorsing the hope that Andy Mabbett chokes. You can read their names on the post, if you’re interested. Once one has got through the concern which that kind of abuse naturally arouses, it’s hardly necessary to point out the irony in such a situation. It seems beyond credibility to suppose that there really are no fewer than eighteen bereaved parents in Northern Ireland who are willing to wish death on an unknown man rather than even consider not releasing one balloon. And yet they say so.
So can one even open a dialogue with people who are so extremely defensive about their position? I’m struggling to see what else Andy Mabbett could have done which was consistent with making his point heard. Indeed, even the more courteous participants in the debate (and there were several) have really managed only to respond at best that he should go away and leave them alone. Whilst Mabbett has persisted in his interaction with Life After Loss, it’s clear that less thick-skinned correspondents might have not have been so tenacious and unequivocal, giving up long ago. I can have considerable sympathy with the confusion which this robust approach has caused amongst the Life After Loss people. Do they so fundamentally fail to understand the nature of this approach because they’ve never had anyone criticise them before? If so this might explain how they proved so singularly unable to respond appropriately. It might also be a reflection on how we, as a society, interact – or don’t – with those experiencing death and loss.
Where this one will now go is anyone’s guess. In the short term nowhere probably, because the annual Life After Loss balloon release is over and beyond that I suspect, and indeed hope, most bereaved parents really don’t want to put their names to this shameful sort of behaviour: regardless of the merits of balloon releases. Life After Loss is an organisation which is involved with plenty of non-balloon-related activities, and maybe gradually they’ll come to realise for themselves where their priorities should lie.