Just over a year ago, I got an anonymous e-mail that said, among other things, this:
You honestly make me sick. Keep making money off your dead dad, your dying nephew and your kids. Keep taking trips for free while your 15 minutes are still here, because eventually, people are going to see the scum money grubbing famewhore that lies underneath the fake exterior, and you’ll be yesterday’s news. Here’s hoping that’s sooner than later. Go take another Ativan, cause that’s how you cope, right?
I get hate mail from time to time. That one was one of the worst. Usually the nasty comments and the angry mail and the snide posts and whatnot don’t bother me – I’ve been around awhile; I’m used to them; I know that I’m supposed to ignore them – but this one, it hit me hard, because it took aim at things that I was doing to try to achieve some good, things that I was doing in an effort to scatter gathering clouds, to find hope. I was trying to wring some good out of struggling with depression, with grief, with the shadow of illness and inevitable death. I was trying to use this platform to work through the challenges of helping my family navigate a dark valley, and to use that story to make some larger difference. Somebody decided to tell me that they thought what I was doing was offensive, horrible, sick-making.
It was the first time that I faced that. It wasn’t the last. The more that I wrote about Tanner, the more that I accepted help from the community in raising awareness of Tanner’s story and raising money for research into muscular dystrophy, the more I received or heard about nasty remarks from people who saw this as attention-seeking. After BlogHer hosted a charity run, last year, in Tanner’s name, someone wrote a post slamming the whole thing, lamenting that such a dubious, fame-whoring enterprise was condoned by an institution like BlogHer. They only did it because I was a well-known blogger, she said. They were totally willing to overlook the fact that I am a fame-whoring blogger. Such evil, such corruption.
When I went to Lesotho last year, with the Global Fund/Born HIV Free campaign, it got worse. I had never paid much mind to the term ‘poverty tourism.’ I certainly never thought that it would be applied to me. But it was applied to me. So were the words ‘privileged’ and ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘willing to do anything to get attention.’ I’ve heard those words a million times in relation to blogging, so you’d think that they’d have rolled right off me. They didn’t. They hurt. They struck at a place that was already vulnerable, already raw. They struck at that part of my heart that was struggling to confront pain and heartache and injustice and so much that is just wrong with the world, with life – the stuff that makes you doubt, with Voltaire, the benevolent presence of God – and it hurt. It hurt badly. And it made me want to close up. It made me want to not write about this stuff anymore.
So I was angry when I saw that people had gone after Heather last week, with similar accusations, similarly snide accusations that her recent trip to Bangladesh had been just another example of ‘poverty tourism,’ that her efforts to use her platform to share stories and promote issues that would otherwise not get heard or discussed are just so much more attention-seeking and privilege-indulging. I was so angry that I couldn’t even weigh in on the discussion as it was happening. It made my head throb and my heart pound and my throat close and the couple of times that I put fingers to keyboard to say something about it I would end up just sitting there, trying to control my breathing. Not because I was worried that Heather’s poor heart would get bruised – this is heart-bruising stuff, it really is, but Heather’s a big girl and she can take care of her own heart – but because I am just so tired of it, all of this, all of this self-righteous posturing that happens online – that happens everywhere, sure, but it really seems to thrive here – all of this rampant assholery, this excessive douchebaggery, this meanness that dresses itself up as ‘critique’ and ‘analysis’ and ‘open discussion.’
That’s not what this is. This stuff that we’re talking about isn’t reasoned, respectful debate. This is bullies with stones. This is people being assholes. Tracey, last week, called them griefers. Jon Armstrong called them concern trolls. Plato might have called them sophists, but that would have been too generous (too generous an assessment of their skill, and their capacity for shame, that is; even Thrasymachus, his most famous example of a shamelessly, discursively deceptive sophist – who argued only for the purposes of boosting his own reputation – blushed when Socrates got the better of him.) I’m calling them assholes.
And that’s what needs to be called out, that’s what we need to just stop tolerating. There is absolutely a place – the Internet is all about this kind of place – for open discussion and debate and criticism. What it means when we try to use these platforms for good – how we understand our own privilege in the context of trying to do good, how we navigate the space between the benefit to ourselves and the benefit to others, how we understand what it even means to do good when doing good (as it always does) involves some personal gain, if only (if only!) in soul-expansion, in heart-lifting – is certainly well worth discussing. Critical to discuss, even. But when people take to these places to attack each other for sport or for thrills or to work out their own issues – when they use these discussions as pretext for throwing discursive stones – they make these places less hospitable to discourse. Nobody wants to play in a playground where bullies lurk. Nobody wants to share their stories when they fear being shouted down. Nobody but the bold and the brave remain in such hostile spaces – or speak up in such hostile spaces – and that’s a shame.
Heather will go on and continue to share her stories and the stories of others (worth noting, sophists, that this is not new territory for her) and do her thing, because she’s Heather. But other story-tellers and idea-sharers and do-gooders might not. Others might take their stories and their ideas and their causes to other, quieter, less public spaces. Others still might simply opt to not share them at all. Discursive bullying silences people. Maybe not a lot of people, but I don’t think that matters. If anyone chooses to remain silent – if anyone choose to not share the story that could help even one other person, if anyone chooses to not promote the cause that could make even the smallest difference – if any one, single person backs away, removes themselves from the conversation, walks out of the playground because someone else just couldn’t resist indulging their own desire to be an asshole, well, that’s one person too many.
I wish that we could get outraged about that. I really do. And then, when we’re done being outraged, that we could resolve to do better, to be more considerate of each other. You can be thoughtful and critical and still be considerate. Isn’t that what they teach our kids in kindergarten? Let’s try to be at least as civil as kindergartners. Or at least, you know, not assholes.
NOTE: I’m closing comments, partly because I’m not going to be around to moderate them, but also because I just don’t want to. I don’t know whether this underscores my point here, or contradicts it, but I don’t really care. I didn’t write this to stir the pot – I wrote last Friday, actually, and then went off in a canoe to the Canadian backwoods to forget that I wrote it – I wrote it to relieve my anger and frustration. And, I suppose, to make a statement. Well, it’s done. If you’re moved by it, be moved to go engage someone in constructive, civil, respectful dialogue, or, you know, to go say something nice to someone. Go say something nice to someone.