On Feb. 21 author Lynn Shepherd posted an opinion piece on The Huffington Post in which she pleaded for J.K. Rowling to stop writing books for the adult market, claiming that Rowling has had her turn and that books like The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling were essentially hogging up all the media attention and thereby not allowing other authors and books a chance at success. Personally, I didn’t agree with much of what she wrote in the post and thought it was a bit harsh. In my recent post on Anne Rice, I even praised the way the author of The Wolf Gift Chronicles came to the defense of Rowling as she often does for many people.
However, as I then witnessed the severe backlash against Shepherd I felt compelled to defend not just her but anyone and everyone who has been viciously attacked on social media in ways that are arguably somewhat unfair.
If you want some background info on what I’m referring to, you can check out this Feb. 27 article in The Guardian which recounts the ways that Shepherd is dearly paying for putting forth an unpopular opinion. Basically, what’s been happening is that across social media people have been attacking her with some pretty vicious comments—on her Facebook fan page, on Twitter, on Amazon.com and the post itself.
First, let me just try to preemptively avoid some misunderstandings (which will probably happen anyway):
- I do not agree with most of what Shepherd wrote in her post and understand people’s frustration.
- I am not saying that people cannot or should not respond to that post, or any content, however they want, viciously or otherwise.
Yes, people have the right to get angry at whatever they want. On the extreme end, they are even free to go on Amazon.com and leave one-star ratings for an author’s books which they haven’t even read just because they didn’t like her opinion or under the pretext that this is “what Lynn Shepherd would do.” [See correction at bottom.]
But what I am talking about here is not a matter of rights. It is a matter of choice. The choice to (1) live in a harsh, vicious world in which everything we say, even if we say it politely, runs the risk of very mean and caustic responses, or of potentially even hurting our career even though the initial action which triggered the backlash was arguably not that bad to begin with. Or (2) a world in which we stop and think before we become so aggressive, in which we realize that half of all confrontations are results of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Indeed, not only are the opinions which usually unleash such ugly social media activity not that bad to begin with (in my opinion), they are often misunderstood. This happens for a couple of reasons:
(a) People are busy and since there is so much content out there, and people want to consume as much of it as they can, the natural tendency is to skim and not read closely or carefully.
(b) The Internet gives everyone a voice and it also gives them safety and anonymity (if they want it). Therefore, while people have always been very emotional and impulsive, face-to-face confrontation might give them pause before they react a certain way whereas on the Internet they just unleash their reactions instantly and without any self-monitoring. (Again, I’m not saying this is wrong; it’s just an observation.)
Let’s keep in mind that no one is safe from the perils of social media crucifixion, no one. I’ve seen even the most beloved of celebrities be attacked en masse by people hurling curses and obscenities when, in the end, the person in question wasn’t even saying what people assumed he was saying. In a way, this is good because it means that no one is exempt from being accountable for what they say. But let’s try to remember two things: (1) are you confident the person really means what you think he’s saying? Did you actually read his statement carefully? (2) While it’s good that no one is exempt, everyone has feelings just like you. You don’t have to be nice but you can at least try to treat others no less than you’d like to be treated.
Stephen King’s first taste of the perils and wrath of Twitter nearly a month ago is a case in point. He was just getting started on Twitter and probably didn’t yet understand it well. One day he tweeted something that was a bit vague and unclear, but it turned out he didn’t at all mean what a lot of people assumed he meant (he has since clarified what he meant). But that didn’t stop people from screaming things like “Go f**k yourself,” or “the legacy of you lefties is rape & genocide” and jumping to the conclusion that he’s a misogynist or condones child abuse (we love hating monsters so much that we are quick to project them onto others).
The reason I would like to suggest (to those willing to listen to this) that we try to be more civil even as we may disagree strongly with someone or even outright dislike that person is because I just think it would be nicer to live in a community, a society, a world in which people give each other the gift of everyday decency if nothing else. That’s all. The Internet in general and social media in particular are microcosms of society so if the world is ever to become a better place, the Internet is just as valid a place to start as any. Obviously, given how large the Internet is, we will never attain some sort of rosey utopia on it. But there is definitely some room for improvement, no?
If you think that’s too hokey or idealistic a reason, then I offer one more: social media karma. Due to the very nature of social media, sooner or later everyone will commit a faux pas, intentionally or not. Or if not an outright faux pas, then they’ll say something in a way that they don’t actually mean or doesn’t best serve the message they want to convey. It happens. My personal creed, therefore, is to treat others who make mistakes as I would like to be treated when I inevitably make a mistake. And, sooner or later, you will make mistakes.
At the very least, consider reading someone’s opinion carefully and try to really understand what she’s saying before saying something potentially hurtful. I skim stuff all the time too, but if something triggers a strong emotion within me, and I feel like saying something, I try to go back and read the content again carefully to make sure I actually understood it. I’m not saying this is the right way; it’s just one way. If it makes sense to you, consider it.
Finally, this is the biggest and main reason why I think that people who disagree with Lynn Shepherd might want to consider going about their disagreeing a different way. By hurling insults at her, calling her stupid, crazy, ridiculous or any of those things, wishing failure upon her or trying to damage her career by leaving scathing one-star reviews on Amazon that aren’t even reviews of her books but personal attacks, they are basically doing the same thing they are accusing her of doing: being viciously unfair. And they are just feeding into a cycle of negativity.
As it stands, the way I sort of envision the Internet right now (parts of it, that is) is as a madhouse of people screaming at each other but few actually listening to each other. Attack attack attack. Hate hate hate. Respond with the same and repeat the cycle ad nauseum. Do you see how deep and dark this stream of negativity flows? When will it ever end, this surreal dance of animosity and mutual denigration?
It ends when you’ve decided enough is enough and either refuse to engage it entirely or be the lone voices in the wilderness by setting what you believe are good examples, the way I believe Anne Rice is setting a good, positive example and why I celebrated her in my last post. In fact, when a fan posted The Guardian article that I mention above (which recounts the backlash against Shepherd) on her Facebook page, Rice responded this way:
She’s defending the same person (Shepherd) who criticized the person she was initially defending (Rowling). Now, that’s class.
Once again, this kind of positive behavior is just a choice you can make. If you prefer things the way they are, that is simply your choice to make as well, your society to create. I, however, think we can do better. That is all.
Okay. I’m ready for the angry comments now.
[Correction: An attorney has since informed me that it is actually against the law to go on Amazon and leave one-star ratings and bad comments if you have not read the book in question, and that lawyers can go after people who do this. This applies universally to all product reviews, not just books.]