dealing with nasty comments

Recently, a student who read my book decided to write in a rather nasty comment on this blog. It wasn’t so much about the entry I’d posted, as an attack on me and my book. This same person posted something roughly equivalent on Amazon. I don’t wish to single out this man, because in fact, I get nasty notes fairly frequently. My immediate response in this case was what it usually is: to dig around and find out who the person is and see where they had read the book. I almost always regret this, as I did in this case, because I usually find it’s a place where I’ve given a lecture, and had a wonderful time with the faculty and students. I want to write the faculty in the department to bring it up – particularly if the attacks are vitriolic. I want to out the person and show their colleagues and boss the kind of person they’re working with. I never do. And I want to write back to the person who has attacked me. I want to say to Mr. Mosser, for example, that it’s an honor to have my book hated by someone who is mean-spirited, angry, and cruel – that I consider it a testament to my work, that I would be more upset if someone with his character actually liked it. But this, of course, is a silly retort to make me feel better, and it plays into the same unhealthy dynamic that upset me in the first place. I’ve learned from the rare occasions where I have tried to productively engage that people simply want to spew more of their rage.

So I remain silent and rationalize. “The book has sold very well,” I tell myself.  “It’s on syllabi, and people who don’t want to read it are forced to. So there are going to be people who really have an issue with your argument and want to lash out.” I say to myself, “But you’d rather have it read than not read!” As these attacks have come in I’ve gotten more used to them and less upset. I remind myself that the book won some major awards. That it helped launch my career at an amazing school. But no matter what the sting is still there. It’s somewhat akin to encountering one’s course evaluations. Not matter how many good ones you get, the bad ones still hurt. And they tend to be what I remember.

We sometimes write tough things about our colleague’s work. In the scholastic world the stated aim is to critique and thereby advance our knowledge. But this is a different kind of phenomena. Because scholastically we are rarely malicious. And I think there’s something more: with books and more popular writings the experience can be a little more like a monologue. When I write a piece, the audience doesn’t really get to reply, and even if they do in the comment section of the place I’ve written it, chances are I won’t read the comments. My academic colleagues can always reply (later) in print; lay readers don’t get to speak back. The feedback I most often look for with my book, at least, is how it’s cited. For my op-eds, for whether or not new editors ask me to write.  But readers can’t tell me what they think. And for those who have anger problems, and who feel they’re not heard enough, that their voices aren’t as important as they should be or that they aren’t listened to enough (these people have almost always been men), the response is typically what I’ve linked to above. I’m all for critical engaged dialogue – I’ve debated folks live on Fox! (which I wouldn’t call “critically engaged”) – but there’s something about certain forms of exchange that seek to harm rather than advance.

“It’s good to be a target,” I tell myself. “Because that means you’re relevant.” But where this crosses the line for me, is when I’m personally a target and the aim is to hurt me. This is far from my work being the aim, and the goal being greater understanding. Tina sent me a note tonight, and was incredibly kind, suggesting we delete the comment. She said, “I am all for free speech, but I don’t think the blog is a venue for people to make nasty attacks on us.” She’s right. But I thought we should leave it there to bring it up rather than bury it. Acknowledging it and brining it to light makes me feel a bit better. I’m sure those of you who have done political charged work – on LGBT movements/rights or race and incarceration, etc – have experienced some similar attacks. I wish I had some good advice to people starting out with how to deal with this. But I don’t. Perhaps others do. Personally, I take comfort in the kind words that I get from friends (thanks Tina!), and I get up and work on the next book. It won’t win the haters over – it may even make them more angry. But in a small way, there is satisfaction in that. And the steady progress of work helps silence the doubts in my own mind.

16 Comments

  1. Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Shamus, it’s brave of you to open this conversation. My reaction upon reading the comment was that it reflected very badly on the writer and reasonably well on you. And responding in kind would do no good at all!

    When I’ve had nasty comments in the past, one strategy I’ve used is to write precisely the response I’d *like* to send. Then read it, smile, and delete it without sending….

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  2. eischwartz
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Anyone who reads the Amazon comment will see it for what it is. I reported it to Amazon as abuse.

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    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      It’s always nice to know my editor has got my back!!!

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  3. eimhur
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Deirdre Oakley here — for some reason wordpress will only let me log in as eimhur…weird. Anyway, thank you Shamus for posting this. I agree with you and Andrew — it really doesn’t pay to engage these types. Some years back while I was in grad school I went to my first ASA and attended an Author Meets Critic session for William Domhoff’s Who Rules America Now book. One of the invited respondents whose name escapes me at this point lit into Domhoff in a very nasty, mean-spirited why that was not constructive at all. I was shocked because I had never seen anything like it. In fact I think everyone in the audience was shocked. But Domhoff handled it was grace and humor. Bottomline: Domhoff’s response made the other guy look like a real idiot.

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  4. Posted June 25, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    and beyond the substantive basis of that nasty comment (which i think is beyond poor; i’m one of those who “forces” my students to read your book, and they love it, and would love to have you come talk about it) … it is for SURE not poorly written. troll troll troll. thanks for opening up this conversation. i agree that bringing hurts like this to light is a good thing for us all.

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  5. Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    WWBD – What Would Bourdeou Do?

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    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Honestly, I think he’d destroy the person. He loved to fight.

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      • Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        Wait, are we talking Bourdeou or Bourdieu?

        Anyway, I think don’t read the comments is always a good rule of thumb.*

        * Comments from a stable and generally well-behaved community like Scatterplot doesn’t count.

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  6. Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get book comments but I have gotten bizarre & hostile comments when I’ve been in the news & occasionally after blog posts. I mostly ignore them. Not reading them at all helps your blood pressure. Although I suppose abusive comments on Amazon should be reported. But never engaged. Don’t feed the trolls.

    Learning to ignore or brush off mean-spirited critique helps when reviewing course evaluations, as well. It’s an important skill.

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    • Posted June 26, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      I would describe the Amazon review at issue as highly critical, but not exactly abusive. This person is making a sustained argument against the book’s thesis and evincing skepticism at its methods and conclusions. Parts of it veer into the personal (eg, saying Shamus suffers frustrated ambition) but only in ways that are pertinent to the review’s thesis and for instance in criticizing his physical appearance. Nor is it wishing personal injury upon Shamus. It’s a far cry from, for instance, YouTube comments.

      That the review shows signs of ignorance (eg, misspelling “Bourdieu”) and is premised on an ideology that makes it skeptical of reproduction arguments does not make it abusive. This is an important distinction since concepts like “abusive” are a bit slippery and can be used to suppress basically legitimate critiques of power. (And yes, in this particular context I would describe Shamus and the instructor who assigned his book as being in power even if it also the case that the disgruntled student’s ideology holds more sway overall).

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      • Posted June 26, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        correction, “and not for instance in criticizing his physical appearance”

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  7. Posted June 25, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Andrew- that comment speaks volumes about its author. As for your unfulfilled desire to out hateful commenters to their faculty or colleagues, don’t worry – in situations like this they likely already know what type of person they’re working with.

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  8. Posted June 27, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I get nasty comments from people I don’t know when I appear in media. One particular quote, about the Tea Party during the health care protests, generated roughly 60 emails and a letter. I responded to everyone who said anything remotely substantial and offered a return address. I tried to be civil and direct. That was the end of it for almost everyone, but a couple of people wrote back and apologized for nastiness and engaged me in discussion about the substance of my comments. Obviously, I couldn’t do this if I appeared more frequently or generated a larger reaction. That said, if you believe in democracy, you have to be willing to engage in the difficult democratic dialogues that make it work.

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  9. Posted June 27, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Gabriel that the Amazon review is negative, even hostile, but not abusive. The comment on Scatterplot makes it clear that the motivation is abusive — personal, not just ideological. I suppose it could be a lot worse — some people get death threats.

    In skimming the Amazon reviews, I couldn’t help noticing that the other two 1-star reviews were from St. Paul’s alumni (or as a positive reviewer termed Shamus “aluminum”). I wonder if there were other, unpublished reactions from alums or from the students were there at the time. For ethnographies, the reactions of the people you actually hung out with are probably important.

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  10. eimhur
    Posted June 27, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I think focusing on the Amazon review misses Shamus’s point. He just used that as an example of the nasty comments we face as Sociologists within and beyond the academic community.

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  11. Posted July 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    With some exceptions, the topics that make people angriest in social science are the most important ones. I think your response, to keep writing, is precisely the right one. Because I think what nags at us the most when we face nasty comments is that we’ve failed so abysmally to persuade the opposition.

    Attempting to persuade puts one in an inherently vulnerable position; it sucks that people are more or less sensitive with that opportunity at some times than others — but it’s an imperfect enterprise for everyone.

    I really don’t think the solution to Moss’ name calling and personal judgements of Shamus is to do precisely the same to Moss in reverse.

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