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.