I was chatting with someone the other day about how to cope with low-content bad-faith comments when you’re putting your work online when it suddenly hit me.
I can’t remember the last time I defended myself or my work.
Now, plenty of people have made criticisms of me or what I do. That’s never in short supply. As I write this post, I have about a quarter million followers spread across platforms, so various reactions to my work stream in pretty much 24/7 at this point. And yes, some of it’s negative. Some of it is frankly savage. That’s just how it works. No matter what you’re doing, a certain proportion of your feedback will be negative.
Don’t believe me? Look up any fantastic work of literature online that has at least 1000 reviews and use the sorting mechanism to look at the 1-star ones. If enough people look at something, SOMEONE will trash it (usually many someones). I’m not saying whether these criticisms have merit or not. The point I’m making here is that it’s inevitable.
I get them too — just like anyone else who has a decent-sized audience. I just don’t defend myself. Sometimes I don’t even see them. I don’t obsess over my comments. If I did, I would spend all my time doing nothing else, and to be frank, I have a lot of writing and teaching work to do.
This amazes people sometimes — especially ones that are just getting to know me. That I can see a savage comment clearly intended to devastate me slash set me on the defensive, shrug, and just move on with my life.
Maybe it’s unconventional, but it’s been profoundly sanity inducing. I don’t generally defend myself against random attacks. I really only argue with people I respect. (Which means I have to know the person and then they have to fall into a certain subset of the People I Actually Know.)
Because the reality is that the best defense is your future actions anyway. So I keep on being me and doing things that are in line with my values. It’s by definition the best I can do. And if it’s not good enough or what other people want in the world, then that’s fine. There’s a lot of other work out there to support. And I wish seekers well.
I’ve Had People Change Their Mind About Me Without a Vigorous Defense
I suppose it helps that I had an early formative experience over a decade ago when I experienced a very embarrassing public fallout with a niche Internet celebrity. The person in question wrote about me in very negative terms and publicly. I’m confident that they believe what they wrote about me. I disagree with their version of events, but that doesn’t make them a liar.
The reality is that two people can walk away from the same events with wildly different impressions about what went on. And when that happens, it isn’t necessarily a sign that one of them is lying. Instead, it can mean that they view the world in incompatible ways. Which was clearly the case between me and this person — that’s why we fell out.
Anyway, it was very scary at the time. I had just moved to a new area — an area where this person was well known and socially connected. At the time I had no following at all. And I was trying to make new friends in this area where the other person was powerful. Part of me worried that this public tirade from someone so prominent would end me, damaging my reputation fatally before I had a chance to really get to know anyone.
Here’s what I did: Nothing. I didn’t write back or argue with them. I didn’t start a competing reputation war. And instead I continued my normal efforts to make friends in the area, trying to focus on the people I was meeting.
And here’s what happened: Some of them brought up the posts and asked me what happened. And I told them. And they were like “oh yeah, that makes sense — well, glad you’ve moved on” and we proceeded our friendship as normal. Additionally, many people didn’t even ask me.
“You’re So Nice. Wasn’t Expecting That.”
I’ve also had minor other incidents of this phenomenon since I went on to write in public later on other topics. For example, I met a reader at a book signing who said, “You’re so nice. Wasn’t expecting that.”
When I inquired further, they said that they’d first heard of me/my work through a friend of theirs who’d read an article of mine and become infuriated. I asked them which one, but this reader didn’t even remember. They did convey that they looked up the article in question and quickly realized upon reading it that their friend likely hadn’t read past the headline since my viewpoint in the work was completely different than what they’d been told.
They talked to their friend about it, who dismissed it and passed on a weird rumor about me. (There are a half-dozen of them at this point floating around the Internet that I’ve stumbled upon in passing that are false and quite puzzling.)
There are frankly some people at this point who are vocal that they hate me and my work — all while not knowing me and having barely read my work (simply read headlines/titles or talked to someone who read a headline, etc.).
“I just wasn’t expecting you to be so nice,” this reader said. “I don’t understand how someone this nice could have people hating on them.”
I laughed at the time and told them that I didn’t understand either until I had a big platform.
But now that I do, it’s something I’ll never forget. It informs all my evaluations about people. I am much more conscious about jumping on a bandwagon or volunteering to fill out an angry mob.
And yes, I’m very unlikely to worry about defending myself against baseless attacks. Instead, I focus more on moving forward and making more things I’d like to see in the world.