I remember the first day I got what can be qualified as real “hate mail” from writing a post. It was on my piece, “Are You From Africa?” And Other Stupid Questions. You know what I did? I laughed. No, I’m not a sociopath. But that I genuinely made someone so angry that they wrote a long, hateful email (which I mostly skimmed to be honest), kind of tickled me. Now, I don’t always laugh when I read comments sections or emails that directly attack me or my character (rather than what I have written). But it did set a precedent for how I wanted to treat most comments on the Internet – with a grain of salt.
In my early days on Thought Catalog, Oliver Miller, was on my case. (Oliver and I have since become acquaintances.) But I remember the day I was truly upset about a comment he made on an article, to the point I wrote a response to it on my personal blog. It was about the Boston Marathon last year, which one of my good friends was running in, and I had posted something that day because I didn’t know what else to do. And I thought some people could use it. Then Oliver commented and accused me of doing it for page views. For me, for an event of such magnitude, that was pure and simple character assassination. You can cuss at me, you can tell me I suck as a writer, you can hate me or my writing. But if there is anything I hold dear, it’s the integrity in which I was taught to approach anything I do.
And you know what? I was hurt. Hurt to the point where I called family and friends and wanted both the truth as well as consolation. Of course, knowing who I am, they were both confused and upset for me. But I think it was my first experience of realizing that the people reading on the other side – well, they simply don’t know the writers. In the first place, I think there is a lack of empathy, a distance between the commenters and the reality that there is a very real person – emotions, thoughts, feelings, and all – who wrote the piece they are reading. And the truth is having been on this side as well – as a commenter – I have done it too. Sometimes I go through my own comments on here prior to writing, and I’m embarrassed that even though I was already writing on the Internet, I would forget in the moment, what it’s like to be the person on the other side – the writer.
One of the rules of Internet writing, I think, is that you can’t really win against the reader. Both in your ability to grab their attention – either they will or they won’t – and in their ability to understand your intentions in writing. Moreover, consequences are always more important than intentions, and what one is writing and saying, and what a reader is hearing and reading, do not always perfectly mirror each other. And while many times the best writers are able to get the populace to see their perspective, it is never going to be 100%. And for some reason, many human beings want 100% of people to “get them.” The reality however, is that 100% of people you meet in everyday life, where your non-verbal cues may assist you, and your tone can be more easily detected, do not get you. How much less on the Internet?
Still, writers write for different reasons. Writers have different moral codes and it is on that individual basis that one can sooner or later deduce both the character, integrity, intentions, persona, and of course general interests and messages a writer cares to convey, despite not knowing them well. We all have our hits and misses, but sooner or later people become familiar with the kind of person you portray. And as someone in this space, you realize quickly that you can’t fool people 100% of the time – they will eventually discover the type of person you are through your writing. Indeed, your words will speak for you. And if there is a dissonance between how you see yourself and how the audience sees you, it will affect you in a personal way. (Unless you are indeed a sociopath.) And that’s why I care about what I write – not just that people read it. Because I choose not leave my integrity and character and persona behind when I write.
Obviously like everyone else, I am a complex person. I am also a young person – in the sense that I am still in a period of making decisions about who I want to be, at a time when it’s easiest to change. But I’m also a person who can through my beliefs and upbringing, accept the paradox of being a human. I can accept that I want to be understood, as much as I want to say what I think, without caring too much about the reaction. But I believe there is a balance to be reached – virtue, after all, lies in the middle of the extremes. And while I’ll probably always peek at the comments section whether I know what I wrote might be fairly agreeable or cause a ruckus, I decided, or rather make a point to decide this above all: As long as I protect my integrity and never lose sight of my character, my opinion of myself in this space, with regard to my intentions, will have to supersede what others who don’t know me, think of me.
And while I hope to never to be too arrogant as to think that I can’t learn anything from readers who comment, even if it comes with digital pitchforks in the form of CAPS LOCK and several exclamation marks!, and between the lines of some ugly sentences, I know that at the end of the day, agonizing about potential responses because what one writes might be unpopular, can easily make one lose authenticity. Now don’t get me wrong, there is inauthenticity too in writing simply to be unpopular in order to incite or cause controversy – which I believe slowly but surely chips away at one’s integrity too. And there is no common sense in believing that one shouldn’t have to be concerned about the choices of one’s words. But to write with a primary concern for whether you will be loved or loathed, is to speak, act, and live in the exact same manner. And I for one, cannot think of anything more awful-sounding. Even as someone who has been on the receiving-end of a few, well, unpleasant words.