Thursday, April 25, 2013

When writers hit a nerve.

Angry reader, pre-comment.
Recently, I posted my piece about the effect of empty nest on fathers at Generation Fabulous, a site for women over forty.  One of the reader comments came from a woman who said, "I'm years away from an empty nest, but if women got a life, they wouldn't have to deal with empty nest and there wouldn't be these stories all over the internet," or words to that effect.  I responded, "When I was your age, I felt the same way."

I deleted the rest.

Sharon Hodor Greenthal is the co-founder of Generation Fabulous She is also a frequently published blogger and speaker about social media issues. She is an intelligent, kind, and insightful writer whose observations of everyday life often make me see things a different way. Her blog is here.

Last week, she wrote about her choice to stay home full time with children while her husband worked outside the home to support the family. The piece appeared on Huffington Post, and it is here. In it, she was responding to a study which claimed single-earner marriages fail more often than others.

Her point: her own single-earner marriage survived not because it was easy - it was hard for her to sacrifice a career and hard for him to be away from the family while he built a business - it worked because  it was a choice they arrived at together to best support their common, guiding priority: what was best for their kids.

Their kids. Not everyone else's.                           
Their choice. Not everyone else's.

Of the 171 comments she received (and they're still coming in) dozens leapfrogged Sharon's point about collaborating within a marriage to attack her as a woman.  Here are some:

"You can rationalize it however you like, but either your husband was working an insane amount of hours to keep you in your preferred lifestyle, or he found homelife so horrible that he preferred workaholism to coming home to wife and family."

"It's dangerous to express your feelings as if they were your husband's, not to mention completely disrespectful of him as a person. And when you spend a few months working eighty hour weeks you can let us all know how much you enjoyed it. What colossal nerve"

"How ironic! We do need to be supportive, not drive our spouses to work themselves to death while we bake brownies and take elocution lessons. Life is hard and we need to support our loved ones, not pile on. But I'm sure your nails are simply lovely!"

"You won't know you've done a good job for quite awhile yet... it doesn't sound like you did, not even close."

I thought about this, people who attack a writer who, by holding a position which argues with their own, has, in their perception, attacked them.

In my unscientific opinion,  people shoot the messenger on message boards for several reasons:

  • Because they can. They're anonymous, and possibly in a real life sense as much as in front of the computer.  
  • They have been bolstered in their lives and community by like-thinkers long enough to be appalled by ideas that argue with their own.
  • They kind of don't like their own choices. And wish they did.
  • They kind of support the choices they would never makes themselves. And wish they didn't.  
In my other, equally unscientific opinion, we don't get angry with the choices of another when our own are steeped in our truest beliefs and knowledge of who we are. People who are childless by choice don't get angry with people who have babies. People who have no desire to marry don't get angry with those who do. But people get frustrated, vitriolic, scornful, and  hateful when, to accept the quality of another's beliefs,  it feels like they must cheat on their own.

Sharon's post, for 171 people and counting,  held up a mirror that many were not  ready to look into.

"Maybe your poor husband will find some cuties at the local gym," said one woman. Does she know Sharon or her husband or even their proximity to the local gym? No. Did she offer an opinion? Yes, this one, by default: women who stay at home deserve it when their men grow bored and find someone else. Does she really believe it? I'd like to think not, but it was hard to hear over all that yelling.

We want to be mature, approachable, reasonable people (have you ever been told you're not?) and so we take a balanced position on the things that don't cost anything:  what kinds of food to eat, exercise that is best, appropriate clothing for the office, where to go on vacation and so on.

But push the ever-contentious buttons: SAHMs, breast/bottle feeding, home vs. public vs. private schooling, politics and then, well, look at Sharon's critics, it's kids off the street. Quickly, the discussion veers from agreeable and civil to hostile and polarizing.

How great it would be to identify, as the adage goes, and not compare. To read the opinion of a stranger that differs from our own, and based on their argument, be able to defend both.  But this is a stretch for people still trying to reconcile their own choices, or, themselves.

I learned a couple of things watching this unfold: That Sharon Hodor Greenthal has more class, restraint and professionalism than most would under attack. And, that if I plan to blog about things that inspire comment,  in places where anyone can make them, I gotta get me a thicker skin.


  1. Susan, beautifully written. I, too, am baffled by the vitriol, and I think you captured the possible reasons perfectly. I would also add that jealousy could be a factor as well.

  2. Really true. It's a good argument for walking away long enough to ask yourself: "What am I really talking about here?" And then being honest about it. Thanks Helen, for the comment.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Susan - I'm so honored that you chose to write about me and my post. Having a thick skin is essential to blogging, as our work is available to anyone... and we need to be comfortable with that!

    I too was surprised by the fury that came through in the comments from some of the readers - notably all identified as women - but when giving it more thought, I realized that this is what makes the world interesting and fascinating - the vast range of opinions and experiences people have.

    Again, thanks for the shout-out!

  4. Such a good piece, Susan. It's one thing to disagree and have a respectful dialogue - that's great and can be really thought-provoking - but those comments are just cries for attention and I think you've hit many of the reasons why people make them. Some sites totally encourage those kind of comments, making a writer really have to think twice before putting themselves out there. Sharon is definitely a class act.

  5. Amen!
    I think people read the title, get all mad, then start to spew without ever really having read the article.
    I see commenters completely miss the point so often it can't be a coincidence.

  6. It's funny how a post bubbles up into being. In my wish to defend Sharon on the GenFab page when it happened, I myself got a little personal about what might have motivated that writer. I regretted it, learned from it and of course, who among us doesn't go straight to the blog when we're enlightened to share. But learn I did, about grace under pressure.

  7. This was an excellent post! Sharon did indeed hit a nerve in her post and you added a much-needed perspective on how anonymity leads to a lack of civility. We all rush to judge (and this brought back all those painful memories during my SAHM stage when I was asked "what do you do?" and seeing people's eyes roll back in their heads. It was the 80s...)You can't expect reasoned discourse from everybody here, so big-girl pants and thicker skin are your best bet!

  8. This was beautifully written, Susan. And right on the money. We live in a very anti-child culture. We pay lip service to how much we care about kids, but we really don't. Nowhere in any of those comments is anything about what is best for children, or what was best for Sharon's children. Apparently, both Sharon and her husband looked at what their children needed most and made that work for them.

  9. How about this: "I know you are but what am I?"

    I do love the expression "big girl pants" as well as your observation that "anonymity leads to a lack of civility". So true, and always, after I read a comment that makes me say "wow" right out loud, I wonder what that public person is like.

    It does make the world interesting and fascinating.

  10. I think Helene may be right. Many of those women are jealous. I don't think they are even self-aware enough to realize that their anger stems from jealousy. They just know that Sharon's obvious happiness and contentment with the choices she and her husband made, stir intense feelings.

    I have been a stay-at-home mom for most of my adult life. I'm grateful for the opportunity, but I know it's not for everyone. I just wish someone would call a truce in the Mommy Wars.

  11. Great post, Susan. It's the downside of public discourse: the idiots also get a turn at the megaphone. I find that when I post something on my personal blog, the dialog is meaningful and respectful because my readers and I feel like we all know each other a bit.

    It's when your words end up on a big aggregator site like HuffPo or that the trolls come out to play. I think Anne is right; they see the title and start expounding without appreciating the nuances of what a finely written piece includes.

    Doesn't make me want to stop writing, just helps me keep perspective on the negative comments (like the piece I had on about making peace with my childhood bully, where one guy in particular called ME a bully and said he was sorry for my children?!)

  12. Very good post. The same holds true in politics, and it makes me sad. It's hard to find someone with whom to have an intelligent sharing of ideas. It seems that liberals have to hate conservatives and conservatives have to hate liberals and no one is allowed to be moderate. No one wants to listen to an opposing point of view for fear that they might have to moderate their own beliefs. Oh, dear! What if the other point of view has some validity? I'll never have to find out if I just refuse to hear it and shout down by name-calling anyone who tries to make me hear it.
    It really does make me sad.

  13. Cynthia's comment is so, so true. I have had the discussion with our children about the difference between accepting and can hang on to your position, understand and defend it. But make sure you understand the viewpoint of another to describe it correctly. And yes, Nancy, it's like moving a rock out of the road to deal with people looking for power however they can get it.

  14. I'm not at all surprised at either the strength of the comments nor the varying perspectives of the commentary. None of which, Sharon knows, is a reflection on her as a person. She knows that her post was solid & genuine as were the responses - to the best of their ability. These people were reacting to information based on their own experiences and feelings - just like when we view art - you have a reaction. No artist wants a neutral response to a piece of art and of course we all want to be praised, but the fact is that not every reaction is positive or supportive. Certain people may feel compelled to be courteous, but others will feel the need to 'deliver the truth' and in doing so can adopt whatever attitude that suits their emotions. Writers do have to develop thick skins otherwise they'll shy away from sharing their experiences and perspectives. Bravo to Sharon for pushing forward!

  15. So well said! I had read the comments on Sharon's post, as well, and was shocked at what some people wrote.

    During Hurricane Sandy, I wrote on my utility company's facebook page, "you folks need to let us know an approximate time when power will be restored to our communities"

    I had about 20 people respond to that post, saying (1) They hope I never get my power back (2) that I should die (or words to that effect) (3) That I was a complete B*tch who was insensitive to those who lost their homes, etc. (4) and so on...

    While they were correct, that I was probably insensitive to the fact that other people suffered major damage, I actually had no idea of the devastation in Long Island and other communities, because....I HAD NO POWER! My world was limited to a dying battery on my cell phone!

    Lesson learned. I'm now extremely careful of anything I post anywhere.

  16. Thank you Bonnie and Carolyn, for your comments. I will remember them as I write and post in different places. While I can't respect comments that amount to a personal attack, I certainly respect discourse. I also agree that it's better to write well enough and about interesting enough topics to compel a response, however hostile or docile.

  17. yes, unfortunately, learning to deal with negative comments - along with the positive - comes with the blogging job. It's never easy to deal with. Some of those comments were truly atrocious; people think they can say what they want because they have some level of anonymity on the web - people who hide behind that are cowards. Those who write such pieces such as Sharon's in an effort to convey a message - well aware that topics such as anything-mom are hot-button topics - are the really courageous ones.

  18. I couldn't help but grin as I read this...being a person who had an opinion on breastfeeding and being told that I was what was wrong with the world, I should have never had children, etc. I'm keeping this comment anonymous(because things are quiet again in the land of my blog and I like it that way), but I'm sure you've seen some of the backlash I got. People do get very upset over someone else's opinion, and it's pretty silly as far as I'm concerned. I don't really understand why people feel the need to be so hateful to get their points across. It really doesn't make them look very good. And if they have so much time to be so awful to others, they clearly need a hobby! ;)

  19. Many writers face that "stay or go" moment when they must consider what they get back from writing that makes it worth the backlash which Sharon, and you, Anonymous, had to deal with (I do remember).

    While I thought about Sharon's critics, and wrote about them here, The real eye-opener for me was her refusal to sink into the fray and become equally personal in her response. I know she'll change nothing about how she writes or what she writes about. Tough to do, but you only face these issues when your writing is strong and compelling enough to speak to people - fans and foes. Yours is.I respect your anonymous status for the moment, but you got chops, and don't you forget it.

  20. I love your perspective and view on the type of people who post such vitriolic comments. Yes, we should be each other's champion. We should put our energy into building each other up, not tearing each other down. How very sad.

  21. Kate, thank you for the comment. I agree and I've been thinking about that - support - and how important it is not to confuse it with agreement. If we're to grow as writers, we need the former where too much of the latter leaves us where we are as writers and as thinking people.

  22. Great piece, Susan! You really open yourself up to the masses when you blog, don't you. I'm always torn with what's comments...or negative comments! At least I don't have to go to the office with these people! 😳