On Silence, Speaking Up, and Social Media

I posted a response to someone I disagreed with, and it got lots of attention. Was I wrong to speak up?

A few days ago, I published an open letter of reply to another open letter, expressing my disagreement with the sentiments it included and reflected.

Come back soon, sweet obscurity!

I’ve done this before. It’s actually not that rare for me to write a response to something that bothers me, but it is relatively rare for me to make them public. Why? Lots of reasons, but mostly it’s that I never thought it would be particularly interesting to anyone if I did.

This time, though, apparently it was — my open letter is presently the top thing tagged “Open Letter” on Medium, has garnered over 25,000 Facebook views and been reshared over a hundred times there, not to mention a plethora of retweets and other assorted shares. In other words, it went mildly viral.

Mostly, what I’ve heard is a whole lot of thanks and approval. Far more than I ever anticipated, in fact. But some have criticized me for not turning the other cheek and letting this guy’s missive slide into obscurity. I have received only two messages expressing any semblance of disagreement, and actually, that gives me some pause, because I’d rather see the dialogue happen than see everyone turn away from it. I welcome comment from those who disagree with me — that’s what dialogue is.

I’ve been writing online under my real name for about 25 years now. So this isn’t my first rodeo. Nah, I cut my teeth arguing online in a different era — one which was both more, and less, civilized than the online world of 2016. Suffice it for now to say that it’s been more than 20 years since the first time someone put my name on a list of people they hated and started publishing that as widely as they could, and more than 10 years since the last time I had to talk to law enforcement about the potentially criminal activities of an individual in a group I moderated, because I quit moderating anything after that. In fact, I mostly quit arguing online unless it was about yarn. I sidelined myself from the madding fray.

I realize that for some folks who didn’t know me in what were probably my most vocal years of online debate and dialogue, it may be hard to imagine that I have, sincerely, avoided online conflict to the fullest extent of my abilities for the past decade. Hell, I grew new abilities in that respect. I’m serious; I’ve been shutting up. I’ve been silent. I’ve turned the other cheek. Honest, folks, I developed the ability to not take bait over 95% of the time.

This turned out to be, I figured, a good and useful skill in real life, too. There have been times, living in an area whose culture is vastly more socially conservative than my own, when someone said something to me in person that made my blood boil, and I praised myself for not engaging with them. For turning the other cheek. For being the bigger person.

For not giving them any more attention.

For not dignifying their hurtful, harmful, divisive, and dangerous opinions with my time and energy in response.

The thing is, I think I overdid it on the shutting up. Not because I think the world will be so greatly inspired by the vim and vigor with which I present my case, or because those who disagree with me may experience some sort of perspective epiphany, but because I’ve had an epiphany of my own.

Let’s say that I’m about to, I dunno, watch Netflix. “Hey,” I say to everyone else in the room, “I’m gonna watch Netflix.” Nobody says anything. I turn on the TV and start watching. Everything’s fine, right?

Except they’re not. They’re sitting there seething. They’re upset about the background noise. They’re upset about me assuming they’re willing to be subjected to me watching Firefly for the hundredth time. They’re upset that I just steamrollered right over them to watch whatever I wanted.

When it’s about Netflix, it’s easy to say “Dude! If you minded, you should have said something.”

Dude! If you minded, you should have said something.

That time when I was at a school function with my kid and another parent directly asked me if I didn’t think it was disgusting that they would teach sex things as early as 8th grade, I mean, because teaching sex things at all is terrible, and as young as 8th grade? and I smiled wanly and walked away, instead of saying what I thought? What she heard was “Yep, you’re absolutely right, let’s get that horrifying sex talk out of the schools entirely!”

If I’d said the first thing that sprang to mind it likely would have been something like “Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t want sex ed in schools? What is this, the fucking dark ages? Are you hoping your daughter gets chlamydia or that your first grandkid is a prom night bathroom birth?” So I can, indeed, praise myself for not saying that. But I can’t praise myself for saying nothing.

What I wish I had said was this: “Actually, I don’t, for lots of reasons — I think it’s very important to have fact-based sex ed in schools, and honestly, 8th grade is probably a little late for my liking. What’s your objection?”

In the rich fantasy life I lead, wherein people routinely treat each other with respect and are capable of intellectual engagement, we then would have had a calm and reasoned exchange and both gone home with things to ponder.

But in real life, that other parent likely had absolutely no exposure to the concept of debate and dialogue. They likely didn’t really grok that it’s possible to disagree with someone and still respect them as a human being. They may never have considered that, because they’re not used to having anyone respond to them in any way other than vigorous agreement or walking away.

They may, honestly, sincerely, actually believe nobody thinks fact-based sex ed is a good idea.

You know what? Not only is saying nothing in that scenario not fair to me, but it’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to me because it forces me to stifle my feelings. I have to eat it. I have to just shut up and take it. It’s not fair to them because it doesn’t even give them a chance to consider the impact of their words or deeds. It doesn’t give them the chance to engage and think. It doesn’t give them a chance to relate, or not relate, or simply begin to build the skills required to live peaceably with folks whose deeply held beliefs may differ from their own.

What I’m saying is this:

Sometimes it takes a little conflict to learn how to handle conflict constructively.

“But I don’t want to learn to handle conflict at all! I’d rather just not have it!” you may be thinking.

And I hear you. I really do. I really really do. Because, in the example I just gave — one of many — I made the same choice. I opted to avoid conflict.

Avoiding conflict is not necessarily bad or unhealthy. But if it becomes a permanent condition, it’s at least worrisome enough to examine.

What’s more, the choice to avoid conflict is not universally available. I can easily avoid conflict with people who don’t like gays, for instance, simply by never mentioning any ex-girlfriends. If my husband happened to be a wife instead, that wouldn’t be an option. I can avoid conflict with people who don’t like Spanish-speaking people by pretending not to speak Spanish; but if I looked how they think Spanish-speaking people look, there are people who would bring conflict my way whether I spoke Spanish or not.

Sometimes something that causes a sense of internal conflict about whether or not to say something can be so unbelievably egregious as to leave everyone utterly stunned. Like when a Filipina friend sadly told me about the time she was in a room full of people and someone said “…and in a room full of all white people like this one…”

I didn’t ask her if she pointed out she wasn’t white. Maybe that was conflict avoidance on my part — maybe I didn’t want either of us to have to take the conversation through to its inevitable conclusion, whether that was her saying “Yeah, and it was really awkward and now I think everyone thinks I have a chip on my shoulder,” or her saying “No, of course I didn’t.” And then, if I’d been in that room, would she have wanted me to point out her erasure? Was she hoping someone would speak up for her, or hoping she could just slide on out of there unnoticed and without calling attention to anything and being seen as divisive?

It’s situational. It’s always situational.

It Depends.

There is no one single answer. I fervently believe everyone must find their own path with respect to silence — with respect to calling attention to things they find unbearable. Everyone must evaluate their own tolerance for risk and conflict.

But here’s the thing. For me personally, my silence did become consent. In the beginning, it was simply consent to hear things that upset me. I was extending to those who upset me the courtesy they seemed to want. No one paid the price for this, I figured, save myself — and I can take it. I can carry that emotional load.

Which is true. I can carry that emotional load. I’m not worried about my ability to bear up under the onslaught of constant social conservative faux Christian microaggressions until I can get to a safe space and talk about it with someone I trust. I probably should be worried about my ability on that front, but I’m afraid it’s way, way down the priority list.

However, it’s not true that no one but me paid the price for my silence.

Let’s go back to the parent who didn’t want to see sex ed in the schools.

She’s speaking up.

She’s doing it everywhere, in fact. And that’s as it should be, if she is being an activist for her beliefs. She should speak up and express her perspective on that. Because if she doesn’t, how will anybody know what she thinks?

And who is listening?

Lots. Of. People.

And when all those people hear her speak her mind, and nobody speaks up with a differing opinion, because we’re all turning the other cheek and taking the high road? Those folks aren’t assuming that there are people out there walking away and choosing not to engage. They’re assuming nobody has a problem with what was being said.

And, hey, if nobody minds my Netflix Firefly marathon, I’m gonna turn up the volume!

That’s exactly what has happened here, in the part of southwestern Ohio where I live. The social conservatives have concluded that nobody minds but a few voices they’ve already written off, so they’ve turned up the volume. And that’s why we have, for instance, grown women, some of whom have borne multiple children, and never even had a pap smear: because there exist, living in my town, with me and my family, people who think gynecologists are dirty and sexual, so all the well-argued pieces about Planned Parenthood doing so much more than abortions are moot, because simply going to the gynecologist is viewed as bad.

In the interests of longevity, lest someday that last link goes dead, here are two screen shots.

A poster in 2012 asks for advice about having discovered her 33-year-old best friend has never been to a gynecologist, as a result of which, the poster is worried about her friend’s health and the long-term risks of simply going without routine medical care. Source: forums at babycenter.com

That’s the question. It was asked in 2012. But three years later, along comes this commenter:

Three years later, along comes this commenter to say: “Good for your best friend. She is wise. All you people saying she is crazy are brainwashed by doctors. You all go about your self-centered lives doing the will of your father, the devil. Put away the birth control and sexual immorality. Repent and turn to Jesus Christ.”

Here lies a communication gap so vast that bridging it would challenge every engineer from Q’eswachaka to Akashi Kaikyo, and we won’t be bridging it, ever, by turning our backs on it.

Are you serious right now?

There’s another wrinkle here, in that this commenter literally joined the site to post that comment, and apparently, only that comment.

How strongly do you, personally, have to feel about something to create an account on a web forum to make a single post responding to a three-year-old question?

My answer is “I have yet to discover a question asked three years ago that is of such import and relevance that I feel I must create a new account on a venue I don’t use in order to make a single comment about it.”

So here’s what I, as a longtime citizen of the ‘net, sysadmin, moderator, and all that kinda thing, suspect actually happened: this commenter is what is often referred to as a “sock puppet.”

This could, indeed, be the sentiment of a regular user who doesn’t want to out herself as a fringe social conservative who thinks pap smears are how the devil makes sluts — in which case, I wish she’d bring her perspectives to the table and discuss them. I respect her choices about her own health care, but I cannot muster up much respect for her choice to hold an unexamined view which has real health consequences. And perhaps I’m wrong to feel that way — which is why I’d like to hear what her considered reasons may be for this choice.

But it could just as easily be a person who simply enjoys seeing people take bait and freak out: a troll.

This absolutely could be abstract bait thrown into a mommy board — those are notorious for flamewars breaking out — or it could be sincere and heartfelt. I’d lean towards not replying to this one — towards letting this one slide into obscurity. There’s no evidence that this poster will ever lay eyes on that web forum again; there’s no evidence that they’ve engaged in an anti-gynecologist crusade; there’s no evidence they’re a real person; there’s nothing but this one pseudonymous post.

So what we used to mean when we said “Don’t feed the trolls” was “don’t take this bait.” You know, let that one go. Don’t bite. Whatever, they’ll go away as soon as they see nobody’s reacting, because all they’re looking for is the reaction. It’s a game. It doesn’t matter if it’s cat lovers who don’t think jokes about eating cats are funny, or women worried about their health, so long as some group of people takes bait and thus provides entertainment to whoever put the bait out there.

In the case of the open letter to which I responded, though, we’re talking about someone who is engaged in ongoing activism to put forth his viewpoint, encourage others to share it, and pressure people and organizations to conform to his view of the world. We’re talking about someone who does, indeed, appear to hold his beliefs sincerely. In other words, he isn’t kidding and this isn’t a game. He’s not looking for entertainment, he’s working for change.

So yes, I say, reply to the sincere things, and don’t feed the trolls. Except for when you have to — and there are times when I, at least, do feel I have to. Mostly, it’s if I feel there’s a risk of people believing the poster because he’s never been challenged, and surely, if there were anything wrong with what he said, someone would have spoken up, right?

If it feels to me like few people are, or no one is, speaking up, or the only things I’m hearing and seeing are generally dismissive, it worries me. And if I have strong opinions, that’s usually when I feel it’s important to speak up with them — in case nobody does, or the only thing anyone says is “Ignore them, they’ll go away.”

Here’s another thing: if you’re listening? If you’re paying attention? If you’re engaging with lots of people and lots of ideas, and they’re not all exactly the same as each other? Then you’ve probably noticed that it’s often the same people speaking up, again and again and again, about the same issues.

This is usually not because those are the people who have the least to lose by speaking up. It’s because they have the most to lose if NO ONE speaks up.

That’s how it is whatever someone’s thing is that makes it personal. It’s always personal somehow. Nobody holds political beliefs for abstract and impersonal reasons, whether it’s the guy going to the Trump rally because his entire life is crumbling beneath his feet and he’s desperate for anything that looks like a lifeline and all he knows for sure is his lifetime of hard work looks like it’s gonna amount to not even being able to keep a roof over his family’s head, or the latinx fella who just needs to shake it off with some loud music so they can recharge their ability to shut the fuck up when the suburban housewives at the office keep treating him like a safe gay mascot. People hold their political beliefs for reasons that are personal to them — experiences they’ve had, situations they’ve been in, their hopes and fears.

All political speech is personal to someone. And somewhere out there, someone thinks your personal life is political. Some folks consider it good manners not to engage in political speech, because people might take it personally. I can admit to having made that call plenty of times, rightly or wrongly. I’ve thought a fair bit about what I’m not saying at those times, but less about what it says that I’m saying nothing.

Sometimes silence just says “I don’t care.”

Of course, another reason why I’ve sometimes said nothing in response to a comment — especially a public comment — is that I just don’t care. Really, sometimes I don’t. I mean, maybe I do, but someone would have to really convince me, and the odds that I’d find the time to let them are slim. Like, makeup. It’s not that I disrespect makeup. It’s just that, sincerely, I have given makeup as many fucks as I’m willing to give it. I have pretty much spent the hours of my life that I’m going to spend giving a fuck about eyeliner and mascara. Something would have to be dramatic, a serious game-changer, a major new finding, for me to simply care enough not to yawn and scroll right past an open letter about makeup. Not because nobody should care about makeup, but because *I* don’t care about makeup.

Since it’s easy to be silent about things one doesn’t care about, it turns out it’s also easy to assume silence means an absence of caring. Very, very easy.

Stewing, unheard, is deadly.

Sometimes it’s deadly to the person who’s stewing and nobody hears or sees them. But sometimes it goes another way. Sometimes, when a person is not feeling heard — when they are simply ignored, dismissed, or shunned — they escalate their efforts to be heard.

Imagine, then, that you believe something. That you believe this thing as a matter of principle or justice or righteousness, for whatever reason. And you raise your voice arguing for this thing.

No one answers, save in the briefest or most dismissive of manners.

“Let it go,” people say. “Don’t dignify that troll with the attention he wants.”

“I wasn’t trolling!” you might think. “I was speaking my mind.” And I would agree with you, with limited exception (such as, you knowingly went to speak your mind in a room full of people who specifically asked you not to, for instance). You might feel angry. You would likely feel you had not been heard.

Anyway, you know what people do when they don’t feel heard, and they believe what they’re saying is important, and no one is even listening?

They try to make themselves louder.

And if they still aren’t heard, they’ll escalate again. And again. And again. And remember, it’s personal! Whatever it is, it’s personal.

Next thing you know, you’re on the phone with someone from a police department in another state, explaining that really, it all started with a picture of a crocheted tampon box cozy and just escalated from there.

If you’re lucky, you’re not, I dunno, walking into breakfast at your co-op house when someone hands you the New York Times and you find out you just lost a former teacher and a classmate because for someone, it escalated to the point of armed rampage.

But what if you’re not? What if you’re not that lucky?

What if you do get to experience the end result of angry, unheard people who believe they’ve been so thoroughly dismissed they have no recourse but extremist action?

How many times can you silence yourself? How many times can you turn the other cheek? How many times can you seriously watch people trot out that same Martin Niemoller quote, and just look the fuck away?

If someone doesn’t say something, nobody will. I’d rather be someone.

Why? Because there’s also actually this thing called the Bystander Effect. It’s really disturbing, and also… really true. So one thing people who respond to disasters are trained to do when assessing the situation is to give people jobs to do. Why? Because someone can get hit by a car in front of one person and they’ll whip out their phone and call 911, but if they get hit by a car in front of a dozen people, a dozen people will stand around and wait for that one person who will come along and tell people what to do. Yes, even when the people already know what they should do, in groups of sufficient size, more and more of them cannot spur themselves to take action.

Online, we have to put the Bystander Effect together with crowd psychology pretty much any time we speak. We have to know and accept that most likely, whatever any one of us says will be resoundingly ignored… unless that one person comes along and says something. At which point there’s another dynamic that comes into play, and that’s the pile-on (which will be very familiar to folks from the yarnosphere).

One of the biggest worries I have about saying something online is actually when something I say seems to be very popular. It doesn’t matter what it is — it makes me a little nervous, because I know whatever I’ve said is no longer really under my control. Whatever it is will now be interpreted by people and then passed on to other people and I may not even recognize it if it comes back. It may even still have my name on it and people will think I said it. And if that can happen with a simple statement about making string with a stick, just imagine how sticky it can get with something people actually care about, right?

So: there is no choice I can make — to speak or not — which does not have consequences. And those consequences might be beyond our control. So sometimes, it seems like the best measure of control we can exert is over ourselves, by choosing inaction.

But the bystander effect helps us all to diffuse our individual sense of responsibility. If one person falls down right in front of me and we’re the only ones there, I know I have to help or no one will. If I don’t, I’ll have to live with the knowledge that I could have helped, and did not. But if there are millions of people, it’s easy to imagine that someone else will help — perhaps because they’re more qualified or they care more or they’re just plain like that. So walking away, it’s easy to imagine that someone else picked up the slack, so it’s going to work out okay in the end. And if it doesn’t, well, then that burden also doesn’t fall solely on one person, because lots of people decided to walk away. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just you.

The problem is, when people for whom it is a choice to walk away make the choice to do so, it leaves behind only those for whom it is not a choice to stand and fight — with their numbers and resources reduced and having been sent the clear message that it wasn’t worth it to stand and fight.

So I ask myself: how many times did someone else sitting in that junior high school cafeteria where I silenced myself wish someone would speak up on behalf of comprehensive sex ed based on facts? And how many times did I, who was not afraid to respond, let them down? Because every time I did, either that work had to be done by someone who couldn’t choose to be silent, or the work didn’t happen.

I’m just not okay with that. Why? Because many social conservatives aren’t sitting around navel-gazing about whether or not it’s right and fair and just and reasonable for them to speak their minds. They’re making it abundantly clear where they stand. They’re pulling out all the stops, going full steam ahead, and taking no prisoners on this. And lots and lots of them are doing it with this shtick about how they’re being suppressed and silenced.

I’d like them to know they’re not either of those things, and also, that they’re being heard. Heard and disagreed with, but heard. I don’t want these people out there screaming into a wind that never replies. That’s when they go batshit crazy, for one thing.

So let’s double back to the whole “don’t feed the trolls” concept. I was there when we started saying that online. I remember why we started saying it.

It was about people who did things like go into a forum full of cat fans, and post recipes for baked cat. Not because they wanted to eat cats, but because they just wanted to see what all the cat fans would do.

It was about people who thought it was funny to be able to push buttons and get specific reactions — for abstract reasons.

It was about people who entered a dialogue and derailed it with incendiary bait.

That’s not what the letter I responded to was. Trolling is insincere. Trolls don’t necessarily believe what they’re saying. Trolls do it for the discussion dynamic and arguably for the sense of power over the crowd, when the crowd reacts en masse.

So yes: playing right into a troll’s hands in that scenario is feeding the troll. It is giving them what they want. And that’s what we were all talking about when we started saying “Don’t feed the trolls.”

But somewhere along the line, people started saying that about responding to things that one finds upsetting. In my considered opinion, that’s a misuse of the whole “don’t feed the trolls” concept, which was intended to help, say, those cat lovers identify when someone is only doing something to get a rise out of them — when it’s nothing but bait and it’s insincere.

I was bullied a fair bit as a kid — for things like having a mild Spanish accent and speaking English at the speeds people speak in Spanish; for having a vocabulary in English which bothered the other third graders; for being poor; for speaking with my little sister in “that indian language” when she didn’t speak English or Spanish yet; for reading books. For just generally being weird and thus contemptible.

In the beginning, people praised me for turning the other cheek. For walking away. For doing what I was supposed to do. I was the Good Kid, and I didn’t get in trouble for getting bullied — the bullies got in trouble.

But that didn’t stop them. And by the time it became a somewhat routine thing for me to come home from school with bruises or scrapes, my father had had enough. One night he stood with me in the loft bedroom of our one-room cabin and over and over, I punched him in the arm. “Harder,” he said. “Like you mean it. Like you’re punching past what you’re hitting.” And I’d try again. “Don’t chicken out just before it lands,” he’d say. And on and on we went, until he was satisfied that I understood how to throw a punch, that I knew how it felt. That I knew it hurt my hand. That I knew I had left a bruise on my father’s upper arm, where he’d had me punch him again and again and again.

And the next time someone at school grabbed the collar of my turtleneck and swung me around to face him, saying “Hey ugly,” I hauled off and clocked that little shit. Square in the nose. There was a pop and a sick grinding feel for a second and then blood gushing everywhere from his nose and I thought I might puke. But he let me go. And everyone saw. All those kids who’d never stopped anyone from picking on me, those kids who picked on me themselves when it was idle fun for them to do so, suddenly they all imagined that their words and deeds could bring about reprisal.

Not one of them ever came at me again.

What my teachers and the grownups at large were all saying when they praised my passivity and non-response in the wake of violence directed at me was this:

“You aren’t worth protecting. You don’t deserve it. What’s happening to you is okay. No real consequence will be suffered here, save by you as you take your bruises home and expect more when you come back.”

I believe telling someone not to take bait that isn’t idle bait — telling someone not to respond to words and actions that are sincere and potentially harmful — isn’t a moral high ground.

Sometimes, too, if someone — or multiple someones — have been throwing out the same bait for a long time, and they just keep at it? Sometimes, someone has to grab that baited hook and throw it back.

I’m not afraid to do that job.

I’d rather do it than see it go undone. I’d rather do it than hope someone else will and be disappointed or worse. I’d rather do it than leave it to folks for whom doing the work is very likely a bigger impact than it is for me, but everyone else walked off and left them doing it.

“But you’ll never change this person’s mind!”

Ah yes — the final reason to say nothing is because you believe it to be futile.

I may, indeed, not change the mind of the person to whom I’m responding. On the other hand, if I say nothing, then I will definitely not change their mind.

And there’s also the question of who may be listening. While I may not change the mind of the person to whom I immediately responded, I’m at least raising the question to them — and to everyone else who happens across the response, whatever their perspective may be.

Sometimes it’s worth taking bait to speak to everyone who’s wondering who will say something — or if no one will.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, please click that little green heart — and if you have something to say, I’d love to hear it.