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Defensiveness

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Every now and then, someone says something online that upsets me or hurts my feelings, because I am a delicate flower. (I say that like it's a joke, but honestly, as y'all probably know by now, I'm much too thin-skinned about a lot of things.) Sometimes it's something about me, sometimes it's something about a work we published, sometimes it's about a friend or something they wrote; there are lots of options.

And often, my first reaction is to look at the place or context or manner in which they said whatever it was, and to respond by posting, or at least thinking, something like whichever of the following can be applied to what they wrote (note that each of these applies to a different situation):

  • You wrote that message anonymously 'cause you're afraid to stand behind your opinions. Can't you at least use a pseudonym so we can tell you apart from the other anonymous commenters?
  • You used a pseudonym 'cause you're afraid to stand behind your opinions. I won't pay any attention unless you use your real name.
  • Why would anyone come to my blog just to insult me?
  • Why did you post that insult over in some other place where I was unlikely to see it? Were you afraid to let me see it?
  • Why did you post that insult publicly? You could at least have friendslocked your post.
  • Why are you saying negative things about [whatever] in a locked post where the people you're talking about can't see it and respond to it?
  • Why would anyone write something so strongly negative? If you don't like [whatever], why can't you just say so briefly and move on?
  • If you don't like [whatever], why don't you just not read it?
  • People shouldn't say negative things about a work they haven't read.

And so on. There are several other common responses along similar lines; several of them contradict each other.

The thing is, I don't really mean any of them.

What I really mean is: "What you wrote hurt my feelings, and I'm upset about it, and so I'm lashing out with a metacomment about your comment, a metacomment that tries to make it sound like I'm being reasonable rather than defensive."

In some cases, I don't even normally believe or support the thing that I'm saying. For example, though I know some of you disagree with me on this, in most contexts I actually think that anonymous writing can be a really good thing--among other things, it makes it a lot easier to speak truth to power. And if someone's going to insult me, sure, I would rather they not do it on my blog, but really I'd rather they not do it at all.

So most of the time, when I say something on the above list, what's really going on is that I'm feeling hurt and am lashing out. It doesn't really have anything to do with reasoned argument, or with deeply held beliefs about propriety.

And I have a feeling that sometimes when other people use lines like the ones on the above list, they're having the same kind of gut defensive reaction. Not always; I know there are plenty of people, for example, who are consistent in their opposition to online anonymity. But I do sometimes see people take contradictory stances, with the common element being opposition to comments that hurt them.

I've been meaning to write this entry for years; what finally sparked me to write it (back in early February; took me a while to post this) was reading Scalzi's January 2007 comments on the Laurell K. Hamilton rant. I think Scalzi and Hal and various commenters all made good points, but I think it's possible that, at a gut level, what Hamilton was really saying was: "You people said mean things about books that I care deeply about, and about me personally, and that hurt."

Anyway. I still have the impulse to say things like the stuff on the above list, but I'm trying these days not to post such statements; if I'm feeling hurt by something someone said, I'm trying to get myself to be honest about it and say so rather than attacking their approach. But it's tough; it requires admitting vulnerability (which may result in further attacks), and it requires me to set aside the impulse toward hurting back, and it puts the issue on a personal and emotional level rather than a distanced and (allegedly) rational level. Still, I think it's a goal worth aiming for. For me, that is; you don't have to agree with me.

6 Comments

I love this entry. I think you're exactly on track, and I applaud you.

Two elaborations: first, by my lights, you are not "much too thin-skinned." You are as thin- or thick-skinned as you are, and that's just thin or thick-skinned enough for where you are right now. What you probably are is more ready to admit how much things hurt you than lots of other people, which again I applaud.

Second, I take your point that admitting vulnerability may result in further attacks. At the same time, not admitting vulnerability may also result in further attacks.


Not to trivialize or dismiss your concern, but whenever you see that shit, remember there are at least twice that many people who think you're the lobster's dress shirt.


The thin vs thick skin thing is also interesting in connection with politicans, who are criticized publicly as much or more than just about anyone. The politicians mostly say they have thick skins and the criticisms don't bother them, but--shockingly--they are proably lying. It surely hurts to be called a monster, liar, and 100 other terrible things in print, on the radio, and on TV on a almost daily basis. I am not saying we shouldn't criticize--no one forced these people to be politicians--but some of it has got to hurt.

George Tenet recently admitted how much it hurts, in his book...when he wrote about Congressman Norman Dicks saying to Tenet, in public, "We counted on you and you let us down." Tenet wrote that it was one of his lowest moments, because he "knew (Dicks) was right." And, Tenet pointed out, he is personal friends with Norman Dicks.



Jed, of all the people who blogs about their daily life, yours is one of the few I read regularly precisely because you don't rant. You tell about the bad, hurtful, emotionally messy things in your life without whining or name-calling or rationalizing or any such nonsense. And yet we know how you feel. You just write it out like it is.

Honestly, people will write things in an email or a blog or bulletin board that they would never say to your face. I know. I've been one of them.

P.S. I hate people who rant in blogs! They're a bunch of stinky-butt poop-heads! Argh!


Thanks for the comments, all!

Debbie: Thank you, and (re skin thickness) yeah, fair enough; still, I'm unhappy about how thin-skinned I am, and various aspects of my life would be significantly easier if I weren't so bothered by things people say. ...Good point about not admitting vulnerability also resulting in further attacks.

silk_noir and Matthew: Thanks! But I should note, in case this didn't come through, that this post is not in response to anything in particular, and that at the moment I'm not feeling defensive or personally attacked about anything anyone's said online lately, so no need to offer sympathies or compliments. (Though I've always wanted to be the lobster's dress shirt. At least, "always" since a couple hours ago, when I first encountered the phrase in your comment here. So thanks for that!)

I should perhaps clarify that my main point here wasn't meant to be so much that I get upset when I feel attacked, as that there's a particular mode of argument that I tend to go into when I feel attacked, and I'm trying to shift away from that.

Jay: Thanks for the note; interesting. I guess I always assumed that people who enter careers where they're constantly exposed to public attacks must be pretty thick-skinned just as a matter of survival; one of the many reasons I'm not cut out for politics is that I would obsess over every insult, to the point that it would keep me from getting useful stuff done. But yeah, the Tenet story does tend to suggest that there are real people lurking under those political exteriors. (And I meant to say the other day that I liked your post about the Tenet book.)


Yes, I realized after I posted that there is one legitimate way to be "too thin-skinned," and that is to be "more thin-skinned than you personally would like to be." IMO, that (like most things) is a changeable thing, at least to a significant extent, and I can see glimmers of ways to work on it.


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