I can’t tell you how many times I have read about an actress, a politician or an athlete whining about how their comments or activities were “misconstrued,” and how shocked they were, and thought to myself “what did they expect?” Smugly and self-righteously I sat in my house and thought about how, if one is a public figure, subject to the opinions and attacks of every Tom, Dick and Harry populating this earth, one ought reasonably to anticipate that not everyone will love them, understand them or agree with them. It was, I thought, simply the trade-off they made for “fame and fortune and all that goes with it.”
Then it happened to me.
I have had skirmishes on this blog; I made myself unpopular with fans of King’s of Leon front man Caleb Followill when I lambasted him for making disparaging remarks about “mom jean” wearing women, and I had a regrettable disagreement with one friend over the comments on another post, and, in yet another, managed to offend someone else’s taste in music. When a piece I had written was published on Salon.com, ridiculous comments and arguments erupted over my jokey aside that I could refer to certain things as “Jew Food” but non-Jews didn’t enjoy the privilege. I didn’t enjoy any of those flare-ups, but I could dismiss the Followill fans on the basis of their illiterate nastiness, I could apologize to my friends and trust that they knew me well enough to cut me some slack, and I had no problem seeing that the Salon regulars were simply spoiling for a fight about something, to the point where they would draw swords over an irrelevant sentence in a recipe for noodles and fried cabbage.
Yesterday, on Open Salon where I also post, I ran a piece about bullying that I had posted here in the fall of 2009. The gist of it is that while schools need to take active steps to protect vulnerable kids from bullies, I see the “bullying rubric” in our District being applied to situations where no actual bullying is involved. I also see it being used by folks smart enough to know that invoking “bullying” leads to the punishment of the alleged bully, sometimes without a real examination of the facts and personalities involved. The piece was selected as an “Editor’s Pick,” meaning that it was on the “front page” of Open Salon for about 24 hours. This is a very prominent spot, there are 10,000 plus members of Open Salon, and so the piece was very, very public.
What followed was what can only be called a shit storm. (Sorry, mom). I anticipated the argument that bullying is so destructive and so odious that it’s okay if corrective measures are so strict that they catch some innocent kids in the crossfire. I don’t agree with that argument, but I saw it coming, and I got it in the comments. What I didn’t expect were the folks who interpreted into my writing all kinds of things that I never thought or wrote, all of them very ugly. I was criticized by more than one person who believed that I supported the bullying of children who behave oddly, including (by very tenuous extension) children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. I explained in response, over and over and over again that I had not meant that, that I earn most of my income representing people with autism spectrum disorders before the Social Security Administration. I was told that I shouldn’t be doing that job because I clearly didn’t understand autism spectrum disorders or their symptoms. I said that I had, myself, been bullied from elementary school through high school, to no avail. I was accused of supporting bullying, wanting people to go after the weak and eccentric, being insensitive, and everything except actually being Hitler. No answer that I gave was effective; it was like yelling into a canyon. I felt misunderstood, and actually I started to wonder whether the cruel, bully-supporting person they saw was not, in fact…me.
Just when I was starting to feel okay about it all, to understand that if you bring up a controversial topic you risk controversy (and I do understand that) one of my most unhappy and acerbic commenters wrote a post of his own, characterizing my piece as an “apologia for bullying” and demanding that I apologize. I think he also wanted me to pull the post. He was also apparently obsessed with the fact that I am a lawyer, although I mentioned it only in the comments when I was trying to explain my professional reasons for understanding autism spectrum disorders.In fact, I am no longer a member of the bar, and practice law only on a consulting basis because I hated practicing law. How ironic to have that be the focus of his attack. If only, I kept thinking, if only I could just explain…..
It was surreal, reading this lengthy tirade about me as if I were the absolute, total, irredeemable scum of the earth. A puppy killer, an autistic child-hater, probably an eater of infants. The idea that someone was so angered by my words that he would do such a thing was more than a little scary, particularly since I had tried so very hard to explain myself and “fix things.” It made me discouraged, and sick and exhausted, and it made me think that no matter how careful I was, someone was going to pick apart everything I wrote and turn it into something completely different.
So it happened to me. I published something controversial in a public forum, and although I am no movie star, I have now had the experience of being judged and criticized and misconstrued, and quite possibly even hated by people who know nothing about the real me. There is no “fixing” it as if I were a small child with a boo boo; I could be revealed as the successor to Mother Theresa and they’d still hate me. Everybody doesn’t love me, and everybody won’t. If I push buttons, intentionally or not, the folks I have sent into orbit will not care that I am a nice girl, that I take bugs outside to avoid killing them, or that I’m good to my parents.
I can write that, I can “get” it, but it’s going to take some time for me to accept it as an ordinary part of life. I am, and have always been conflict avoidant, and my natural response to any argument that can’t be worked out with a little patience and compassion is to stick my fingers in my ears and chant “lalalalalalala.” Then, of course, I’m hurt, and then, of course, I whine and cry. This is the whining, by the way.
I drew that fire, and I’ll draw it again if I keep pushing for a bigger audience. I get that. I’ve learned a lot of things in the past 24 hours, about people, and arguments, and discourse, civil and otherwise. In the final analysis I think I’ll grow from this, thicker skinned and more realistic, if nothing else. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.