Social Issues

there’s a difference between criticism and bullying

Tone policing is wrong. Respectability politics is wrong. Telling victims that they shouldn’t respond with anger to someone participating in abuse apologetics (inadvertently or not) is wrong. Anyone, anyone at all, is and should be open to criticism, even vociferous criticism. When I read Captivating and watch John and Stasi go on for pages about white supremacy I’m going to call it like I see it, and I’m going to say what the fuck. Out loud. When Grace Driscoll perpetuates the extremely damaging teaching that victims should repent, I’m going to talk about it, and I’m going to be harsh.

When Matthew Paul Turner uses a gendered slur to complain about criticism, I’m going to say “hey, not cool,” no matter how much I appreciate the past work he’s done for people like one of my closest friends. When Rachel Held Evans repeats the same tired lines abuse victims have been hearing for centuries, I’m also going to point out that it’s not ok.

I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty pointed criticism. I do my best to always listen to it, even if I have to walk away and leave it for a bit. Eventually I always come back and ask myself is this criticism valid? Where do I think they have a point? If what they’ve said makes sense to me, I do my best to incorporate it and move on. Some criticism has radically changed the way I do things on here. Some criticism has helped only in that it helps me avoid certain pot holes in the future– like writing “I know, not all men” ad nauseum when I talk about rape, no matter how ridiculous I think it is to include it.

There are some writers online who disagree with the way I do things, with the way I express myself and my opinions. I’m not overly concerned with being perceived as “nice,” and the whole tone of my blog is about the furthest thing that anyone would describe as “gentle.” A Sarah Bessey or Preston Yancey, I am most definitely not.

I also think it’s egregiously wrong to expect survivors to be a “well-behaved victim” or a “model survivor,” which happens sometimes. A lot of the time, our hurting is going to be messy and loud and obnoxious and I don’t fucking care if you’re ok with that or not. I have the right to stomp on things and rage, and so does anyone else. How we heal shouldn’t be policed or managed. Everyone’s journey is going to look different, and just because someone managed to recover while appearing placid and calm and tranquil doesn’t mean the person scream-sobbing is doing it wrong.

But. There is a difference between being angry and loud when you criticize someone’s actions or words and making it your mission for weeks on end to harass a person. Abuse survivors can also be bullies. Just because we’ve survived spiritual abuse, or sexual abuse, or domestic violence, does not mean that we are ourselves immune from engaging in the same behaviors that were used to control and manipulate us.

I am not interested in roaming the internet and telling people that I think the way they’re responding to X situation isn’t what I would do. This is something you have to evaluate on your own and decide for yourself if you’re comfortable with it. There’s lots of things that I don’t personally do because it isn’t the right avenue for me that plenty of other people do on the regular. For example, I don’t really do online debates. Not even in my own comment section. I don’t argue with people on Twitter. Sometimes I’ll respond, but it’s going to be a single comment or tweet most of the time. I’ll engage people in conversation, but the second it takes on that “debate” tone I whistle for a cab. That doesn’t mean that I think getting into it on Twitter is a “wrong” way to be an activist. I appreciate the people who are willing to do that because I’m not.

I’ve learned that, for myself, engaging in extended online debates isn’t healthy and is almost always unproductive in the ways that I’d like a conversation to be productive. Doesn’t mean that another person finds it extremely productive for a variety of reasons that don’t apply to me.

But I have seen whole groups, whole movements of people who identify as abuse survivors, who seem to wander around the internet frothing at the mouth for a good knock-down drag-out fight with pretty much anyone and I don’t agree with that. I left Stuff Christian Culture Likes because the community as a whole engaged in bullying en masse. I’ve seen relative unkowns, people with less than a hundred followers on Twitter, get ripped to shreds by hundreds of people all at once and it is disturbing.

To me, some of the things I see on happen on Survivor!Twitter don’t seem any different than the 4Chan trolls who organized to harass and threaten Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu.

I also don’t think it’s ok to do the this to “public figures.” I will shout about how Mark Driscoll and Tony Jones are sexist bullies until the cows come home, and while I’ll join a protest– I’m not going to join a mob. I think leaders like Tony Jones and Matthew Paul Turner tend to see pitchforks and torches where none actually exist and misinterpret many people criticizing them all at once as a “lynch mob” (note: fellow white people, please do not use the term lynch mob to describe anything that happens to you until you’ve been an oppressed racial minority for centuries and a crowd of people show up at your house with a noose), but I have to admit that I am terrified of becoming a “public figure” like Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber.

The platform I have right now is small and intimate and lovely and cozy and I think it’s pretty much the best thing ever. But, hopefully, someday, I’ll write a New York Times best-seller and have a blog where every post gets a 100+ comments, and while that will also be awesome… I’m still going to be a human being, and I am going to fuck up. I am going to do something pretty bad, and it is going to upset an awful lot of people. I hope that when that day comes that I’ll realize how badly I fucked up and be able to make amends, but I also hope that when I do, eventually, fuck up that someone doesn’t make a parody account of me and that my inbox isn’t flooded with people telling me that I’m a worthless human being and that I’m no better than an abuser.

Photo by Richard Elzey
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  • The Mom

    Amen! and amen.

  • Amen. Recently I had somebody discuss the concept of a prophet to me. Some on the “Christian Left” or “Progressives” or whatever you want to call them/us want it just to mean anybody who complains. This acquaintance made a point of saying that while critiquing is necessary, it has to be a step toward creating something better. If your critique is creating more of the same thing that you’re critiquing – hatred, abuse, inequality, arrogance, dismissal of others, condemnations to Hell, etc – but with the “us and them” reversed, that’s not being prophetic. My general vibe since I started following here is that you are much more of a prophet and I thank you for that.

  • Caroline M

    This is awesome. I’ve also ended up leaving certain online communities that seemed to be in fight-mode all the time, where things got personal fast. It’s worth remembering that those of us who have survived various tragedies do not have cart blanch to abuse others, and that saying that is not the same as being a tone police.

  • Elmo

    Reading this reminded me of the recent parody of Harry Potter which was written as if Hermione were the main character. She continually calls out the patriarchal system which values male wizards over females just as much as Voldemort and the Death Eaters valued “true” wizards over “mudbloods”. In particular, I thought that you sounded a lot like “she who gives zero fucks” about what anyone else thinks of her. Good on you.

    • Rebekah

      ‘she who gives zero fucks’

      LOVE IT!

  • I remain appreciative of the thoughtfulness of your critiques, even when we disagree. No less true here; thank you for doing what you do.

  • I think it is worth noting that sometimes the word ‘mob’ is used as a way of silencing or shaming: this is something many campaigners in the UK have experienced online in the Ched Evans case (a UK footballer who was convicted of rape, served 2 1/2 years of a 5 year sentence and is trying to return to professional football).

    There have been numerous, extremely valid and highly articulated criticisms of the attempt to return to football, especially given that his victim is currently in police protection and has had several changes of identity because of the harassment and abuse she has endured (partly fed by Evans’ ‘campaign’ website set up by his family since he refuses to accept responsibility) – yet certain journalists and high profile types constantly refer to the campaign as ‘mob rule’ (Evans has so far been unsuccessful in returning to professional football because of the success of the campaign).

    The most interesting part about this is that all accusations of ‘mob rule’ and ‘mob mentality’ have been accompanied by excuses for Evans crime and even outright claims of his innocence (despite a conviction and 2 failed appeals).

    Sometimes accusations of being part of a ‘mob’ are a cheap trick. Loved this article!

  • Ellen

    I have loosely followed the RHE/NBW/Tony Jones issue, so there are a lot of details I don’t know. I’m sure a lot of bullying has happened. What comes to my mind about that situation and some others is the power difference between many of the people you mentioned versus a virtually unknown person in an online community. Being a leader is vulnerable but also brings power and influence. I wonder if some people feel like they have tried everything they can think of to be heard with no results. The blessing and curse of the mob is that it can get results when other more civilized avenues fail. One difference I’ve noticed between you and some of the people you mentioned is that you seem to listen to people, apologize when necessary, and make amends. Some people will hate and bully no matter what, but many others will stop when they feel heard.

    A question I have is this: when is mockery appropriate and when is it considered a form of bullying? This is totally random, but I thought about how Jon Stewart mocks people like Mitch McConnell frequently. I laugh at it–am I participating in bullying when I do? I think that his show is so influential because comedy and mockery is refreshing in a system that doesn’t listen to most people and takes forever to get anything done. I think church and the Christian celebrity world feels like this to many people.

    • I don’t have a problem with mockery, per se– but I’ve yet to see a parody account of a woman like RHE that doesn’t almost instantly swerve into misogyny. Mockery is different from bullying when it doesn’t engage in oppressive systems, when it’s only used to “punch up,” and when it remains focused on the problem instead of the person.

      • I admit that RHE’s response was disappointing to me as someone that grew up with a narcissistic mother and grandmother. It made me wonder if I could trust RHE on other issues. From what I’ve read, Tony Jones seems to be very much the classic, charming narcissist. That said, far too often criticism of women goes into the misogynistic territory and online life has made it so much easier to target someone that makes you angry in ways that wouldn’t have been acceptable or even possible 20 years ago. I’m sorry that it is happening to RHE and Nadia.

      • Bri

        I’m curious where you think the parody account was misogynistic. Also, does this mean you don’t have a problem with parody accounts per se?

        • In general I find them in poor taste if they’re of a specific person instead of a “type”. I don’t really have a problem with them as much as I wouldn’t create one and don’t find them entertaining.

          With the RHE one there were several tweets i saw that relied on sexist stereotypes of subservient passive and empty-headed women in order to make their pointed joke. I haven’t looked at it again.

          • Bri

            I don’t know which tweets you’re talking about, so I can’t comment on that. I can respect that you don’t like parody accounts, though I don’t feel the same way.

            I can also understand why you worry about what will happen if you gain a larger audience. I really can. I would be incredibly freaked out by that kind of pressure. But the way you talked about that bothered me, and I didn’t realize exactly why until I talked with a friend of mine who’s also thinking of writing a book someday. They were talking about RHE, and they said, “I won’t become like that, will I?” It was very important to them that they never become so enamored of their power that they put that before listening to victims. Not once did they worry about how people would react if they behaved that way. They only cared about not becoming corrupted by power.

            Everyone will make mistakes. But I do not see how stubbornly refusing to listen to a victim is a mistake. That was a deliberate action which, to me and many other of her followers, proved that RHE cares more about her power than she does about being an advocate for victims. From everything I’ve read by you, I don’t believe you are like that. I hope you care more about not becoming like that than you do about how people will react if you do.

  • This is an important discussion we need to have, and I’m grateful that you’ve shared your discomfort with Twitter debates, etc. I have personally found that I’m 99% more likely to misunderstand and mistreat others if I dig too deep into an online debate. I think Ryan Robinson’s point is a really helpful addition to this post too. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for myself, I hope that my interactions can lead to redemption and restoration.

    • Well said, “I hope that my interactions can lead to redemption and restoration.” Me too.