Your Worst Writing Nightmare
Behind the Book: What if I get dragged?
One of the most common concerns that aspiring writers reach out to me with when they are considering putting their writing online is how to avoid internet backlash or be prepared for when it happens. I do think that for the majority of writers out in the world, a dragging or massive internet backlash to their writing won’t happen. There’s just too many people sharing too many opinions online for us to collectively decide to take issue with all of them - even if it seems like somedays you can’t share your opinion on you favorite pie flavor on facebook without someone very loudly telling you that you’re wrong and why. The internet can be a scary and unpredictable place, and we see the massive outrage when it arises against others and it can make us wary to post anything online at all, even if the chances of it happening to us are slim.
But the fear isn’t unfounded because it does happen. It’s happened to me in various ways over the years. I’ve dealt with really painful and personal pushback from my own writers’ circles to things I’ve written, annoying multi-day long campaigns against me by outraged white dudes, weird and massive months-long violently racist online harassment over a single tweet, and online violence in response to my writing that reached my own home and put my family at risk.
Shit. Did I just terrify you out of putting words online? I hope not. I’m still here, I’m still writing. And I’m not some sort of weirdo who looooves getting yelled at online - I’m a Black woman in America: I have no need or desire to seek out the hatred of strangers in a world that supplies plenty of that for free. I’m a very good writer, and writing has brought me joy, comfort, community, and purpose. It has, so far, been with all of the weird internet drama/trauma and more.
If you are worried about online backlash to your writing, I hope that the following reflections and tips will help encourage you to get your words out there, and do so in a way that can better protect your safety and sanity.
The Anatomy Of A Drag
Let’s look at the online drama we see around things that people write on the internet. I find, that for the most part, it falls into a few categories.
The Random Right-Wing Attack: This is the one that I think scares a lot of people. You are doing what you’ve always done, sharing your progressive political opinions, sharing your lived experience as a woman, queer person, disabled person, trans or enby person or BIPOC and suddenly you find your words are the focus of every conservative white middle-aged facebooker with an American flag in their profile picture. How did this happen?? Well, starting around 2015 or so, the amount of weird conservative outrage farms on social media sites like facebook started skyrocketing. They were a way to give people to whom even Fox News might be a part of the liberal conspiracy a place to find the confirmation of their opinion that they are good and right and the only reason why their life sucks is - not because of hypercapitalist exploitation or even their own painful mediocrity - but because we (the scary angry lefties and brown queer people) were all working against them and every good person in America. All the outrage you need to justify both your anger and entitlement, and give you a person to attack - a person you can actually reach and impact instead of the “liberal elites” who have the power and insulation to remind you that you are increasingly irrelevant in a growing and diversifying world - is provided for you along with a community of equally outraged and entitled individuals to yell with. Anyways, go read my last book if you want to read a lot about this.
But these sites literally take like the tweet or blog post of a random person (with little to no regard to whether those words reached an audience of 10 or 10,000) who dares talk about white supremacy or demand respect in a society that really would prefer to see them as inferior, build a click-bait headline around it, and usually send their bored and eager readers right to your blog, website, or your social media pages. These attacks come in fast and hard, and can at times be very, very random. The most widespread and longlasting harassment I’ve faced so far in my career was from making a pretty benign tweet about my discomfort in a Cracker Barrel. The harassment and fallout from that harassment was so wild that it even made national headlines. But these sort of attacks are literally just hobbies for sad, angry white folk and usually people move on pretty quickly to the next target. Also, the emotional impact of these attacks is usually limited because the grievances you receive are so completely without substance.
The In-Group Drag: Oh man, getting dragged by other writers is the worst. It really sucks to feel like you have upset your peers or you are even being targeted by your peers. These sort of issues usually arise as your profile rises. Sometimes they arise from harm you are doing related to your writing that maybe went unnoticed when you didn’t have the position or platform to do harm on a scale that people felt needed addressing, and sometimes it arises because people see the increase in attention to your work as a threat to their standing in the writing community and they search for opportunities to knock you down a peg. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. I have so far only had to go through this once. It’s not because I’ve written something harmful or problematic only once in my career, but because for the most part I’ve tried to work with the openness and integrity that shows people that they can always come to me directly with issues or concerns they have with my writing. But the one time that I faced a (relatively light, although it didn’t feel like it at the time) drag by fellow writers, it was a mix of me being a little too cavalier with my language and a little to easy with my privilege when writing about a sensitive subject, and one writer who had long been eyeing the rise of my platform with some bitterness and distrust and saw an opportunity. I received for the most part at first some concerned questions from fellow writers about what I had written and some requests for clarification. These conversations were uncomfortable, even a bit painful, but were really productive and taught me a lot. But this one writer, who at the time had a slightly larger profile than me, decided to take her chance to really put me in my place and tagged all of her writer friends in posts voicing her outrage and inviting them to be outraged along with her. This was heartbreaking, as I had considered her a friend, and getting this sort of feedback from my peers was not something I was willing to reject or ignore. It took me a few years to realize how often she did this to other writers just as attention to their work started to rival hers and it impacted her work far more negatively in the end than it impacted those of us she targeted. But in general, these sort of conflicts will last as long as you want them to. If you refuse to engage with the legitimate feedback, you will prolong the experience as people have to get louder and louder in order to be heard. If you insist on focusing on the disingenuous and malicious feedback, you will also prolong the experience as you are giving those who have dishonorable intentions the attention they seek. But this won’t end your career or ruin all of your relationships in writing. I wish I could add “if you haven’t done anything truly malicious or harmful” to that but the truth is, even if you really, honestly deserve to lose the love of the writing community due to truly heinous behavior, there is always a corner of the community that will show you some love because even assholes become writers and they will always have an audience to write to.
The Historical Drag: What if what you write now comes back to bite you in the ass five, ten years from now? Why write anything at all if opinions and convention are just going to change over time and your past words that were more acceptable at the time they were written will only be used against you the moment they are unacceptable in the future? All of us, no matter how well intentioned, are conditioned by a society that is racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, queerphobic, classist, and more. Actions that harm those less privileged than us and secure our place in privileged groups are rewarded by society, while the harm of those actions are largely kept from our view or exempted from any real examination. This has been the case well, forever. And as we grow and change and become more aware of the harm of our actions because the work and activism of those harmed has made us aware, our writing and words reflect that growth and change.
But the words that have been finally deemed by the majority as unacceptable were always harmful. And often, when those past words are brought up, it is not to “drag” you, it’s to ask for your accountability for the actual harm you have done. Everyone who has written anything questionable online is vulnerable to this sort of late backlash, but some are more susceptible than others. If you have built your writing career calling out the same actions that you participated in in the past, you are more susceptible to this sort of backlash. If you have built your image as a privileged person who “really gets it” you are more susceptible to this sort of backlash. And if you act and write like someone who has always “gotten it” and came out of the womb with perfect progressive opinions, you are definitely more susceptible to this sort of backlash.
This backlash usually comes from one of four places: those who are threatened by your work and really wish to reduce it’s influence, those who love your work or see the importance of it and have been harmed and feel betrayed by the discovery of your past words, those who were harmed by your words at the time they were written but nobody cared then and they are really hoping that somebody will actually care now, and those who could tell by your work today (and often its currently under-recognized harm) that perhaps you aren’t nearly as virtuous as you portray yourself to be. When this happens it’s important to realize that it still is your words doing the harm - to others and now your career - and not the backlash itself. But this can permanently damage your relationship with the community harmed by your work, and can permanently damage your credibility. And you will need to do real, honest work to try to repair that harm if you are the person that you think you have grown into today. A sad paradox: the more privilege you have (and, not so coincidentally, the more power your words had to do harm) the less likely that your will be permanently harmed by this backlash and the more likely you are to act as if you have been censored and cancelled forever.
The Drag That Wasn’t Going To Be A Drag But Then You Made It One Because You Refused To Take Responsibility: This is, in my opinion, the most common drag. This didn’t start as a drag. It started with people bringing up valid concerns or critique about your work and you treated it like an attack and went on the offensive. You could have listened. You could have learned. You could have thanked them for the growing opportunity. But you didn’t. You threw a fit, you insulted people, you claimed your own outrage at their outrage, and you surrounded yourself with people who would only tell you that you were right and they were wrong. And so then people turned up the volume in the hopes of either getting through to you, or getting through to the people who are enabling you to do harm with your work and then avoid accountability in the hopes that you will be less able to do harm in the future.
The Drag That You Really Had Coming: You’ve been writing some problematic shit for years and people have finally had enough, or you’ve been writing problematic shit for years and we finally reached a place in society where more people decided to care. Either way, you had this one coming and your outrage comes, not from the feeling that you haven’t done anything deserving of the drag, but from the idea that people would change the rules on you and dare try to tell you that the lazy bigotry or cultivated ignorance that you’d been turning to for years just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. You can be an overall shitty person and writer who is used to being rewarded because of your privilege and one day find yourself in this much deserved situation, or you can be a pretty good writer who tries to be a good person who has a few bigotries that you’ve avoided addressing and now you are being told that continuing to only being a little harmful still isn’t good enough and people are tired of waiting for you to decide to be better. These drags are all encompassing. All of your shit comes to light. Everyone who has had a problem with your work, or even just you as a person, comes forward. But if you were to act like this came out of nowhere and you weren’t warned (and oh, how you will) you are lying.
When You Are Just Wrong: This isn’t necessarily about your writing being offensive or bigoted, it’s just wrong. You didn’t do your research. You reached really bizarre, nonsensical conclusions from your observations that nobody else would have reached because it confirmed a bias you had. Your source material is outdated. Your source material is a lie. You stole somebody else’s work or words. Your understanding of what you are writing about is woefully incomplete and yet you were determined to write it anyway. These breaches of conduct are serious and can lead to real professional backlash that can (and sometimes should) end your career. Smaller mistakes acknowledged and addressed usually only lead to mild discomfort for all involved. But large errors that show serious lapses of ethics or judgement - especially on large platforms - can cause a lot of outrage. If there was ever a drag that can end your career, these are the ones. And, thankfully, these are the ones that you have the most power to avoid with consistent, ethical, and responsible writing, researching, and editing processes. A mixed up number or two on your blog isn’t going to end your career. A major article with made-up graphics or no basis in credible research just might.
Ok, I know there are more types of drags out there but, y’all, this newsletter is so long already and I haven’t even gotten to the tips yet! I keep saying that these will be shorter and I lie every time.
Tips For Dealing With And Preventing Online Backlash From Your Writing:
Be honest about your past and your journey. If you have problematic writing in your past, don’t run from it. Look at it honestly and investigate the harm it has done. Make amends where you can. And don’t act as if you’ve never been wrong or done harm with you work when you know you have. If you are going to build a writing career that in any way trades on or is benefitted from how ethical and moral you are now, your past shouldn’t be a surprise to you or your readers. Not only is it a misrepresentation of you as a person, and a second betrayal to those you have harmed with your past actions - it’s also a sign that you haven’t actually done the growth work that you are now trying to take credit for. Your past mistakes can only be “old news” if they were news to begin with. There is no time limit on accountability and you don’t get to skip it and still grow from your past mistakes. So take accountability now. Be proactive because you want to grow and you genuinely want to repair some of the harm you’ve done. It doesn’t mean that your past actions won’t come up again in the future and won’t be used against you again, but the harm that can be done (to yourself and others) by bringing your past actions up will be reduced if each and every time you address it with respect for those who have been harmed by your past actions.
Take a breather before you respond. It is natural to be defensive of our writing. But the stronger your urge to fire back a reply to those who complain or call you out, the more important it is that you sit your ass down and wait a bit. Let people know you need a minute or two to reply and then take some time to really reflect on what is being brought to you. Get some honest outside guidance if necessary. And remember, if you even vaguely suspect that you may have been wrong or done harm, err on the side of accountability and reparation than on the side of defensiveness. These moments are often indeed trying to teach you something important, painful as those lessons can be.
Know what communities you are responsible to. You are responsible to various communities in your writing based on many factors: what fields of study or industries are impacted by your work, what communities are represented or impacted by your words, your general readership, your editors and publishers, your writing peers who are also represented by or impacted by your work to some degree. Being aware of who you are responsible to with each piece of writing will give you a good eye when writing and editing to areas where you might be doing harm. This awareness will also tell you who to listen to when people from various communities come to you with feedback.
Know who you aren’t responsible to. I honestly take every piece of feedback from a Black woman to heart. Same to feedback from people in trans, disabled, and queer communities. But conservative white dudes who are mad about my work? Fuck em. My writing isn’t for them and I’m not responsible to them. Wasting your time is a weapon and people will wield it anytime they want to distract you from the work you should be doing. Being aware that there are certain people to whom you don’t owe shit will help you cast many attempts at “dragging you” aside.
If you have done harm, acknowledge it openly and honestly with as little defensiveness as possible. Clearly state what you understand as the harm done, ask people to let you know if that understanding is wrong or incomplete, thank people for the generosity of the education you are receiving. Apologize without any caveat or deflection. State what you intend to do to prevent it from happening again. If people have been seriously harmed, state how you help to make amends and ask for feedback.
Recognize the difference between a drag and one or two people just being mad because they want to be. You can have 100 positive comments on your work from communities you trust and respect, and then one nasty comment from a troll you’ve never interacted with before will have you feel like you are being attacked. You aren’t being attacked. The internet is just being the internet. But the more attention you give this one person not only feeds them the distraction and feeling of importance that they crave, it also devalues the feedback of your loyal readers.
Recognize the difference between a drag and people trying to honestly make you aware of the harm you are doing. People who bring issues with your writing to your notice are actually doing you a favor. They usually believe a few really great things about you in order to take the time and effort to do so: 1) your work matters and the impact of your work warrants addressing any possible harm, 2) you are capable of learning new things and understanding where you have done harm once it’s brought to life, and 3) you are a decent enough person to care and try to do better. Even if the feedback isn’t stated nicely, even if it can seem filled with anger, at least one of these three things needs to be true in order for people to feel like it’s worth their time and effort to bring their concerns to you. If you receive this feedback and you respond by declaring it an attack and raise the alarms that you are being “dragged” for no reason, you are simply showing them that you aren’t as capable of growth and change or care and empathy as they had previously thought, and the impact of your work is far greater than it deserves. If you respect your work and you respect your readers, you’ll treat honest feedback with respect as well.
Bring your concerns to others with the same care and respect that you hope they would bring it to you. If you spend a lot of time denouncing everyone who does anything you don’t agree with as “trash,” don’t be surprised if people send that same energy right back to you when you fuck up. Part of how we grow and learn and reduce harm is by trying to create a culture where we not only expect and require individual accountability for harm done, but we also recognize collective responsibility for the ways in which we enable and perpetrate a culture of harm. If you recognize both, then your desire to punish those who have done harm will be tempered by the understanding of the ways in which we are all conditioned to do harm and the responsibility we have for creating an environment that prioritizes the safety and humanity of those harmed, while also leaving space for all of us to grow out of the ways in which we do harm. I’m not saying to go easy on people who are doing harm with their work and I’m not telling those who have been directly harmed by others how to respond - I’m saying that if you aren’t honest about the ways in which we are all complicit in harm you will continue to normalize a response to harm that enables us to avoid collective responsibility by placing all blame on the individual, casting that individual out, and calling our work done. If you don’t want that happening to you, don’t do it to others - especially if you weren’t even the person directly harmed by the work in question.
Limit access to your real, personal life, online. Occasionally online backlash to your work can cross over to dangerous, real, life territory. This doesn’t happen often, but it has happened to me and quite a few of my peers - especially those of us who write on social justice issues. While I truly hope that you won’t find yourself harassed at your home or your workplace, or your loved ones harassed by your work, it can happen. There is no way to ensure 100% that it won’t happen but there are ways to try to decrease the chances of it happening or minimize the impact when it does. Please know, before I continue, that while this does happen and all have happened to me, the chances of all of these happening are slim, especially to emerging writers.
1) First off: take your address off the internet. There are online services that can scan the internet for mentions of your address and phone number and get them removed. Use these. They will make it harder for people to doxx you and will reduce the amount of times that happens.
2) If you’ve been doxxed by people who seem extra malicious towards you, notify your local police department and ask if they can note your address that you are currently facing online threats and harassment. Y’all know I’m not tryna get the carceral state involved here, what I’m trying to do is the exact opposite. Doxxing can lead to swatting, where people use knowledge of your address to place fake emergency calls, weaponizing police forces and sending them right to your door. My home has been swatted. It is terrifying and can be deadly. Swatting is still pretty rare, but instances have been increasing, and at least three of my friends who write on race in America have also been swatted. Because I knew that we had been doxxed and there seemed to be a credible threat of swatting, I was able to let my local police department know that there was a risk. They still sent 6 officers with rifles to my door at 6am, but at least they called first so we knew they were coming.
3) If you feel like your workplace may be targeted because of your writing, let you employer know and ask them how they will respond. If you feel like your workplace will discriminate against you based on the content of your writing, then maybe wait until you feel a real credible threat that your workplace will be involved before speaking to them, but if you feel like your workplace is more understanding, working out a plan in advance will help decrease the likelyhood of your employer feeling overwhelmed by public outrage and acting rashly in response.
4) Don’t post the full names or school info of your children online.
5) If you are in a situation where you feel like your loved ones might be targeted with harassment, let them know. Tell them what is happening, remind them that, no matter what, you are still likely the primary target not them and so while they may receive a message or two it is unlikely to progress past that. You may have to explain how the internet works or why this is even a thing to some people, but please take the time to if you see any posts, emails, or comments that allude to people trying to contact your family or that they have access to your family’s information. But please be comforted in knowing that even when our home was receiving violent death threats and we were being swatted, the worst harassment that my mom has ever had to face for being the mother of a Black woman who writes about race, is having a few unwanted pizzas delivered to her apartment.
If you are being harassed by trolls, remember that they are acting from a place of powerlessness, not you. Yes, sometimes I find myself at the center of unwanted attention because I’ve fucked up in some way. But most of the time, I’m just being trolled by randos threatened by the important work that I do. I’ve been asked by other writers how I can seem to be so unfazed by a lot of the online harassment I receive. I usually just remind people that I’m dead inside. Ok, that’s at least partially a joke. The truth is that I regularly take myself through the steps that a troll had to take in order to show up in a writer’s inbox, DMs, or comments. First off, they had to read a thing that they likely knew they weren’t going to agree with. You didn’t slide it under their door or windshield wiper, they came to that on their own and decided that they wanted to make themselves unhappy for some reason. Then, something you said made them feel threatened in some way - you made them feel bad for harm they’ve done, you made them feel less relevant in a world that they were sure revolved around them, you tried to teach them something and that implies that maybe they didn’t know everything to begin with. Something you did triggered a feeling of powerlessness in them. They then will try to find a way to restore balance by making you feel something you don’t want to feel, just like your work made them feel something they didn’t want to feel. So they look up your social media accounts or your email address to try to make you feel afraid or inferior, or they write five paragraphs in your article comments hoping that somehow more people will read that comment than your actual article. And they have spent a good amount of time and effort trying to desperately take back some of the power that they feel you have stolen from them. And you don’t know their name, will never know their name - and the moment they leave your inbox, they will be forgotten. Meanwhile they have been obsessed over you and feel fundamentally threatened by you and have just spent a good portion of their day begging for your attention. When I get a harassing email from a troll, I am immediately aware that someone had to read something they didn’t like, then go to google and look me up, find my website, find the email address in my website, spell it correctly, and then write out five paragraphs of outraged nonsense that I’m not even going to read. That’s so much work and it gives me great pleasure to press “delete” and go about my day.
I hope that this didn’t terrify you away from writing and instead made you feel more informed and prepared. Yes, online harassment and backlash is real and can be traumatizing but the reason why I’m still here doing this work is because the ratio of love and support, to negativity and backlash, is like, 100 to one. When you write with integrity and honesty, people respect that and will work to protect it and help you weather any internet storms. There are people who will try to make the price of having a voice too high to pay. If you write with care, and give love and respect to your fellow writers and your readers, and stay open to the love and respect that they have for you, you will be able to not only stand up against those who want you to be silenced, you will be better off for it. My life is so much better, so much more vibrant and clear, since I started writing. And I know that I’m making the world better and more vibrant and clear with my words. I want your words out here too, making my world a bit better and brighter for it.
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