By Meredith Farkas | January 11, 2007
My post earlier in the week may just have gotten more comments than anything I’ve ever written. I believe Steve Lawson called it “a great trainwreck of a comments thread.” In addition, I have received a dozen e-mails and IMs from readers of my blog extending their support. One of those e-mails was from my friend Josh Neff. He mentioned a term that I’d never heard before and that really struck a chord with me: charitable reading. I hope he doesn’t mind that I quote him here:
Having spent years on web forums where people got in the pissiest, snarkiest arguments I’ve ever seen (and sometimes been a part of), I’ve picked up on one thing that I think is crucial for any kind of internet discussion: charitable reading. Read what I’ve written assuming that I mean the best possible thing, not the worst.
Yes! In an environment where we often do not know personally the people whom we are addressing and can’t always discern their tone from their writing, we really should try to cut people some slack. I am not the sort of person who usually goes around trying to make people feel badly about themselves or what they do on my blog. I try to encourage people to do things. I tell people that anyone can write a book, anyone can speak at a conference, anyone can get their own column. In an area where most people are rather secretive, I am always willing to share details of how I got any of the amazing opportunities that have come my way in the hopes that it will help others. So why, when I try to write a post that admittedly was a bit muddled (though my intent was pretty clear), would people assume the worst about me?
I can understand someone asking for clarification. I am totally ok with someone disagreeing with me or even criticizing my ideas. I like a good dialogue. But for someone to tell me that I was trying to “shame” people into changing their writing? Really? And then asking me for clarification, but when I give it, continuing to attack me in comment after comment. I thought it would have been enough when I explained that I did not mean that everyone saying “me too” is exhibiting groupthink and that I meant to empower people to feel comfortable criticizing “sacred cows” not to make people feel ashamed of what they did write. But it wasn’t. And it becomes so clear that this does come from a very personal place when the commenter finally writes “Guess I’ll go back to ‘me-too’ posts and comments and take my chances boring people with a lack of opinion or disagreement.” Ouch!!!
There are three ironic/sad things about this. The first is that I know Jenny Levine. We have met on several occasions and had lunch when I was visiting ALA Headquarters for my wiki extravaganza in September. I did a podcast for her ALA 2.0 Bootcamp when she asked me to do it. I’ve always thought a great deal of her and have been so excited to read about what she’s been doing with technology and community-building at ALA. And I assume that she has never thought me to be a demon who tries to put people down and make them feel badly. The second is that last year I had strongly defended Jenny and Michael Stephens when another blogger was attacking them. Jenny thanked me personally for defending them and I responded “I think we sometimes forget that for every nasty criticism we make on our blog, there is a human being who may very well be hurt by it.” The third is that I don’t find her posts boring at all. I do wish she posted more because I always enjoy her insights when she does blog, but I get that she’s busy. I’m certainly a lot more busy and post a lot less than I used to. I wish there were more hours in the day, but what can you do.
So there are a lot of reasons why Jenny could have cut me some slack, but she chose to come at me with guns blazing. And even when I tried to make it clear that I didn’t mean to shame people and tried to clarify my thinking, she didn’t stop. For some odd reason, she couldn’t let it go.
But this isn’t just about Jenny. This is about every one of us who has ever jumped down another person’s throat online. I would probably guess that most of us have been guilty of this at one point or another. I know that’s why I don’t subscribe to listservs much anymore other than Web4Lib because people would always write things that would make my blood pressure rise. It’s just not worth getting excited over.
I know we can feel so distant from the people whose blogs we are commenting on (even when we know them), but we need to remember that there is a human being on the other side of this exchange who may be very hurt by what we write. There is a difference between being critical and attacking someone. I used to be a therapist and was a big fan of cognitive therapy, which posits the idea that you can see events in different ways depending on your world view, biases, or even just how you’re feeling that day. Someone getting an F on a test could think, “I’m an idiot and will never be good at anything” or they can think “well, if I study harder next time instead of watching Family Guy re-runs, maybe I’ll do better.” People obviously saw different things when they read my blog post on Monday. Some people saw a blogger who was trying to encourage people to not be afraid to criticize ideas that are thought of as “sacred cows.” Other people read it and saw it as an attempt to shame people into writing differently.
How would you like to see people? We have a choice in the way we view and react to things. I don’t think we should constantly worry about being polite and agreeing with what everyone else says by any stretch of the imagination. What’s so great about the blogosphere is the dialogue; not a monologue. But when has someone changed their mind after being attacked? Who has said “well, now that you’ve jumped down my throat, I really see your point and agree”? They may feel intimidated (especially if the blogger is a major A-lister or a well-known librarian) and raise the white flag, but chances are, you won’t change their mind. What will change their mind is a persuasive argument… a smart criticism. Jumping down someone’s throat has little benefit other than to let you vent your spleen. Is it really worth it?
Probably the saddest thing I read this week was an e-mail from a friend of mine who wrote “all of this brouhaha over your blog post is another example of why I am absolutely deathly afraid of creating a library blog.” It’s such a shame, because she is smart, honest, pragmatic and a great librarian. Whatever shuts down dialogue, be it over-politeness or intimidation, is really an unfortunate thing. I promise to do the best I can to encourage people to express themselves; not to beat them down when I’m not even 100% sure of their intentions.