Last week, School Library Journal posted an article called “Do we honor girl stories? The double standards of YA lit.” There’s lots of interesting points there, and it’s well worth a read, but the discussion of online criticism, and how the online community reacts to female authors being criticized vs male authors being criticized, led me to think, once again, about being “nice” on the internet.
I’ve talked about this a little before, but I wanted to dive into it again — what is the right level of “niceness” when discussing social issues on the internet, especially when discussing a particular individual’s words or actions?
At times, 2015 has felt like the year of “be nice.” Multiple times this year, when authors in the YA community faced criticism, the online community banded together to defend their right to kindness and free expression, even coining the hashtag “Keep YA Kind” when that criticism went “too far.”
And, inevitably, there has been backlash, with people claiming that the exhortation to “be nice” was used to shut down important discussions about discrimination. As the SLJ article notes, this “be kind” narrative most often appears when male authors face criticism, and opponents of the “Keep YA Kind” movement have argued that it’s used to silence legitimate criticism from marginalized groups.
I don’t think it’s controversial to argue that you shouldn’t harass people online, or that criticism isn’t the same as bullying or harassment. But a lot of this discussion of online “niceness” has become stuck in a false dichotomy, where “keeping things kind” is an anti-feminist act of oppression that gives everyone a free pass to be as sexist and racist as they like, and where participating in any kind of critical discussion is either 100% acceptable no matter what, or nothing more than cruel bullying, depending on who you ask.
The reality, I think, is somewhere in the middle. Yes, people online should be free to criticize and discuss problems that they see. But criticism and kindness can and should coexist.
We should all aim to treat people sensitively online, even if that’s a challenge at times. The internet creates a unique environment for criticism, where anyone can glance over a topic and weigh in, with any depth of knowledge and from anywhere in the world. Even if no one makes a single cruel comment about the person at the center of the ruckus, it’s likely to be incredibly intimidating. And no one ever heard of a large internet discussion where everything was detached and well-reasoned. People use hyperbole. People try to come up with the wittiest one-liner possible for the laughs and retweets. Some people are cruel just because they can be. And no one but the people involved can tell what’s happening behind closed internet doors, in inboxes and DMs. No one can possibly argue, categorically, that nothing cruel was said or no bullying was involved, except perhaps the owner of the inbox themselves. And when thousands of strangers are suddenly discussing you, even hyperbolic jokes must feel like mockery and dismissal of yourself as a human being.
Of course, people will argue that some people aren’t deserving of sympathy or sensitivity and that they bring these storms upon themselves. And yes, sometimes people are so purposefully offensive that it’s difficult to feel sorry for them when they feel the consequences of that. But most people who end up in the middle of Twitter storms, especially in the YA community, don’t appear actively malicious. They’ve just been thoughtless, or ignorant, using their words poorly and saying something they didn’t realize was problematic. Ignorance isn’t an excuse for the words or ideas expressed, but it does mean that the person probably does not deserve to have the weight of the angry internet fall upon them and drive them off social media for good.
That doesn’t mean that we should never criticize anyone’s words or actions. But I do think it means we should focus our discussions on the issues, and not on the fundamental nature of the people involved. Jumping up to say “So-and-so is problematic!” isn’t really helping anything. Its only effect is that some people get to feel self-righteous, the person involved gets to feel awful, and everyone gets a little more scared of online expression — including people who might have had incredibly valuable things to say. It’s better to discuss why something is a problem, and how things could be approached differently.
Because these issues are bigger than individuals, and when critics focus on the awfulness of the person speaking, their actual message gets lost. When people jump on the bandwagon to mock someone or make them into a joke, it becomes a Twitter Mob instead of a thoughtful discussion, and the story becomes about how so-and-so was attacked (usually, the story will insist, for no good reason) rather than about the issue at hand.
And if the person responds to this discussion by doubling down on their initial mistake and insisting that they’re right, as Meg Rosoff did earlier this year? Impersonal discussion is still the right way to go. People can’t be blamed for feeling angry, but god knows that thousands of strangers attacking someone on Twitter is unlikely to change anyone’s deeply held opinions, but important discussions can still be had about the words themselves.
“Be nice” can be a rather patronizing and dismissive response to criticism. But I think that by being sensitive, and focussing on issues over individuals, we can actually have much better critical discussions, while preventing ourselves from becoming the internet’s terrifying darker side in the name of “criticism” and “justice.”