23 Nov 2015
Have you seen what the politician leading Australia just said? What a load of rubbish! How can any right-thinking Aussie support such a menace is beyond me. This waste of a carbon-based life form is a Foster’s-swilling, boomerang-cracking, digeridoo-thumping, wallaby-eating wanker of the first water, and if you agree with him you’re one as well!
[End Blog Post]
Not all political opinions can be as nuanced, gracious, witty, and wise as the above, and therein lies the problem with expressing your thoughts and opinions, especially when they go beyond your area of expertise.* Your online persona could have a great effect on your writing career.
[* Before you e-mail me, let me say that I LOVE Australia, and that includes the Sydney Opera House, Miss Fisher, Men at Work, Uluru, “Waltzing Matilda,” Banjo Patterson, Eric Bogle, “In a Sunburned County,” Ern Malley, Jan Morris, “The Last Continent,” and the Philosophy Department of the University of Woolloomooloo (Python Video NSFW).]
Before the Age of the Internet, you had to make an effort to upset your readers. Unless you were a high-profile writer, such as Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway, few people beyond your friends and family would get to hear your opinions. Unless you wrote a best-selling book in the right genre, usually literature, reporters and interviewers were not going to be interested in your opinion of nuclear disarmament or the Vietnam War.
Now, all that’s gone. You don’t even have to be a moderately-selling author to discover what happens if you tweet a joke someone decides is inappropriate. Ask the spokeswoman for media mogul Barry Diller, who tweeted to her 443 followers that she was “going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She apologized, but she also lost her job and was abused by thousands of strangers worldwide.
But she was a high-profile executive in a major corporation. Her job was communications. Maybe she deserved the reaction to a tasteless “joke” she expressed on the fly. It certainly didn’t help that, as a public relations executive, many of her followers were probably in the media as well, whose retweets were more likely to be spread around.
But the Internet is a democracy of voices. Anyone can find themselves the target of criticism. Like the 26-year-old student in Texas who tweeted the day after a police officer was shot in the back of the head. The day after, she tweeted to her 70 or so followers:
“I can’t believe so many people care about a dead cop and NO ONE has thought to ask what he did to deserve it. He had creepy perv eyes.”
Unfortunately for her, Brandon Darby of the conservative news website Breitbart Texas found it and retweeted it to his 25,000 followers, telling her: “You have no idea how much you will regret having been this cold. Enjoy your coming fame!”
The woman found herself on the receiving end of numerous death threats to her mobile phone (which someone leaked online). She closed her social media accounts and apologized. Her family members apologized. (She said in an interview she was trying to contrast the officer’s death to the killings of black men by white officers, and expected few people to see it. As for the reaction, she felt like “an outside party watching it happen, I didn’t really feel hurt by the comments because it just felt like they’re ghosts—it wasn’t people that I know … or care about their opinion of me.”
What’s Your Online Persona?
Those were extreme examples, but they prove a point that anything you say online carries with it a risk of being misinterpreted or perceived as offensive. It may not be a problem when you’re expressing a preference for the Philadelphia Eagles versus the Dallas Cowboys, or the Rolling Stones over The Beatles, or even “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” over the original.
But what about your opinion on the number of women authors on “The New York Times” best-sellers list? Or global warming? Or abortion? Or the last presidential election? Stepping on the wrong foot into those areas can affect your public persona and your potential book sales.
Take Orson Scott Card, the popular award-winning author whose books have won science-fiction’s Hugo and Nebula awards. His beliefs on homosexuality and gay marriage, an outgrowth of his Mormon faith, exposed him to criticism and calls for boycotts.
Those are overt effects, and chances are you’ll never be confronted with a call for a boycott. But exposure to criticism can have a personal effect on you, depending on the toughness of your skin. If you’re the type to flinch at an Amazon 1-star review, you may want to think twice about entering the public sphere spouting anything that might cause a bad reaction.
Then there’s the effect of alienating your potential readership. It’s one thing if you espouse conservative or liberal causes in your work—that will naturally act as a red flag to part of the potential audience—it goes with the territory. If you write stories devoid of political content, do you really want people to go elsewhere because of your partisan opinions?
The Saga of Abusive Author
As I write this, I’ve been thinking of a best-selling genre author I’ve known for years. I read and enjoyed his first of books and looked forward to more of them. Let’s call him AA, for Abusive Author.
His blog was a pleasure to read, except when he talked about politics. Not every post. He’d write about his books or something he saw on tour or some funny stuff in general. Then, *BAM* it was a jab at a politician whose politics didn’t match his own.
After reading several of these posts, I figured out what was bugging me about Abusive Author. He never directly engaged with the issues; it was always about personalities. That person looks funny, he said something stupid, he’s responsible for that terrible thing. Never mind what the facts were. He would ruthlessly delete comments he didn’t agree with and issue threats against further posts along those lines. He would write posts on the outliers in that party who were saying goofy things, and his humor was personal, gratuitous, and unfair.
Even though I tried not to let that side of AA bother me, I discovered that reading his posts left me angry and distracted. I’d be shaking over the unfairness of his remarks. He seemed to have anger issues that he could work out by flaying the other side. I found myself flinching when I called up a new post, worrying what effect it would have on me. It got to be so bad that I stopped visiting.
Every once in awhile, I’d think of AA and drop in to see what was up. I missed a couple of his new releases, then picked up the latest from the library instead of buying a copy like I used to. Then I’d read another nasty post, the reaction would return. So I stopped cold turkey. I had to accept that I was better off without AA.
It had nothing to do with his fiction—he even expressly said that he took great pains not to let it influence his characters. But his public persona was so toxic that it was better to find other authors in that genre to follow and move on.
(I should also note that I’ve read works by other authors whose politics are similar to my abusive author’s. Some have even gone on record about their beliefs. As with storytelling, it matters just as much how you express yourself as what you are saying.)
You could say that AA didn’t suffer for his opinions. He still publishes books, and they still sell. I’ve seen similar opinions online about the same author, so I know it wasn’t just me, and I wonder if he would sell more and be better regarded by the genre’s fans, if he didn’t let his political bile out so often.
Should I Shut Up?
In a word: No. I don’t think you should. But you should take the same care with your free speech as you would with your political speech.
What does that mean?
1. Pick your fights. When the urge hits to respond on your social media, ask yourself: Is this where I plant my flag? Is this the right cause? It’s so easy to react to everything that you can waste resources writing effectively about those issues that matter to you most.
2. Pick your words. In her head, the 26-year-old student might have been making a point about which deaths matter more, but it didn’t come out that way. If you’re going to put your thoughts on the Middle East out there, put as much work into expressing yourself as clearly as possible, as much as you would your best writing.
3. Be firm about your beliefs. I mean educate yourself about the issues you’re passionate about. Learn from both sides; being a strident advocate firmly in one camp will leave you open to counter-arguments.
4. Most importantly: Stand behind what you write. If you’re going to charge into the fray, know that you’re going to take flak, and you’ll look worse shilly-shallingly in the face of criticism. Unless you discover you were horribly misinformed or misread the situation—in which case you’re better off apologizing and retiring from the field—stand your ground against the wave of criticism.
And, if you’re sure you want to do this, make sure your phone number’s unlisted.