Ten Tips for Surviving – and Learning From – an Internet Takedown

Call them what you want: takedowns, call-outs, beatdowns. They are ubiquitous in the heated, rapid-response world that we once called the “blogosphere.” Blogs as we knew them largely went out with the George W. Bush Administration, replaced by a social media-driven culture in which the prizes go to those who can formulate the quickest – and often cruelest – response to real or imagined outrages.

Takedowns thrive because we believe in them. Hardly anyone thinks every takedown is justified; hardly anyone would claim that they never are. When the target is someone we admire or care about, we’re outraged, complaining about “haters;” when the target is someone we loathe, we quickly rush to explain how “this time, it’s different,” and that our howls of indignation and clamors for blood (or firings, or ostracism, or whatever it is we want) are appropriate. We disagree over the question of which notorious (or merely micro-famous) figures deserve an online beatdown, but we’ve all bought into the questionable notion that they’re at least sometimes necessary.

So what can you do if it happens to you?

I’ve been reflecting on that question for a year, since a controversy around my career and my past erupted across the feminist blogosphere. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, see here and here for a start.) It’s not my intent to revisit the debate about my life and work, which led to calls for my arrest and my firing as well as to the loss of a number of speaking and writing platforms. Rather, what I would like to offer are ten things I’ve learned this year about how to get through, and grow through, one of these increasingly common beatdowns. You don’t have to find me a sympathetic figure to recognize that what happened to me regularly happens to others for whom you do care.

Here are ten tools I’ve learned for coping with a takedown

1. Don’t Immediately React Publicly.

When you suddenly find yourself under the microscope, everything you write (especially on your Facebook wall and Twitter feed) gets carefully parsed and – inevitably – cherry-picked to put you in the worst possible light. Force yourself to restrict not just from anger, but from sarcasm.

2. Don’t Retweet (or “Favorite”) The Haters.

I did this quite a bit early on, both in the hopes of generating sympathy by drawing attention to the most vile attacks, and to show that the critics hadn’t landed a really hurtful blow. Feigning insouciance may seem like the “better person” strategy, but it comes across as passive-aggressive. Favoriting hostile comments won’t come across as acknowledging the criticism, but rather as stalking behavior. The most famous advocate of retweeting and favoriting harsh Twitter comments was the right-wing gadfly Andrew Breitbart. Look what happened to him.

3. Separate Trolls from Threats.

When the controversy around me first blew up, I saw things on Tumblr and Twitter like “I wish someone would shoot Hugo in the head.” I got panicky and reported all such comments to the abuse departments of the various social media platforms. The reality was and is that these weren’t real threats, just ventings. Unless you’re a high-ranking federal official, you don’t have a dedicated agency like the Secret Service to investigate every threat made against you. You simply need to accept – and it isn’t easy – that the vast majority of comments like “I hope you die, motherfucker” are expressions of impotent rage. They’re scary but not dangerous. (Note: I have received two threats of harm I considered serious enough to report to my campus police. They were credible, local, and they were specific about what they intended to do.)

If you can outsource the “threat management” to a trusted friend who can help you discern ordinary haterade from the genuinely dangerous, so much the better.

4. Don’t Read the Comments – But Accept That You Probably Will.

Everyone gives this advice, and very few people take it. For months, I’d pledge not to read the comments (or the angry articles themselves) but then, in a weak moment, I’d break down and read them all. We’re trained to take an interest in what other people are saying about us, even if it’s awful. Learning to avoid that temptation takes time and conscious effort. It can be done, and for sanity’s sake, it’s worth doing.

5. Have Friends Who Support You Unconditionally

You need people in your life who will say, over and over “Your critics don’t know you. We do. We love you.”

6. Have Friends Who Support You – But Tell You the Uncomfortable Things You Need to Hear

There’s a grain of truth in every insult, and there’s a degree of justification behind every online beatdown. I needed unconditional support, but I also needed friends I trusted who could tell me where it was that I had made mistakes, where it was that my critics were spot on, where it was that I still needed to grow. It’s easy to fall into a defensive sense of martyrdom, but you miss a huge opportunity to learn and transform if you stay stuck there. I’m so grateful for the friends and family who could say “We love you, but honestly, your critics have a point about this or that.”

Good friends can help you see that not all those who are attacking your work are haters. It can be so hard to discern legitimate criticism from sheer meanness, because in a takedown, you get healthy doses of both. The longer you dismiss all of the former as being the latter, however, the more likely you are to come across as defensive and entrenched rather than open to learning something.

7. Stop Explaining Yourself.

A lot of us imagine that the reason we’re loathed is because we haven’t explained ourselves sufficiently. We imagine that if we were only more articulate, we could convince those who are furious with us to see things our way. We assume that other people’s dislike is rooted in misunderstanding, when in fact, they usually understand us all too well. Further explanations will come across as patronizing, and will often add grist to the haters’ mill.

8. Be Okay With Being Disliked

This is the tough one. I don’t say you have to enjoy it, but the reality is that no matter who you are, when you take strong stands, you’ll make enemies. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that those who scream at you loudest (in real life, or online) are representative of how the bulk of readers feel about you. But do accept that you will be disliked, often not just by anonymous trolls but by other prominent writers and activists who for any number of reasons find what you do and what you say to be worthy of their opprobrium. That’s the price of a public life, and it’s proof, as the saying goes, that you stood for something.

9. Set Aside Time Away from Technology

Dealing with a take-down can become a 24/7 job – if you let it. The emails and tweets come flying in (at its worst, I was getting several hundred hate messages a day), and posts and articles condemning you as the WORST PERSON EVER seem to appear hourly. Simply keeping track becomes overwhelming. If you must read (see tip #4) go ahead. But take time off.

Following advice from friends, this past summer I started taking a weekly technology Shabbat. At sundown Friday, I turn off my phone and my laptop and stay offline completely for the next 25 hours. At first, it can be scary wondering what’s happening that you’re not there to witness – but soon, it becomes liberating to disconnect. Soon you become known as someone unavailable that one day a week, and the world adapts. You, meanwhile, get to recharge.

10. Remember Your Desire to Write Is Stronger Than Their Desire to Silence You

Takedowns end. The mob gets bored and moves on. If you cared enough to write or say things that drew the attacks in the first place, then it’s likely that your passion for writing will outlast any storm of criticism. Learn your lessons, reflect on what you can do better. Make changes that make sense. And keep writing, trusting that the audience will return, and may even be bigger as a consequence of your very public controversy. Take the long view, knowing that some new crisis will occupy everyone in six months or a year. And if you take care of yourself, you’ll not only still be here, you’ll be doing better work than ever.

Bullying the Bullies or Challenging the Creepers? On Ending the Demand For Creepshots

Today’s column at Role/Reboot looks at the recent exposure of two of the Internet’s most spectacular “creeps” — and at the culture of male complicity that sustained them. Excerpt:

We need to see that in their own bizarre way, cyber-predators are as much exhibitionists as they are voyeurs. They derive obvious pleasure from violating young girls’ privacy. But as their boasting makes clear, an equally vital turn-on comes when they are recognized for their ability to source and post images that no one else can. It’s “kiss and tell” behavior in which the blackmail of children substitutes for the kissing, but the payoff is the same: other men’s praise.

It’s important to warn teens about the dangers of webcams, and it’s vital to hunt down nasty trolls like Brutsch and sadists like Maxson. We need to acknowledge, however, that this is a strategy that focuses on drying up the “supply” of images and videos that get posted online. The real solution lies in ending adult men’s demand for visual access to the bodies of the underage and the unsuspecting. That’s only quixotic if we believe that most straight men’s sexuality is both naturally predatory and naturally directed toward adolescent girls.

The currency of “creepshots,” “jailbait,” and blackmail isn’t sex. It’s power—the power to capture the image of a girl who doesn’t know she’s being photographed, or to shame her by endlessly reposting what was meant to be a private image. What drew male fans to Brutsch and Maxson wasn’t just the chance to see pubescent boobs, but to bond over the experience of another human being’s humiliation. Ending the allure of these forums will mean challenging men to make this kind of exploitation fundamentally unacceptable.

Deconstructing Hugo: Persephone finds the elusive middle ground

At Persephone Magazine, Zahra Tahirah shares her story of “friending” me on Facebook with the ulterior motive of exposing me for the “villain I thought he was.” Instead, she found a more complex story, which speaks for itself, and includes an interview with me.

It begins:

Hugo Schwyzer — ”Author, Speaker, Professor, Shattering Gender Myths” — was a villain to me. And when I started this article, it was my intent to show this. When I first came across his work as a reader of Jezebel, I found his work to be self-absorbed, and decidedly unfeminist. Over the course of about a year, I continued to hate-read his work, in particular the pieces on “facials,” creeps, and underage porn. I, as well as many other readers of his work, was furious. He tried to kill his ex-girlfriend! (One of the first searches that comes up when you pull up his name is “Hugo Schwyzer kill girlfriend.”) He slept with several students! He wants us to be degraded by facials! He outed his ex-wife! Why was this man with such an unsavory past being touted as the poster boy for feminism? Why was any man? Where we so entrenched in patriarchy that even the feminism movement couldn’t stand to have a woman at the forefront? I wanted to pour my anger in the form of an article in which I would attack and expose him for the villain I though he was. I wanted to probe into the world of Schwyzer to validate my own perception of him. However, what I found out along the way was rather surprising.

So much of what has been written this year about me has been without nuance. Though I don’t agree with everything that Zahra writes here, I’m so grateful for her willingness to engage with complexity, to hold contradictions in tension, and to work out her response in such a marvelous piece.

Read the whole post.

The Gendering of Online Takedowns: Anita Sarkeesian and Me

If you like the look of this blog, thank Anita Sarkeesian, who designed it and helped me launch this made-over site last summer. Anita is far more than a web designer, however; she runs the indispensable Feminist Frequency, which provides intelligent, thoughtful progressive commentary on popular culture. But in the past month, Anita has been under relentless attack online.

My column this week at Role/Reboot looks at what the trolling of Anita tells us about sexism online. Both she and I have found ourselves at the center of controversy this year, albeit for different reasons. Yet the real difference is in how each of us has been treated by those who despise us most. Excerpt:

Obviously, there are also key differences between how these two take-down campaigns began. Thoughtful voices can disagree as to whether my past actions (which, many years ago—while I was drinking and using drugs—included both sexual impropriety with adult students and an attempted murder-suicide with a former girlfriend) disqualify me from writing and speaking around issues of sexual justice and body image. To a far greater degree than Anita, I was the architect of my own adversity. My critics were responding, fairly or not, to truths I shared about my own past. Anita’s trolls are attacking her for the truths she’s exposed about them and the sexist video game world they inhabit. That’s a hugely important distinction.

At the same time, a take-down is a take-down. For different reasons, lots of people want Anita and me to stop doing the kind of public work we do. (I suspect that on the fringes of the men’s rights movement, some of our faultfinders overlap.) Regardless of the merits of the criticism, being on the receiving end is painful. To have one’s livelihood threatened is terrifying; to be mocked is hurtful. It doesn’t matter if one is male or female—the first time you realize that a great many people dislike you and wish you ill is always a shock. I don’t know if anyone ever gets entirely used to it.

In one posting about Anita, a gamer critic claims that she “wants equality for women in games (but) won’t take a shot to the balls like a man.” This is the classic sexist trope that women can “dish it out” but “can’t take it.” The reality, however, is that the “shots” that women take are invariably worse than the ones men are expected to endure. Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t have testicles, but she does have a face—a face that is repeatedly bloodied and battered in the latest vicious viral attack on her work and her image. The irony is that those who literally have “balls” are the ones dishing it out without any comprehension of what it’s like to be the target of so much sexualized, violent rhetoric. No male blogger, no matter how controversial or disliked, has ever been on the receiving end of anything comparable.

Read the whole thing.

Moving forward: an April update

I got a note yesterday that, with the author’s permission, I’m posting in order to answer her questions:

I follow you on Twitter and have bookmarked your blog; additionally, I
have read many of your pieces at various other blogs. In particular, I
loved your piece for Relevant (Beauty vs. Sexuality) and the one you
wrote recently about Jesus coming as a man
being essential to His
being the ultimate role model (I shed a few tears over that one). But,
I’ve also read a lot of backlash over your pieces, particularly from
the Christian community
; at times, I’m ashamed to be a part of that
community but I am in no way ashamed of my Savior Jesus or being a
follower of His. I guess I just wanted to ask you this: where do you
stand, religiously? And how do you feel about your past- particularly
when it gets thrown into your face? How do you reconcile what
happened, the choices you made, with your current profession (speaking
on behalf of women)? Do you think people, particularly these victims
of abuse who claim you have no right to speak without identifying your
past, have a right to ask that? I suppose I would
just love to have some of my own confusion cleared up so I can
understand your platform. Please continue to write- though I may not
agree with everything you say, I do enjoy reading your writings very
much…

(I added the hyperlinks to Kayla’s note.)

I’ll get to Kayla’s specific questions further down.

It’s been a while since I’ve written an update on the huge controversy that erupted in December. I can’t imagine that many regular readers are unfamiliar with what’s gone on, but one of the best (if imperfect) summaries ran in The Atlantic in mid-February. It’s as close to a fair recounting of the situation as exists.

I did a video interview about the blow-up in January 17 with the Feminist Theologian, click here for links to the four-part series.

On January 24, lawyers for my employer, Pasadena City College, enjoined me from speaking or writing further about the two most controversial aspects of my past: my sexual relationships with students when I was an untenured faculty member in the 1990s and the events of June 27, 1998, in which in the midst of a drug binge, I tried to kill both myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas. As it was explained to me by the college’s counsel, the administration appreciates that my behavior as a faculty member has been above board for almost fourteen years. On the other hand, in my past writing I alluded several times to the fact that a previous PCC administration was well aware both of my unethical sexual relationships with students — and of the details of my murder/suicide attempt. I confessed both to several administrators after getting sober. Though none of those administrators are still employed by PCC, the feeling of the current college counsel is that rehashing the story cast the school in a poor light. In other words, why wasn’t I dealt with more harshly? The college wants to make clear that it takes sexual misconduct by faculty very seriously (“consensual” faculty-student relationships are now classified as misconduct thanks to a policy that did not yet exist in 1998), and as a result, would rather not have the regular reminders of their leniency in my case. Continue reading

Farewell, Cliopatria

I was so sorry to read yesterday that Cliopatria, the group history blog, has closed down. Led by the kind and brilliant Ralph Luker, the site hosted commentary from a diverse group of historians, professors and graduate students alike. I wrote for Cliopatria on a nearly weekly basis during 2004-2005, and continued to contribute until 2007. Other than for my own blog, it was the first online forum in which my writing appeared. I was grateful for the wonderful community there; the spirited disagreements we had about history and pedagogy and politics; the chance to learn more about what it meant to “blog” in what now seem like the halcyon days of the medium.

Here’s the obit for Andrea Dworkin I wrote for the site.

A Friday Update on the Controversy

It’s been two months since the controversy over my past erupted in the blogosphere. The debate surrounding me has become bigger than I (or anyone I know) could have imagined. This week’s article in The Atlantic reignited the discussion, and has led to a new round of blogposts. Four for which I am personally grateful are here and here and here and here. I am also sincerely appreciative of posts which have been less friendly but no less thoughtful, such as this one.

Lawyers have done for me what I couldn’t do for myself: forced me to stop writing about the most controversial aspects of my situation. I’m not able to discuss publicly the nature of the legal injunction that bars me from speaking further about my pre-sobriety past, but can say that I am not currently under criminal investigation nor am I engaged in any civil litigation.

I can also say that silence on these matters is personally as well as legally necessary. This whole business has exacted a tremendous toll on my family and my friends. In order to prioritize my sobriety, and in order to remain the best husband, father, friend, son, brother and mentor I can be, I’ve needed to stay out of many of the most heated public discussions of my life, my writing, and my role in feminist community. It has been an extraordinarily painful and challenging time; I’ve lost many friends who have — for a host of reasons I won’t question — found it impossible to remain in relationship with me as a result of what they’ve learned about my history. Worse still has been seeing the pain that this has caused loved ones who are fiercely protective of me. By staying out of these debates, I’ve hoped to calm things for their sakes.

I remain convinced, as I wrote last month, that withdrawing from explicitly feminist spaces remains the best course of action. In the past, I have centered myself — or allowed myself to be centered — too often in those forums. While I do think that there is a role for men in feminism; it isn’t clear to me that someone with my past is a good candidate to take such a role. I believe in feminism today just as passionately as I did two months ago; indeed, the tools I learned in feminist community have helped me tremendously throughout this painful time. But it’s one thing to believe in feminism — and another altogether to be one of the better-known male faces of the movement.

I’m still listening to voices on all sides of this debate; some want me to continue to do public feminist work, some don’t. (The number of emails I get daily has fallen considerably, but I’m still getting 15-20 messages a day, evenly divided between the supportive and the condemnatory.) The voices I’m closest to remind me that it’s still too soon to make long-term decisions about the shape of my career. Though these last two months have seemed interminable, not enough time has passed for complete clarity to arrive. So things will remain in flux a little while longer.

As difficult as this controversy has been personally and professionally, I’m grateful for it. It has forced me to confront aspects of my personal and public privilege I hadn’t fully considered before; it has forced me to take responsibility for my cavalier attitude towards telling other people’s stories. It is an opportunity to grow, and I don’t want to squander it. Part of ensuring that this chance isn’t wasted is taking more time to reflect, to listen, and to say “thank you” over and over again.

Clarisse Thorn on Change and Accountability

I’ve managed to get myself into two separate internet controversies this past week. In a very thoughtful post at Role/Reboot, Clarisse Thorn responds to the one that didn’t involve the Good Men Project. Here’s On Change and Accountability.

Excerpt:

Have you thought about these questions in your own life? I don’t mean abstractly, as an intellectual exercise. Concretely, and with intention. What would you do if, tomorrow, you found out that your best friend was a rapist? Your lover? What would you do if your sibling came to you to confess a terrible crime? To request absolution? To request accountability?

These questions are not just applicable to an individual like Hugo. They’re applicable to all of us, in all kinds of situations. And I think it’s wise for us to give them some thought before they come up … because in the heat of the moment, we can be overwhelmed by questions we could have thought our way around if we addressed them beforehand.

Do you believe people can change? And if you do believe it, then how would you help someone change?

I’m very grateful for Clarisse, and am sorry that she (and Jill Filipovic of Feministe) have endured so much calumny on my behalf this week.

Meanwhile,some folks think I’m the Ginsu Knife Set of Wrongness in Human Form. Some people’s answer to Clarisse’s first and penultimate questions is a clear and simple “no.”

August Hiatus

I’m going on a short hiatus for the next few weeks. I’ll be in Israel and the PA, and then off to Montana to see some family.

I have a few upcoming pieces slated at the Good Men Project, including an interview with Warren Farrell about his White House Commission on Boys to Men. (Not to be confused with the White House Commission on N’Sync.) That should run within the next week. In the fall, I’ll be writing many other places as well, and have joined a second site (details to come) as a regular columnist. Less blogging here, more writing elsewhere.

This website itself will be undergoing a dramatic transformation. I’ve had the same template since November 2006, and it’s looking more than a little dated. The new site will be up and running by the end of August.

Quick update

For a Good Men Project piece, I’m interviewing Warren Farrell today. We’re polar opposites in terms of our approach to men’s issues, but I’m looking forward to a good discussion about his proposed White House Council on Men and Boys.

Lots of writing coming that will appear elsewhere first.