Community Is Hard. Deal With It.
DISCLAIMER: The contents of this post may not be agreeable to every reader. Reading this post may cause disagreement, hurt feelings, discomfort, frustration, boredom and/or anal leakage. The Author will not be responsible for any feelings of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, existential malaise or gastro-intestinal distress that might be caused by the reading of this post. CAVEAT LECTOR.
Here's something that I've been feeling badly about: I have, in recent months, been a terrible blog citizen. I have only sporadically wandered out into this virtual neighborhood and checked in with friends and neighbors and kept up on the goings-on and the what-for and all the stuff that keeps this community humming. And I feel badly about that, because the neighborhood - you - have been so good to me, constantly dropping in for visits and bringing me pies and casseroles and bunches of flowers and keeping me surrounded with so much company that (oh shame to admit this) I haven't felt that I needed to go out. Which is wrong, and I'm determined to change that as I feel better. Because I love this community.
I love this community even though it sometimes undergoes paroxysms of indignation that sometimes render it just a teeny bit intolerant. You can be cute when you're indignant, oh internets, but when that indignation turns into sour judgment and hand-slapping, I get a little frustrated. Do we never learn? Why do we, as a community, find it so difficult to maintain our bearing when the road of social life gets bumpy? Why does every conflict, big or small, turn into a harbinger of our destruction or decline oh woe is us? Why do we get so fucking cranky?
Many of you know the current story, even though most of the posts and tweets and hand-to-ear whispers about it played coy with the details. I won't be coy. Here's the story: Sweetney twittered a comment about Fussypant's blog, criticizing the similarity between the name of the latter and the name of another longstanding and very popular blog - Fussy - that many of us know and love. Sweetney's tweet - which I did not see firsthand because, as I said, I've been hiding in my virtual kitchen, only peeking out from behind the curtains occasionally, which causes one to miss stuff - was on the snarky side. Sweetney - or, as I know her (this here would be a disclosure of bias) mah beeyootiful beeloved Tracey - is snarky. She is opinionated. She is straight-talkin', don't mince words, don't hold back, got-somethin'-to-say-gonna-say-it honest, and sometimes that honesty comes with a bite. (She is also an all-around awesome person with an honest-to-goodness good soul, and I say that as a person with very discerning taste in souls. Mmm, souls.) Because that's who she is. And that's how honesty is, more often than not, if we're really honest about it.
The judgment from the internets was, from what I've seen and heard from behind my kitchen window, swift and merciless: Tracey's Twitter comment was deemed bad. It was - everyone said - mean. It was nasty. She was mean and nasty. How dare she? How dare anyone say something like publicly? Who was she to criticize another blogger for emulating another? Who was she to call it copying? NOT NICE. BAD TRACEY.
Ironically, but not unexpectedly, much of the judgment passed on Tracey has gotten pretty mean itself. In the posts and comments that I skimmed last night, I saw statements to the effect that she was nasty and arrogant, that she's just another mean girl, that her own blog is derivative, that she's like totally stuck up because she's popular omg and it's totally obvious that she's like threatened because that other blogger is like totally nice and omg you can just tell that she's mean because she doesn't follow as many people on Twitter as follow her. Also, she's singlehandedly undermining the spirit of the community because, did you know? SHE WAS NOT NICE.
Which, okay already, I get it - feelings got hurt and nobody likes that - but people? CALM THE FUCK DOWN. Because you know what? The furor over Tracey's comment is, I think, doing way more damage to the community - and says way worse about the community - than the comment itself. Because the blanket condemnation of Tracey for tapping out 140 characters into a Twitter box - characters that spelled out something critical of another blogger - amounts to a kind of censoriousness that I find a bit discomfiting.
There are a few issues here, as I see it, in considering that fateful Tweet: 1) was the criticism expressed in the Tweet wrong or inappropriate? 2) was it wrong that the Tweet was quote-unquote not nice? and 3) do either of those two issues, if confirmed as wrong, warrant censoring criticism?
1) Was the criticism wrong or illegitimate? Queen of Spain's was the only post I saw that actually tackled that issue directly. The analogy made in her post on the subject was to hamburger joints: McDonald's enjoys robust business on its street corner, and then one day another burger joint, Burger King, opens up shop on the opposite corner. Mickey D's might not like it, but it shouldn't criticize BK for just doing what it already does, right? Criticizing BK for just wanting a piece of the action is, like, a hallmark of hegemonic market domination, no? And anyway, there's enough room in the market for everybody so don't be a hog, McD's, 'kay?
Which is fine and good as a point of comparison except that in this case: a) it was not BK, but Mr. Mickey Donald's Burger Emporium that opened up on the opposite corner, and b) it wasn't McDonald's that criticized Mr. Mickey Donald's name and enterprise - it was a hamburger-loving (veggie-burger loving, in this case) observer who, between bites of crispy fries, said, oh hai, whaddup with Mr. Mickey Donald's and its Rainbow Arches over there, yo? Isn't that, like, not cool? So it's not like this was some obvious turf issue, as has been charged - the observer in this case has nothing to gain from making the observation. She was just expressing an opinion. A trenchantly critical opinion that rubbed some people the wrong way, and that was undoubtedly hurtful to the proprietor of Mr. Mickey Donald's Burger Emporium (who I'm sure is a lovely person who just thought that the name she chose was awesome and maybe didn't look across the street), but still. It was critical opinion - and entirely fair comment, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, because no matter how you slice it, a blog called Fussypants that is written by a blogger who signs off as Fussy begs comparisons to the longer-standing blog called Fussy that is written by a blogger who is widely referred to as Fussy - critical opinion that, it seems to me, has been dismissed outright simply because it was plainly critical (and, also, that it was made by someone quote-unquote popular, which is an argument that I cannot for the life of me fathom. What does Sweetney's - or Fussy's - popularity have to do with the legitimacy of the critical observation? Seriously? Do we all need a lecture on Nietszche and herd morality? DON'T MAKE ME.)
Is the suggestion here that we should not, in this community, be critical of each other? Bullshit. A community that proscribes criticism within is not a community, it's a cult. Or is it that we should not be critical of each other in public or semi-public forums? Also bullshit. We're bloggers - everything that we say and do as bloggers occurs in media for which the lines of public and private are well and truly blurred - a proscription of 'public' criticism is a proscription of all criticism, full stop. And a community in which open criticism is proscribed has no foundation for robust discourse. It is, as I said, a cult.
So if we allow that we are, as members of a community, allowed to criticize each other, and that the critical observation under dispute here is not an outrageous one - indeed, that it is, arguably, entirely reasonable as an observation, regardless of what conclusions you draw from it or how contentious you view it - where's the problem?
2) The criticism was 'not nice.' Tracey's critical observation of the similarities between Fussypants and Fussy (and other bloggers; I'm not going to address those broader concerns here) was not articulated delicately. She was up front about the fact that she was criticizing someone, and not just gently pointing out a social faux pas or a small green piece of parsley between their teeth. She made it plain that the conclusion she drew from her observation of the similarity between Fussypants and Fussy.com was that such similarity was, in her books, not cool. And that plainspokenness was, unfortunately, hurtful to the blogger known as Fussypants.
Of course it was. I would find it hurtful. I, in fact, find most criticism hurtful. I don't like have it suggested to me that something I've said or done might be wrong or inappropriate or in need of improvement. I want everyone to just love me and think that I'm awesome. Even the best intentioned criticism, the kind that is usually called 'constructive,' carries a bit of a sting. I is imperfect? Oh noes!
Criticism is almost always uncomfortable. Criticism, indeed, kinda sucks much of the time. Even when it turns out to be really helpful and promoting of growth yadda yadda blah, it's just not the funnest thing, you know? And of course, criticism that comes in plainspoken - or snarky - terms is the least funnest thing of all. But here's the thing: if we condemn anyone who utters criticism or makes critical observation - again, Tracey's supposed crime here was not name-calling or general nastiness, it was the making of an (albeit stinging) critical observation - we silence ourselves, to our detriment. Criticism keeps us, and our community, self-aware and self-reflective. Yeah, it stings, but that's why Socrates referred to himself - the greatest and most uncompromising of critics - as a gadfly: because no meaningful criticism fails to sting.
3) The problem, then: there's been almost no real critical commentary about the substance of Tracey's comment - almost everything that I've seen posted has condemned the fact of the observation-slash-criticism, and not addressed its substance. Everyone seems up in arms about the fact that there was a criticism, and that the criticism did or might have stung - the problem, apparently, being that Tracey dared say something that somebody might find hurtful, not that she was incorrect in her observation. Whether the argument implied in her comment was flawed or sound has, for the most, been left unaddressed, and this, I think, represents a missed opportunity - we could, instead of worrying about whether or not Tracey was too mean (a seventh-grade concern if I ever heard one) or whether her comment belies a vast Mean Girl conspiracy to preserve the mamasphere as the domain of some Trilateral Commission-like cabal of popular bloggers (which omg pleez), be discussing the ethics of propriety over blog names and blog personae and the relationship of this to the integrity of our community. Should we be trademarking our noms des blog plumes? Do we have any right to claim variations on names as our own? Do we have proprietary claims on innovations on style or content? How do we negotiate community when so much of our identities therein are associated with the brands - yes, I said brands - that we've (many of us) created? In the context of this community and these identities, am I Catherine, or am I HBM, and how would I feel if someone were going around calling themselves Her Bad Mommy or even Her Big Marmot and using the HBM acronym? Would I care? Would it matter?
The thing about these kinds of questions is, there's no way to discuss them meaningfully without stepping on toes and hurting feelings, at least a little bit, because discussing them meaningfully means discussing them critically, with reference to each other. Talking about the ownership of our identities and our spaces means drawing lines between you - me - us and asserting our independence from each other. Our is not a wholly cooperative social compact - we do not pursue and articulate a General Will - it's a network (a densely and intimately connected network) of individuals who work hard to make and define identities and spaces for themselves. We love and share and connect with each other - but we also define ourselves against each other, as distinct from each other. It's what makes our community so vibrant, so NOT mommybloggerdrone-like.
So why are we not asking these questions? Why, instead, do we all have our collective tits in a knot about whether or not someone in our midst was less than kind in raising a criticism about someone else? Are we not, as a community, so much bigger and better and more interesting than just are we nice enough? Was someone not nice enough? LYNCH THE PERSON WHO WAS NOT NICE ENOUGH. Seriously. By all means, let's endeavor to be kind, but let's not sacrifice inquiry and discourse and criticism at the altar of kindness.
If you honestly think that Tracey was wrong or misguided in her observations concerning Fussypant's blog, then address that issue. Argue the point - there are, after all, points to be made here. Say that you think it's perfectly fine for one blog to adopt a name that is very similar to another. Say that you think no writer or artist should have proprietary interest in variations on names or innovations in style or content. Say that you think that such things are contrary to community, and that community is key here. Those arguments are interesting, they really are. But fussing and bitching about whether Tracey was being mean in making a criticism to begin with? Not interesting. Not interesting at all. Demeaning, actually, to all us, because it suggests that we're not so much interested in critical debate as we are in making sure, above all else, that no-one's feelings get hurt.
We're a community. We live and love and learn in this space together. Feelings are going to get hurt, and they're going to get hurt all the time (if you don't believe me, do an archive tour of post-BlogHer posts for the last two years. Every year people write pages - pages - about feeling hurt and excluded and ignored.) That's community, always has been, from the beginning of recorded time: it's messy and ugly and rewarding and frustrating and thrilling and painful and fascinating and hard. That is, it is those things if we're doing it right. If we come to a collective stop - if we attack and persecute each other instead of engaging each other, if we question our very integrity as a community - every time someone's feelings get hurt, every time someone disagrees with someone else, every time things get a little uncomfortable, we're doomed.
(Go on - disagree with me. But don't call me a mean girl. I can be a pissy beeyatch, but I'm not a meanie, for reals. More to the point, neither is Tracey. Please to remember that.)
Comments to this post are now closed. It's been a productive discussion, but seeing as Sweetney and Fussypants have - YES - hugged it out and put it behind them, I think that it's time that we do the same. There'll be plenty of time for further debate about community, identity and the ethics of criticism at a later date, I'm sure ;)