August 29, 2017

When Does Disagreement Become Bullying?

Two men arguing on a couch with text: Can We Disagree without Being a Bully?

Before I get into this post’s topic, let me say that I probably shouldn’t tackle this subject today. Not because of the controversy (which I’ve dealt with here before), but because I’m still recovering from my emergency surgery last week (yep, my surgeon had to undo the past year’s worth of work *weeps*).

That means I’m probably not going to word things well and forget to make certain points, etc. But several situations related to the line between disagreeing and bullying have been swirling through Publishing Land recently, and I want to address the subject while it’s relevant.

All that said, I’m sharing my opinion in this post, and you might have a different opinion. That’s okay. I might even change my thinking by being reminded of perspectives I forgot in my current medicated state. Which brings me to my first point… *smile*

Is Disagreement Healthy?

We can probably all agree that bullying is bad. The purpose and intent of bullying is to intimidate, control, and harm others. But what makes disagreement different from bullying?

I think part of the reason why there’s no clear-cut agreement on where the line between disagreement and bullying lies is because many of us are extremely uncomfortable with disagreement.

Some of us avoid conflict at all costs in real life, and disagreement can feel like conflict. Most people would prefer for everyone to get along.

But as I’ve said so many times here about our writing goals, we’re all different. What some of us value or need from our writing career is different from what others are looking for.

If we continue with that example of our writing goals, those differences mean we’re going to disagree about the “best” way to do something. We might share emotional opinions or logical facts to back up our perspective. Online, that disagreement might come out in heated discussions with people proclaiming the other side is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Despite the discomfort, that type of disagreement can be healthy. Onlookers can read the different perspectives and learn which resonates with them and their goals or situation. Those with an opinion one way might change their mind once they discover new facts.

In other words, differences—especially when paired with facts, motivations, or reasoning—can inform, open minds, and help people identify others with similar ideas. That’s healthy.

Discomfort Is Not Bullying

That said, as I mentioned above, disagreement isn’t always comfortable:

  • Conflict of any type can be distressing.
  • No one likes being told they’re wrong.
  • Heated emotions can feel like attacks.
  • Many voices can feel like a pile-on of attackers.
  • Having our ideas (stories) picked on can feel personal.
  • Etc., etc.

However, just because we feel uncomfortable or disagree with a message doesn’t mean we’re being bullied. I’ve watched the “bad author/mean reviewer” debate for years, and in about half the cases, I disagree with those claiming victimhood.

A bad review isn’t bullying. A reviewer talking about how much they hated a book isn’t bullying. A bunch of people all discussing how much they hated a book still isn’t bullying.

We all get it. It would suck to experience hatred and vitriol against a story that we poured so much time and mental/emotional energy into. And if a group all says “Don’t buy this book,” there’s no doubt that would feel like an attack.

But not everything that hurts us or feels like an attack is bullying. And honestly, people claiming victimhood for things that are essentially disagreements take away from those who really do experience bullying. Those false claims dilute our understanding of how bad bullying really is.

How Is Bullying Different from Disagreements?

In contrast to disagreements about ideas or perspectives—or a disagreement feeling personal—bullying is personal. Bullying is an attack. That’s its purpose and intent.

As I said above, bullies intend to intimidate, control, or harm a victim:

  • Rather than simply being told they’re wrong, a bullying victim will be told they don’t deserve to exist (such as saying they should die, kill themselves, etc.).
  • Rather than simply involving heated emotions, a bullying victim will be personally threatened (such as rape or death threats or have their private information—address, etc.—revealed).
  • Rather than simply being the indirect target of a group of people saying mean things, a bullying victim will be directly targeted with actions that attack their personhood.

In some—but not all—cases, a targeted attack on their livelihood would count too. “Threatening someone’s livelihood” by spreading the word about an opinion of a book could be bullying if it includes personal attacks on the author (along the lines of the top bullet above) or comes from an intent to directly harm the author.

However, a reviewer spreading the word about their opinion of a book wouldn’t be bullying if their efforts came from a different intent, such as an intent to prevent harm to others. In many cases I’ve seen with authors claiming victimhood, the reviewer and others are trying to warn potential readers about what they believe are harmful messages in the story, much like trigger warnings.

Sure, those efforts might very well harm an author’s livelihood, but that’s an indirect effect. The author isn’t the intended target, and just because the author disagrees on whether the harmful messages exist doesn’t make the other side bullies.

Yes, feeling ganged up on would absolutely suck, but again, not everything that hurts us is personal…or bullying. The difference can often come down to intent—which is tricky to ascribe to others—and that’s why it can be so hard to find the line.

Example #1: The NYT Bestseller List Scam

In case you didn’t hear last week’s news, an unknown book that no bookseller had in stock by an unknown author from an unknown publisher crashed onto the Young Adult New York Times Bestseller List at the #1 spot. It’s virtually impossible for a book to reach that spot without any preorder buzz, press releases, marketing, etc.

YA writer Phil Stamper noted the oddness in a tweet that was heard throughout the YA (and much of the Book) Twitter community:

Soon writer Jeremy West joined the hunt with updates on Twitter, and they began collecting data from booksellers around the country who said they’d received calls to order the out-of-stock book. These orders were just shy of what would be flagged as a bulk order (which wouldn’t “count” the same way for the NYT list).

In other words, the author and/or her associates tried to “buy” their way onto the bestseller list, likely to try to get a movie deal. (Although since the book actually isn’t in print, after making the list, they could cancel the orders and not have to pay a cent—or have any sales at all, real or fake.)

Kayleigh Donaldson documented Phil and Jeremy’s findings (and all the twists and turns of an investigation worthy of those “meddling kids” in Scooby Doo cartoons—quite apropos for the YA community *grin*). She shared all the information in a post that must be read to truly understand the crazy layers of the story.

(For example, the story-behind-the-story includes the nowhere-close-to-a-teen author planning to star as the heroine in the movie in the ultimate Mary Sue character, connections to the casts of Buffy and Twilight and the bands *NSYNC and Blues Traveler, writing that rivals a fanfiction story famous for being the worst-ever, not to mention a plagiarized cover and maybe Dixie Chicks song lyrics used without permission, so… Yeah… Crazy.)

Within a few hours, the New York Times confirmed the investigative work of Phil and Jeremy, and they updated the list to remove the fraudulent book listing. (Which was especially appropriate as—even ignoring the fake purchase issue—the book focused on mid-twenty-year-old characters and shouldn’t have been on the YA list at all. *sigh*)

Of course, the next step was the author claiming that she’d been bullied off the list by the intrepid YA detectives. Um, no. She was caught, and she’s covering up her guilt by attacking others.

Phil, Jeremy, and Kayleigh’s only motivation was to figure out how this book that didn’t seem to really exist made it onto the chart—at the #1 position no less. That was their intent.

They never personally attacked the author. They never tagged her in tweets, enabling a rage-mob, etc. They didn’t demand or harass NYT to change the list—they just shared their information and let NYT do their own due diligence.

This wasn’t about intimidating or harming the author. This was about finding the facts to determine the truth behind the odd circumstances and ensure the books that had really earned their spot on the list landed there as deserved.

Facts that we don’t like or disagree with might be uncomfortable, hurtful, or work against our goals in frustrating ways. But it’s not personal, and it’s not bullying.

Example #2: An RWA Forum Conversation

(Note: Because the conversation took place on a private forum for members of the PAN (Published Author Network) group of RWA (Romance Writers of America), I have not and will not publicly share names or quotes. If you’re a member of PAN, you can find the thread here. Given that we’re talking about RWA, however, it reveals nothing to share gender, as the majority of members are women. *smile*)

Over the weekend, an “old school” big-name author and member of RWA started a thread in the PAN forum about her perception of changes in the organization. Her complaints seemingly focused on everything from self-published authors being allowed to enter contests to attention being paid to marginalized authors.

RWA—and publishing in general—has long mistreated marginalized authors. For example, authors of color had their books segregated under a separate imprint at Harlequin until just the past year or two, and publishers still make excuses for why they don’t know how to sell stories with diverse elements (although many self-published authors manage to sell them just fine).

On the other end of her complaint, until a few years ago, e-published authors weren’t treated as real authors within RWA. And previously, self-published authors couldn’t join PAN at all.

I’m happy to say that RWA is now attempting to make up for past mistakes by reaching out to authors who were previously made to feel unwelcome. And the response to her post—with hundreds of authors sharing their support for the new direction of the organization—turned what could have been an extremely hurtful thread into one giving the membership hope.

But when the original poster came back to the thread, she resisted acknowledging the facts, such as in regards to the changing nature of the industry. She didn’t want to answer questions asking for clarification of her position (which were asked multiple times in a non-hostile attempt to not jump to conclusions about her intent).

Instead, for the most part, she doubled-down on her statements, which had a strong stench of bigotry (and she refused to clarify her complaints to refute that impression). No surprise, she felt attacked when no one took her side, and then she claimed to be a victim of bullying.

Again, disagreements are not bullying. In the PAN forum, the discussion stayed shockingly calm, professional, and logical. There were no personal attacks or name-calling, just people sharing their stories of previously feeling unwelcomed, correcting her assumptions with facts, and refuting her points from various business, readership, and statistical perspectives.

Although I disagree with every aspect of her post, I can still put myself in her shoes enough to guess at what it must have felt like to have hundreds of people disagreeing with her. It probably felt overwhelming, like a smothering dog-pile.

But the size of the group alone doesn’t indicate bullying. She posted in a forum with over a thousand members. The number of replies isn’t indicative of anything other than the membership standing up and saying, “No, this is not who we want to be as an organization.”

Whether she meant to or not, her post hurt several hundred people. The intent behind the response wasn’t to hurt her in return, but to try to heal that hurt by reassuring those whom she implied didn’t belong that, yes, they did belong at RWA.

Just because others didn’t rally to her side doesn’t mean anyone was out to hurt her. Any hurt she feels is a result of not having her opinion validated. That’s not bullying.

Not All Hurts Are a Result of Bullying

Sometimes when we’re hurt, others are to blame. But sometimes we’re hurt because we’re disappointed or discouraged or because people are disagreeing with us.

Those hurts aren’t necessarily someone else’s fault. Sometimes, that’s just life.

We shouldn’t try to claim the mantle of victimhood from real bullying victims just because we’re hurt. That claim is a distraction from the facts, and it’s an insult to real victims of bullying.

Like many, I was bullied in school. Classmates grabbed me and attempted to physically harm me. It’s easy to define that as bullying.

Cyberbullying is obviously a different situation, and I think as a society, we’re still trying to define what exactly it encompasses. But as a victim of bullying, I want to caution us from the rush to proclaim all hurts as the result of bullying.

Acknowledging that a hurt wasn’t due to bullying doesn’t mean that we’re erasing or ignoring the pain. We can be upset about being hurt without trying to claim a certain kind of victimhood.

While we all hope for a kinder society, I hope that we can also see that receiving death threats isn’t the same thing as having our feelings hurt. It’s not others’ responsibility to validate our perspective.

A lack of validation isn’t an attack, no matter how much it might hurt. Sometimes we have to own our own hurts and move forward the best we can. *smile*

Do you disagree with my take on where the line falls between disagreeing and bullying? Did my surgery-recovering state make me forget a perspective in my rant? *smile* Have you felt bullied in the writing community before? What caused that feeling? Do you want to share any other examples of real bullying or false claims of bullying?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Carradee / Misti

The line between disagreement and bullying is actually fairly easy to define, though not so easy to spot, and you mentioned one major flag in the RWA example: When disagreement incorporates name-calling or other verbal and psychological abuse, it’s bullying. Feeling hurt actually has little to do with identifying bullying; the manipulative type of bullying is far more likely to leave a person feeling bewildered or angry. There are word choices and syntaxes that are common among such abusive/toxic persons. That means folks much familiar with such abuse can often spot it pretty easily, leaving others to think them paranoid or jumping the gun. This is, I think, one of the reasons privileged groups and suppressed groups have difficulty communicating. If your mother is abusive and her public “I love you” means she’s about to engage in massive guilt-trips and other manipulation, then you are going to respond with doubt or caution, and witnesses who don’t know or understand or believe that subtext and precedent exists are going to call your reaction cruel, rude, paranoid, etc. And sometimes survivors do jump the gun—especially via written communication, which loses so much context so any turn of phrase is heard in the way a person’s used to hearing it, rather than necessarily what a person’s context is actually saying—but it’s not without reason. That reason just might have more to do with the hearer than the speaker. How a person responds once such overreaction or misphrase is pointed out says a lot…  — Read More »


I’d say there’s an area that goes further than simple disagreement but doesn’t get as personal as bullying that happens to writers and that’s where readers get into ‘witch hunt’ mode. A reader has a personal dislike of something and leaves a bad review. That’s disagreement. If they have a personal axe to grind and they round up all of their friends or form some kind of group to attack writers then it gets way beyond disagreement.

I have one book with a slight cliffhanger and got a bad review in on it. Fair enough. But then that review got over 50 helpful votes in a very short period of time. Those votes weren’t organic but obviously some organised effort against writers using cliffhangers (I’d bet money on it coming from Goodreads too).

I’ve seen that kind of behavior against writers for all kinds of reasons. It’s not nearly as bad as people who say shelve books under tags like “writers who deserve to be raped” but it is trying to manipulate writers.

Anne R. Allen

Great piece, Jami, and I’m amazed you managed to write it while going through such difficult medical stuff. I wish you a speedy recovery!

I saw another instance of bullying accusations this week. A blogger who writes at a fairly big publication on Medium and claims to be writing a book on self-publishing stated flatly that some well known self publishing outfits, including Amazon, were “scams” who had cheated her. It was clear she had no idea how the publishing industry works, and she thought that to offer a book for sale, an online retailer should pay for it first.

So I left a comment saying that this isn’t a scam, it’s the way the business works. Apparently three or four other people–mostly high profile industry insiders–left similar comments. So the clueless self-publisher blocked all of us and claimed she was being bullied.

Nobody called her names or made ad hominem attacks. One publishing professional said she shouldn’t be writing a book on a subject she didn’t know anything about, but that was the harshest criticism. But she cried “bully.”

Like the YA book scammer and the bigot you mention above, this blogger had actively caused the problem and the commenters were trying to remedy it. (She was also libeling some big companies. She may suffer legal repercussions.) The professionals were stating facts, not bullying her. If you disagree with reality, you’re not a victim of bullying–you’re a victim of your own delusions.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Related to what Kathryn said, I also think there’s a realm in between simple disagreement and outright bullying…For example, someone may not be bullying or malicious per se, but they could still be disrespectful towards you. Sometimes, they don’t realize they’re being disrespectful, and may think they’re just being “logical/ rational/ honest.”

Eh, I recently encountered someone who was very disrespectful of nonbinary people’s pronouns…Not going to quote them here, but basically they thought our pronouns are nonsensical and ridiculous. :/ After I told them how hurtful it is for them to say that, they said that I was being “emotional” and that I shouldn’t expect to have any nonbinary allies. =_= Anyhow, I think this person wasn’t attacking or bullying me, but they were very disrespectful, dismissive, and simply offensive. From my point of view, they were ridiculing and insulting the entire nonbinary trans community! Of course, others may disagree with me and think I should have been more patient with this person, since they are probably just ignorant and didn’t know how to word things in a respectful way. But in my opinion, I do not have a responsibility to educate someone who doesn’t seem to care a jot about my or other nonbinary people’s feelings.

To make a crude analogy, it’s like asking a mathematician about some problems in calculus, and then mocking and belittling all of the mathematician’s explanations. =_= No one would want to keep explaining to you if you keep dissing whatever they say.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

(Yikes, is it just me, or have all the spaces between my paragraphs disappeared?)

Carradee / Misti

Sieran, that example of disrespect and dismissal, putting words in others’ mouths, is psychologically abusive, a manipulation designed to undermine the other person’s confidence. That makes it bullying, regardless whether it’s calculated with intent or parroted out of ignorance that can ultimately be traced back to such a calculating person as the point of origin (sometimes as a covert and indirect manipulator).

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Sorry for the very late reply! I was rushing a long paper for the past several days, haha.

Thanks for your empathy and understanding!

My gosh, yes, I felt that this person was trying to undermine my confidence too. It took a lot of willpower for me to assert myself and to reassure myself that I was right, that the person was indeed being insulting and that I wasn’t just deluded or overly sensitive. (A friend of mine who saw the comments agreed that what the person said was terrible, so it definitely wasn’t just me who felt the comments were very hurtful.)

Yes! Even if this person was just mindlessly parroting ignorant beliefs, this does not give them the excuse to be so disrespectful!

P.S. Carradee, I don’t know if you’ve already guessed or if Jami told you, but I’m your Wattpad buddy The-Gengar-Twins. ^^ I changed my name as part of my transitioning.

Carradee / Misti

No apology necessary. 🙂 To be frank, feelings of offense are a shit metric for offensiveness, for multiple reasons. First, some folks choose to be offended and look for or create reasons to be that way. Second, everyone has different backgrounds and therefore different associations and triggers. Third, everyone is normalized to various things we don’t realize are offensive—to others or ourselves—because we’ve been brought up with nuances of definition or with assumed transitions that aren’t universally understood. Tbh, I could probably keep going if I thought about it, but the real issue is that the only feeling that really matters in any discussion with someone else is your gut feeling that something’s wrong, especially when it’s paired with utter bewilderment that persists, or a feeling that they’ll understand if you just explain properly. Seriously, if you have that “Something’s wrong” gut feeling about someone who confuses you and leaves you fumbling to just help them understand, it’s a good idea to politely excuse yourself ASAP and get the hell away. The likelihood of them being toxic is high. A number of toxics also fake various conditions, or have diagnoses and use them as excuses for their behavior. If you are inexperienced with some disabilities, they might trigger that “something’s wrong” read, without being toxic. This is unfortunate, but frankly, if you’re that inexperienced with the disability, you’re probably going to be stumbling into some everyday offenses that they encounter. So you can excuse yourself and go learn about it…  — Read More »

Carradee / Misti

P.S. I didn’t know. I’m glad to see you around. 🙂

Deborah Makarios

Thanks for writing this! And please accept my best wishes for your imminent health and happiness!

Christne Kohler

Very thoughtful post. I hope you are feeling better and recouping from your surgery. I called a group of YA authors & Goodreads librarians out for bullying a debut author. Instantly they called me names, accused me of being an Islamphob, which is not true.. Then they went on Goodreads and posted one-star ratings on my latest book, a YA novel, and admitted they would not read the book, saying I was Islamphobia. It didn’t hurt me because I’m somewhat established, but the debut author lost her contract from one of the Big 5 publishers because of how her book was rated 1-star on Goodreads BEFORE THE ARC WAS EVEN RELEASED. It was a lighted-hearted Romance, too, nothing controversial or political. i’d say that was bullying with the intent to do harm to her writing career.

My first four children’s books were published in 1985, so I’ve been at this pubishing biz for a long time. It’s a sad shame how children’s lit went from being a supportive tight community to the uncivility we are seeing today.

Teresa Robeson

I’ve been bad about reading blog posts recently, but I’m so glad I read this! Very well written, Jami; I could not agree more. I hope you’ll recuperate from the surgery quickly.

Donna L Hole

“people claiming victimhood for things that are essentially disagreements take away from those who really do experience bullying.”

The above is an awesome statement. It seems to me that people can take more offense than is intended in simple disagreements. I agree with you on this point. Not everyone is of the same opinion, be it writing, fashion, religion, or politics.

I live in the US. I am proud to be an American. But for a country (people) so dead set to proclaim their support of diversity, we sure are quick to either claim being bullied, or to bully those that are different.

I think it takes a confident person to recognize the difference between bullying and disagreement- even when strong language is used. I’ve noted, however, that writers are generally a sensitive group of people, and many get seriously offended if anyone isn’t interested in their writing. Those that do well (or are at least secure with their abilities) know that not everyone is gonna like their writing.

Bullying is offensive. I don’t believe authors need to have such “thick skin” as to let everything slide off them, but they should not cry “offense” when someone just doesn’t like their writing. Even if the reviewer states “that writer sucks.” True Bullying does not happen in a vacuum; others have to participate. Otherwise, its just one person’s objection, and can be easily waived off.

An apt and timely article Jamie. Thank you for compiling it.

Carradee / Misti

I’m convinced that a goodly portion of the misplaced sensitivity stems from thinking of stories as “babies”. Stories aren’t babies.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks for the info on the NYT ‘bestseller’ that was neither published nor sold. Like one of those lottery winner scams, just gaming the system. Strangely it occurred to me that the NYT is known for investigative journalism. Did none of their fine reporters, etc etc. Ah well, this is why I do not concern myself with bestseller lists very much.

I actually thought the tale was going to be about the producers of rubbish short story collections that are downloaded to read on Amazon, same stories in a different order with a different title every week, by click farms, in order that the authors make money on the basis of pages read. I’ve been reading quite a lot about that on authors’ blogs recently. However, Amazon has sent around a mail saying they are changing how pages read are dealt with and I’ve no doubt they will be dealing severely with the scammers.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Bullying is nasty, don’t do it.

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