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:
I find it… strange that a mediocre website can decide it wants to be a publisher, and one month later hit #1 on the NYT Bestsellers list. pic.twitter.com/RS1UoWl6H4
— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
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?Pin It