The comment wars: when apologizing isn’t good enough for your haters

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This is a guest post by Jenna Myers Karvunidis, whose blog, High Gloss and Sauce, is part of the Tribune’s ChicagoNow blog network.

I’m not a bigot. But if you Google my name it says I am. All thanks to an innocuous post I wrote last fall about my daughter’s pre-school.

It all began when dropping her off on the first day of school. I realized the volunteer dads at this co-op would be tasked with taking my then two-year-old daughter to the potty. Alone. Behind closed doors. Helping her with her panties.

Adults aren’t usually alone with children in daycares or pre-schools, certainly not vulnerable situations like a secluded bathroom (ask any licensed daycare director in the country) and my gut told me this unexamined potty procedure wasn’t cool.

Admittedly, my reaction was sexist. It was the dad part that had caught my attention when I peeked in the classroom. I had falsely assumed the teachers would be taking the kids to the potty as a group, or at the very least, the girls would be in the girls’ room with women like at any other public institution.

My alleged bigotry against all men was taken to task by an obscure, online gender equality movement (akin to feminism, but for men – and angrier) and hence the trouble, and in some ways, the story of my new life, began.

My profile was placed on an “offender’s registry” kept by a group whose hate activity was later reported in the Southern Poverty Law Center in an article that cited my debacle. I was harassed. Packages were sent to my home. My family and I received threats of bodily harm. And now I’ve also got this Google problem.

Nearly a year later, I am still harassed on a nearly daily basis in the comment section of my blog (which is moderated). We are in the process of moving from our home partly as a result of this ordeal. I filed reports with the Chicago Police Department and the FBI internet crimes division. The story is so big and so old in my life, frankly, I’m tired of telling it. But it’s worth telling because of what is to be learned about how to handle conflict on social media platforms.

On the surface, my crime was blogging from a sexist point of view in an effort to protect my child. But after a storm comes perspective and I have a new theory about how the explosion happened. It wasn’t just the post, it was partly my reaction that ignited the rage of my detractors. I became a victim because I didn’t know how or when to respond to criticism, or when it is appropriate to apologize. Just a hint: Ignoring negativity is 90% of escaping it.

All voices are not equal

One of the great things about the internet is we all have the same chance to have our voices heard. The fact that I’m a 5’2″ lady with a southern drawl doesn’t mean I’m drowned out by taller, louder or even more influential people.

But there is a problem in this leveling. The fact is, our knowledge of various subjects are not parallel to one another. We don’t all have the same information, valuable life experience or the same level of integrity.

When accused rapists and batterers and misguided, angry teenage boys left comments on my blog post calling me the “c” word I made the mistake of not recognizing that their words were too beneath me to respond.

It wasn’t until months later, after careful reading and digging that I uncovered who many of these people were. It can be easy to tell an English major from a drop-out based on grammar, but telling a saint from a sociopath takes more information that a blog comment.

Lesson: Be discerning whom who you dignity with a response. “Silence is golden” is a great tattoo for a blogger. Write your peace and stay out of the comment section unless it is to further the discussion with those who present themselves as kind, informed people.

Be candid, but careful 

Before this ordeal, mine wasn’t a highly-trafficked blog. I wrote posts off-the-cuff, similar to how I just speak my mind in person. Deep down my true ideals are that people should be kind to each other and eat good food, but occasionally I make a catty remark. I’m human. And frankly, goody two shoes are boring.

I like to write about Botox and spray tans just as much as about social commentary and justice. When my fateful potty post hit Reddit, within minutes comments starting pouring on to my blog, nasty ones, and I made the granddaddy of all blogging errors: I fought fire with fire.

This is probably a great life lesson as well. If someone calls you a name, let that person be on display for who they are. Haven’t you noticed that what people say about other people reveals much more about the speaker themselves?

And if you happen to be two glasses of wine into your evening and your blog post goes viral with a hate group, shut the computer and go to bed. Don’t roll up your sleeves and call them child molesters. Back away slowly from people who appear crazy. It turns out some thoughts are better left in your head.

Never delete a post due to criticism

I didn’t change my stance that my daughter shouldn’t be taken to the bathroom by volunteers. The school acquiesced and it was all very peaceful. Of course, that was the real world. The Internet raged on. I was genuinely remorseful about casting the volunteer dads in a bad light and I never meant to offend anyone with my post, so I removed it. Simple, right?

Removing the post in question would assuage my detractors and stop the perpetuating of the negative male stereotypes they so abhorred?

We’re all entitled to our personal opinions but removing my public one was the nice thing to do?

False and false. Removing the post emboldened my critics. To quote a supportive email I received, “they got their teeth into something more their size and (couldn’t) stop yipping about it”.

Never let a troll dictate your content, no matter how scared you are, because it will never end. Be strong, but not confrontational. Don’t delete a post, especially a post that a Gawker Media site has linked to.

Know when and how to apologize

I had genuinely upset some very troubled people who, for all their faults, were still human beings. And they had a few good points. I can’t imagine being a man in today’s world, with the hysteria about child molestation and feeling like a pedophile if you so much as glance at someone’s kid. It’s indeed not fair. So I apologized.

I had a genuine mind-opening experience and wrote about it. If you offend a member of your community, a general rule is to do the right thing and apologize, right? But if you offend someone on the Internet, carefully consider before apologizing. If you do, make it brief, and be prepared for a possible onslaught greater than the original offense. I followed none of these rules and stoked a flame so big I lost four pounds in two days. I do not recommend “internet trouble” as a means to fitness.

You will never win the hearts of everyone. Take a look at YouTube educator Laci Green whose apology for the ignorant use of the derogatory term “tranny” for transgendered people earned her globally famous harassment, threats and stalking.

The sad truth is while social platforms lend a great voice to causes and unheard opinions, the anonymity of the Internet allows people to eschew proper behavior. In real life, if someone acknowledges they cause you pain, you try to accept it and move on.

In Internet life, an apology is an invitation to sing the I Told You So song and invite other hyenas to rally. This was said to me in an email of support, “A profuse apology was not enough: they wanted you naked and crawling in mud while flagellating yourself until your back bled.”

One remark could define you

Is who uses what bathroom in preschool my soap box issue? I wouldn’t even put it in the top ten. I care more about clean food and being a good parent than I do nitpicking other peoples’ business. Beware of writing about issues you’re not ready to fight for. If I had this debacle to do over again, I’d write about the same issue, minus addressing the gender of the potty helper and stress the importance of being critical of school policies in general.

Keep going

People always ask me why I keep writing. I could have deleted my blog, or started another one under an alias or stuck my head in a Word document and emerged with a feeble attempt at the great American novel (and I still might) but the truth is I’ve got something to prove. I’m still here.

I won’t be shattered or shamed into silence. I do have other opinions besides gender-assigned restrooms at preschool. Besides, I like my blog. I like the instant gratification of writing to an immediate audience and the ChicagoNow community is priceless.

Mine is an extreme example. I do my best to ignore my new, nasty following these days. I don’t write to the critics who read me every day. When I write a post, I imagine it’s an email to those who get me. I write as if the only person reading is my best friend.

In short, write to the audience you wish you had and eventually they will read. Try to stay out of dust-ups with haters, but if it happens, tread thoughtfully. And for the love of God, don’t put your home address anywhere on the Internet.

Jenna Myers Karvunidis can be reached at high.gloss.chicago@gmail.comor on twitter at @HighGlossSauce.

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