Bullies and Trolls

Re-Learning to Not Speak

vintage-war-censorship-posterThere was a poem by Marge Piercy that I responded to when I read it in college. It was called “Unlearning to Not Speak.” (I recalled the title as “Unlearning Not to Speak.”) An excerpt:

Phrases of men who lectured her
drift and rustle in piles:
Why don’t you speak up?
Why are you shouting?
You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.

I’ve been writing lately, so I haven’t been posting much. But that isn’t the only reason. I haven’t known what to post. Or I haven’t wanted to. The truth is, speaking in public feels more fraught than it ever did before. Them are fightin’ words! Doesn’t it seem like the bulk of cable news involves catching public figures saying controversial things on Twitter? It is a nationwide game, like Pokemon Go.

We would all like to be recognized, and we want online interaction, at least of the positive kind. The best way to do that is to choose an audience and stay in your lane. You will not be attacked if you say things that people already agree with. (Or if you are, you can write off those people as “the others” and rally your base with pithy comebacks.) You might even be re-tweeted or liked. It’s easy enough to do: here is my take on what y’all are discussing. It’s reaching the same conclusion but in my words.

What becomes weird is when you say something just a bit outside of the discourse and people can’t process until they figure out what side you’re on, or they make assumptions that because you said this you must also mean that and therefore you’re one of them and… click…unfollow. I can’t even listen to you. That’s called “assumption creep.”

I had a weird conversation with a friend some time ago during one of the government shut downs. She had posted a petition saying members of congress should not take a salary while the government was shut down. I responded that, as most members of congress were multimillionaires, that would be more symbolic than anything and that it would be more effective to threaten their chances of keeping their seats. I went round and round with this friend asking me what I really meant. What I really meant, honestly, was that I thought there were more effective tactics to end a shut down, less symbolic. But what do you mean? What are you really saying? What is your political angle? Honest to God, I wasn’t saying anything but what I was saying.

I don’t fear being attacked by people who disagree with me as much as I fear being misunderstood by those who do not. It feels terrible to have someone take something you wrote or said, explain that you meant or said something else, and then attack you for it. I find these days I spend way too much time explaining what I am not saying along with what I am. I can’t even say that I am often criticized or attacked. But I am a regular witness to verbal attacks on Twitter and in blog comments, where giving and taking offense is sport. I’ve developed a reflex, the same way I know not to put my hand on a stove burner whether it appears hot or cold.

You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.

To really explore ideas, the best place is a diary, where you don’t have to think about anyone looking over your shoulder.

I don’t think I am alone in this polarized era in feeling as though every subject is potentially controversial. It looks like a group of academics is planning to launch a journal where scholars can publish anonymously so they can express their controversial views. Anonymity makes sense. Then readers can, at least in theory, debate ideas and not comment upon the kind of person they believe are making them.

If a lot of people are feeling like I am: re-learning to not speak, then I wonder where our novel ideas will come from.

 

Empathy is Not a Zero Sum Game: Further Reflections on Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

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After Oscar Wilde’s downfall, William Powell Frith wrote to the owner of his famous painting The Private View of the Royal Academy, which featured the playwright, and offered to paint Wilde out of it at no cost to the owner.

“I will do whatever you wish as regards Wilde — it is unfortunate for the picture but what could be so inconceivably unexpected.”

I spent the last few years immersed in the story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall and the effect that it had on the people who loved him.  My book Oscar’s Ghost finally came out just last month in the U.S. (in August in the U.K.). It is still very fresh in my consciousness.

When the public first learned that Wilde had engaged in illegal sex with male prostitutes they were appalled. It was an act that was considered as immoral and disgusting as anything they could imagine in his day, and there was a rush to disassociate from him. The mere thought of Wilde, who had been at the height of his fame as a beloved wit just days before, made people uneasy. They heard “Oscar Wilde” and thought of perversion. They didn’t want to be confronted with his name or to have to see his face. They wondered if having enjoyed his work made them somehow complicit or suspect.

George Alexander, the manager of the St. James Theater, was overseeing and starring in the production of Wilde’s new comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

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This was the original program for the production, but after Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency new programs were printed without the playwright’s name. The play, it seems, had written itself. These days, with Wilde now redeemed, we tend to interpret this as a act of disloyalty and cowardice.  The Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog, for example describes Alexander as “ashamed of the connection, but not too ashamed to keep making money out of it for himself and Wilde’s family.”

Alexander explained his decision differently. Wilde was not the only one involved in the production. The theater had a whole cast and crew that were counting on Earnest for their livelihoods. Alexander wanted to try to keep the production going for their sake, but he knew he couldn’t do it with Wilde’s name attached. It was inevitable, however, audiences stayed away and the play closed. It was replaced on May 11, 1895 with a play called–I am not making this up– “The Triumph of the Philistines.”

Oscar Wilde joined the convict ranks, placed in a solitary cell, identified by a number not a name.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.

The worst day of Oscar Wilde’s life was November 20, 1895, the day he was transferred from Wandsworth Prison to Reading Gaol. He wrote:

From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform at Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the hospital ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came in swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half-an-hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob…. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

Researching Oscar’s Ghost was a long journey of reading personal letters, diving into archives, and putting myself in the place of a man who lost his profession, his sense of identity, his good name. I wrote about his time in exile in France, where he vacillated between hopefulness and despair, sometimes defiant of public opinion, sometimes afraid to show his face in public because he feared being shunned.

One of the things that drew me to Wilde’s story was the spectacle of this process of ostracism in motion. To see someone go from the greatest heights, being lauded, to the deepest depths, reviled and ostracized was riveting.

I contemplated the ripple effects of Wilde’s ostracism. I read about how it became the central fact of two of his closest friends’ lives. I read about how these once intimate friends spent years locked in combat in the courts trying to come to terms with their own roles in Wilde’s downfall.

Wilde’s lover, and the subject of his bitter prison letter De Profundis, Lord Alfred Douglas, was an aristocrat, raised with the expectation that he would receive deference. He became an object of gossip, exclusion and ridicule himself. How did those experiences shape him and steer his actions? I know now, very well.

There is something you should keep in mind about Oscar Wilde. He was guilty. He broke the law and his crime was considered to be disgusting and damaging to society.

These are topics I have contemplated, in depth, for the past six years of my life.

So when I read a story about the producers of the series House of Cards, first instinctively canceling the series, then deciding to go on without Kevin Spacey in order to preserve the jobs of the rest of the cast and crew, I think of George Alexander and Earnest.

When I read about the paparazzi snapping images of the disgraced actor jogging on the grounds of a sex rehab clinic, I think about the gawkers trying to catch a glimpse of prisoner Wilde on the train platform.

When I see a story about a Spacey mural being painted over because it disturbs the owner of the building it is painted on, I think of William Powell Frith offering to paint Wilde out of his own work. I feel those resonances keenly.

When I hear people dismissing the ramifications of ostracism, saying “it’s only a job” or giving a sarcastic “boo hoo,” I know that they are wrong. Whether the target of the ostracism deserves it is a separate question from whether or not it is painful. Kipling D. Williams, a scholar of ostracism, found that the objects of exclusion often say they would rather be physically beaten or put in prison than shunned.

All societies have used ostracism to define acceptable behavior in their communities because it works. It is a serious punishment. We should not engage in it casually or blithely. We should feel at least a bit uneasy about the whole thing.

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I think I had a personal attraction to Oscar Wilde’s story as someone who felt excluded and bullied in school. I have a bitter memory of two bullies throwing rocks at my back, joking about my butt being a big target, and how many points they would get for a bullseye. I never forgot what it was like to be dehumanized like that, and it produced in me an instinctive empathy for anyone who is being dehumanized, shunned or excluded.

Yesterday, I posted a link to the Kevin Spacey mural story in a twitter discussion that someone else had initiated about the actor’s “erasure.” In a reply to the thread, I was accused of not caring about the victims, “do they not matter?”

I ache for the victim of the harasser’s casual debasement. I also feel empathy for the man who has been toppled from his perch and sentenced to cultural exile.  I recoil at the story of a famous man grabbing someone’s genitals with impunity and treating that person as an object or plaything not a person, just as I recoil at human beings being given dehumanizing labels like “predator.” Dehumanizing is distasteful. Empathy is not a zero sum game.

Over the years I’ve learned that befriending a social pariah can be hard because there are often good reasons people don’t like them. They often have abrasive personalities, do questionable things and do not play well with others.  To feel empathy for the pain they must feel is not to excuse their eccentricities or bad behavior. It is not to make them innocent.

“It’s easy to forgive the innocent,” wrote Sister Helen Prejean, “It’s the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I understand that it is too early, and too fresh, to talk about forgiving some of the perpetrators who have come to our attention. To welcome the transgressor back too quickly would be a sanction of his behavior. There are some we may never fully be able to forgive.  We’ll only know with time.  Oscar Wilde did not start to receive a measure of social forgiveness until five years after his death.

It is good to remember that Oscar Wilde’s most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was not about a man who had been unjustly accused. It was about the common humanity of the guilty.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

 

Pretty People and Verbal Violence

My partner is Russian, not Russian-American. His primary residence is Moscow. Because I spend half of my life in the company of a Russian who loves his country and is proud of its culture, I have an interest in news stories about Russia and perhaps a slightly different perspective on them than Americans who do not spend most of their time with Russians.

Global Voices today ran a story about Lena Klimova, the founder of an online support network for LGBT teens in Russia. Running such an organization puts her on the wrong side of Russian propaganda laws and as you would imagine she receives a lot of ugly messages online.

Klimova responded by taking photos the trolls had publicly posted on their social networks and coupling them with their violent rants. Here is an example.

t_YS3rk8Nzk-599x600Translation: “Aisha: I, for one, think you’re a stupid bitch. You think you’re helping anything with this holy crusade?? Go and fucking kill yourself before they come for you!!! People like you should be locked up!”

There is something quite powerful and arresting about the juxtaposition of these everyday images of perfectly nice-looking people and the vitriol they spew.

You have to wonder if they would be so bold speaking to someone they knew in life, or if the seeming anonymity of the internet allows them to strike out at a character on the screen as if she were not human.

The “othering” that allows the bully to see her target as less-than-human works in two directions. When we fail to recognize the human faces of our critics they become monsters, which gives them extra power. The angry voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. They speak as though they represent multitudes.

Most of the comments on the Global Voices piece talked about how terrible it is in Russia, about how angry Russians are and how “totalitarian” they are in their thinking, with at least one commenter wishing out loud that he could rescue Klimova and take her to California.

I do not know anything about Klimova, but I suspect that she does not want to be rescued from her country. She loves it enough to want to make it a better place.

There is an aspect of Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws that is not widely discussed. They are, in part, a reaction to U.S. cultural dominance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Western cultural products became available in the new spirit of openness, Russians initially embraced the once-forbidden English and American pop music, Hollywood films, McDonalds and Budweiser beer. It happened quickly. And after a decade or so, a lot of Russians became concerned that their own distinct culture might be threatened by all of these imports. LGBT rights, pride parades, same sex marriage became symbols of the intrusion of foreign culture. In the U.S. those who are against gay rights tend to view it as a symptom of the erosion of religion in public life. In Russia, the gay rights movement is viewed as an outside force trying to mold Russia and change its culture. Those are the kinds of fears that give the backlash its power and ferocity. It is not just that you want to live differently from me– you want to change my world.

The context is important, of course. But making this photographic statement all about Russians, and then saying “isn’t it terrible over there” misses a larger point. Nice respectable people have the capacity for this kind of verbal violence. The bully is not a monster, she is a girl holding flowers. Recognizing this poses a lot of questions. To the bully it asks “Are you proud of what you said? Do you stand by it when it is associated with your face and your identity? Is this how you want to present yourself?” To the rest of us it asks “Could the bully be your sister? If it was, would you laugh it off and look the other way? Could the bully be you? Are there times when you are so certain of your correctness that you forget to notice someone else’s humanity?”

This kind of behavior exists all over the world. In fact, after I finished reading the Global Voices article another article passed through my newsfeed.  Just last week a group of Pennsylvania students, the Stranger reports, decided to hold their own “Anti-Gay” day in response to the national “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

This prompted the group of students to ask classmates to wear flannel shirts and write “anti-gay” on their hands on Thursday, April 16, in protest, according to WPXI-TV. In addition, participants posted Bible verses on the lockers of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the news station noted. Meanwhile, some encounters between students who participated and those who didn’t even got physical, The Advocate pointed out, and snapshots of the flannel-clad group appeared on social media.

“We came into school on Thursday and found a lot of people wearing flannel and we couldn’t figure out why,” Zoe Johnson, a 16-year-old McGuffey High School who identifies as bisexual, told BuzzFeed’s David Mack. “People started getting pushed and notes were left on people’s lockers. …I got called a dyke, a faggot. They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

 More troubling still was an alleged “lynch list,” which the group was reported to have circulated around the school.

I came across an older post today on how Ijeoma Oluo responded to a racist troll on twitter.  She never allowed herself to lash out at him or to lose sight of his humanity and in the end he gets tired of trolling and it turns out the troll is allegedly a 14 year old who has recently lost his mother. Who knows if this is true, but as Daily Kos said, “It is hard to say whether or not this Dildo Baggins person really is a 14-year-old kid working through the pain of losing his mother. It is hard to say whether the person behind this moniker really did learn something here. I would like to believe that this was the case, but it really isn’t the point. Ijeoma Oluo’s boundless capacity for love and wisdom is the point.”

The bullies look like perfectly nice people. Most of the time they probably are. That is the point.

How Hard Do You Have to Work to Get Angry Over Flowers?

I remember a video in which Stephen Fry shares some of his life’s wisdom. One of his pieces of advice is never to read comments on articles in blogs or on news sites. I have to say I tend to agree with him. You can read a story and feel inspired or curious or happy or intellectually stimulated but when you scroll past the end of the text you are brought to earth with a decisive thud. You are almost guaranteed to find someone insulting the writer in personal terms or pontificating in a bitter way about politics and what is wrong with the world.

I went looking for the Stephen Fry clip I remembered, but didn’t find it. I did come across an article on Bit-101 that quotes Fry as saying:

And similarly as long as you don’t lower your eyes when reading a blog, as long as you don’t go down to the comment section where the trolls lurk, where the viciousness is because that’s… I mean there really is just suppurating, boiling seas of acid where if you just so much as dip a toe you’ve lost your limbs you know, just vileness abounding. Again, there is this resentment, “I will be heard and not only will I be heard I will offend.” “I will tear.” “I will lacerate.” “I will wound.” “I want the sensibilities of anyone who disagrees with me to be bruised beyond mending.” That kind of attitude is very strong on the net and for all that we can be advocates for the glory and the democracy that exists online we must be aware too that that dark side of humanity that just needs to be heard…

Perhaps the first commenter was engaging in a bit of participatory performance art. For he said:

sorry but i can hardly be bothered to read or listen to this guy

like most mentally ill people fry is narcissistic and actually rather boring. he craps on about apple most of the time and as far as i’m concerned deserves to be ignored

So we know that the anonymity of the internet sometimes causes people to forget that article writers are human and entitled to the same kind of courtesy as the people you meet face to face.

I was surprised, however, to see the familiar “what is wrong with the world” tone appear in the comments of a feel-good article in the local paper. Good Karma: Smithtown Man Wins $3 Million Lotto Jackpot After Buying Flowers for his Wife.

Perhaps I should have expected the comments to devolve into a discussion of bad marriages and traditional gender roles, but I did not.

Does this kind of article really need open comments anyway?

The other day I reflected on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism “give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” I concluded that it was both entirely true and entirely untrue. (The other day I did an interview for All Indie Magazine. After re-reading my answers I wished I had been a bit less literal and a bit more Wildean. I said, ” I tend to talk about serious things using humor and sometimes humorous things in seriousness.”  I should have left the word “sometimes” out of it. Less literal but a much better phrase.)

I would suggest that we have, in the internet era, a grand test of Wilde’s thesis. The internet demonstrates exactly how people interact when disguised and veiled. People seem to enjoy the freedom of being unknown while all the while they long to be known. They scream to be heard, and shout things they would never say if it could be connected to their day to day identities. The content of many of those anonymous screams when you get right down to it is “love me.” Listen to my views, consider me, notice me. Don’t walk by and treat me as if I do not exist, as if I am expendable. I matter.

My forthcoming novel Identity Theft (see the end of this article to learn more about it) deals with this malady of modern life. Each of the main characters feels disconnected and isolated. Two of them turn to the internet to find a sense of connection. I mentioned in my All Indie Magazine interview that most of the characters in Identity Theft use names that are different from those they were born with. Interestingly, I realized on re-reading this observation that the only exception is Ethan, the character who decides to take on an entirely different identity online. I could go into a lot of deep reflection on what this is meant to represent, but I don’t really know. It is one of those things that is there for the reader to ponder if she wants to.

Ethan and Candi, the fan he decides to write to in the guise of his rock star boss, interact in a unique way. They are both masked and unmasked by their internet flirtation. Ethan, playing the part of a rock star, gets to be the person he has always wanted to be. Candi is able to pursue a fantasy she would never be bold enough to go after “in real life.”

Thus there are parts of each of them that are only revealed because of the mask. Yet it is not fair to say that using these masks they are revealing “the truth.” While things that are normally concealed are revealed, things that ought to be revealed must be concealed.

The ultimate truth may be that the self is too large, too fluid and contextual, to ever be revealed all at once. The best we can do is reveal parts of ourselves. The most we can do is catch glimpses of others.

I promised to tell you more about my novel here. I need your help to get it into print. I am running a Pubslush campaign to fund its creation. It has started out very strong and I am grateful to everyone who has contributed so far, but with 12 days to go there is still a long way to go. As of today it is 29% funded. The levels of support are modest and are essentially pre-orders of the book. A print book, for example, is $15. Please follow the link above and read more about the novel and how to order.

How Dare You Ask for my Compassion?

prodigal“The value of compassion cannot be over-emphasized. Anyone can criticize. It takes a true believer to be compassionate. No greater burden can be borne by an individual than to know no one cares or understands.”- Arthur H. Stainback, Baptist minister and author

My heart hurts when I read comments on just about any story related to people and their financial troubles. Invariably, someone or a lot of someones will attack the author for the “excuses” they make for the poor.  They will go through the story of the person’s life looking for the reasons the subject’s difficulties are his own fault.  They will express them in the most aggressive terms and call the person who is having a hard time lazy, a mooch, incompetent, selfish. The comments are full of distancing language designed to make the subject into an “other,” a bit non-human. There is an undercurrent of anger directed at the writer for the outrage of making readers aware of the struggling person.  I often encounter comments that criticize the subject’s attention-seeking. Having to know about them sticks in some people’s craw. Fame is a prize that the lazy taker should not receive.

The underlying premise of such comments is always that you do not deserve my empathy unless you have earned it by proving that you are above reproach, you have made no mistakes, you live a lifestyle I approve of.  Not only do the people who post these kinds of attacks want you to know that they do not have sympathy for the poor person’s problems, they are offended by the very idea that they ought to have sympathy. They want the author to feel ashamed for suggesting readers care about the person in financial difficulty.

“You’re very good at making excuses for your miserable life,” one commenter said.  That one stuck with me.

What I have found from reading any number of articles is that what constitutes an “excuse” for a person’s “miserable life” is an extremely broad category.  People who are on welfare or receiving food stamps, of course, get no love.  They are assumed to be lazy and to have “poverty consciousness” and to want our handouts.  (We are the givers, of course, never the recipients of aid. They are never the tax payers, although the poor do pay taxes.)

So if the problem is that people on welfare are lazy and unwilling to work you would assume that working full time would earn our respect and make a person worthy of compassi0n.  Yet people who work a full time job that does not pay a living wage tend to get shouted down too.  Who told them to work that kind of job? They should go to school and get a real job.

So we might be able to assume that a person who pursues higher education has earned empathy. Yet when I read about a woman with a PhD who was having trouble making ends meet, the comments were every bit as critical and angry.  She studied the wrong subject.  Anthropology? Liberal Arts?  You are not entitled to sympathy if you study a fluffy field like that. In fact, the fact that she got a PhD instead of a “real job” offended some people.

Of course, we can’t all be bankers. What a weird world that would be. We’d spend all of our lives lending money to one another and not making anything with it.  So what is a “real job”– one that entitles its holder to empathy?  It is certainly not a job in arts, that goes without saying. Teachers tend not to fare well, they are union takers who get weekends and summers off.  Service jobs, as we already have shown, do not qualify. Academia is too elite to be a “real job.” If you go into social services, you should be doing it for love and you should not complain that you get no money. Factory labor killed the auto companies, of course.  They are self-centered and don’t care about the big picture. So “real jobs” seem to be a small subset of the available jobs out there.

Maybe the problem is that these people are in the prime of their lives and when you’re in your prime, you have no excuse not to put your nose to the grindstone and keep your mouth shut. So what about a child who is poor through no fault of his own? Surely he deserves our compassion? I read a story of a boy who was denied his school lunch and sent to class hungry because he did not have 30c on his card to pay for it. The comments on that story were just as angry. It was the mother’s fault for not having the funds or not being on top of things enough to replenish his lunch card. He should go hungry. He did not deserve compassion because, it seems, he had chosen the wrong parents.

One story I read featured an 85 year old professor who was still working part time but not making enough money to eat regularly. I am paraphrasing this story from memory.  She died and her poverty became the subject of a number of articles. You might think that being 85 years old and still working would shield her against charges of being lazy and selfish. It did not. There were people who expressed outrage that anyone would take up her cause.  It was her fault she was in her situation. She had only worked part time when she was younger and wasn’t entitled to more social security. If she had wanted to retire and not be in poverty, she should have worked harder when she was younger. I don’t know what this woman’s situation was, but she may have been a parent and decided that she worked part time to devote more of her time to raising her children.

Of course, in the blogosphere, having children is never an excuse for not working more hours in a real job. “You decided to have those kids, if you can’t afford them you shouldn’t have had them.”  (What a person is supposed to do when she already has children and her financial situation changes for the worse is unclear. Give them back?)  Single mothers are not entitled to compassion because they should have foreseen their divorces.

So I think back to this comment, “You’re very good at making excuses, aren’t you?” I realize that it is the person who wrote that who was making excuses– excuses not to care, excuses to walk on by.  “You’re very good at making excuses to justify your lack of empathy, aren’t you?”

The Dalai Lama said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

That should be the minimum human guide.

Be Favorable to Bold Enterprises

I have been thinking a lot about the mean remarks that you often find in the comments section on blog articles, especially the shame that is heaped upon anyone facing financial hardship. I’ve been trying to understand where the hostility comes from.  Whenever an article features a person who is in need, someone is almost guaranteed to post in a menacing tone seeking to demolish any excuses the person might have for their situation. If they have a service job that doesn’t pay enough to cover expenses, they might chide them for being too lazy to get an eduction or better job or a second job.  If they have a PhD they will flame them for thinking they are too entitled to take a service job. They might critique their choice of study.  If the poor person is a single mother they will question her morals.  “Why did you have those kids in the first place?” What strikes me about the comments is the level of offense people take at someone else’s life. They seem to feel personally threatened by the existence of the poor.

They seem to be operating out of a belief that the world is one of scarcity. There is only so much wealth and well-being to go around and if you get more, I will get less.   They assume that the poor resent their good fortune and they also feel guilty for whatever mechanism allows them to have more of the stuff and resent the poor person for making them feel that way.  “It’s not my fault you’re poor– it’s yours.”

The other day I watch Jessica Jackley’s Ted Talk “Poverty, Money and Love.”

Jackley said something that gave me a bit of insight into internet shaming of the poor.

“After a while… I started to feel bad every time I heard about (the poor)… I gave when I was cornered, when it was difficult to avoid and I gave, in general when the negative emotions built up enough that I gave to relieve my own suffering, not someone else’s… It became a sort of transaction for me… I was purchasing something– I was buying my right to go on with my day and not necessarily be bothered by this bad news… So as I did this, and as I think many of us do this, we kind of buy our distance, we kind of buy our right to go on with our day. I think that exchange can actually get in the way of the very thing that we want most. It can get in the way of our desire to really be meaningful and useful in another person’s life and, in short, to love.”

She went on to talk about how her experience with Kiva, the micro-lender, taught her to think about the poor in a new way because she was “told stories about the poor that were different than any stories I had heard before… those individuals he talked about who were poor was sort of a side note. He was talking about strong, smart, hard-working entrepreneurs who woke up every day and were doing things to make their lives and their family’s lives better. All they needed to do that more quickly and to do it better was a little bit of capital. It was an amazing sort of insight for me. And I, in fact, was so moved by this– it’s hard to express how much that affected me.”

When I was promoting my book Broke is Beautiful occasionally someone in an interview would ask me if I had anything against capitalism, didn’t I believe in rewarding risk?  Risk-taking is the American way. It is what made this country great. If you look at the back of a dollar bill you will see the Latin inscription “annuit coeptis.” It was Ben Franklin’s personal motto an it means “Be favorable to bold enterprises.”

What I always said was that I did believe in supporting people who take risks, but that a risk, by definition, does not guarantee a reward. In fact, a lot of the people who are broke got that way because they took risks that didn’t pay off.  If you want to be favorable to bold enterprises, you have to accept that people are going to fail, and fail spectacularly.

As I listened to Jackley speak, I thought of the poem Failure by Philip Schultz which begins:

To pay for my father’s funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember
a nobody’s name, that’s why
they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.

I thought about how insidious poor shaming is. As the trolls shoot down every “excuse” they are saying, in essence, that the only people who are deserving of empathy are those who are blameless. If your situation is your fault, you have no business asking for my help or even my compassion.

And so the poor person, as a form of self-defense, must come up with reasons why it is not his fault that he has fallen on hard times.  “It was not my fault, I was laid off, the storm ruined my crops, I had medical bills that insurance wouldn’t pay.” If it could not be foreseen or avoided, then it is OK to ask for sympathy.

But what happened to the bold American spirit of encouraging risk-taking?

Failures are unforgettable because they jumped headlong into bold adventures with a spirit of optimism, passion and commitment. The very things that internet trolls might use to shame us are the things we should be most proud of– our glorious attempts to do something meaningful. The woman who had a brilliant idea and launched her business under capitalized; the man who was deeply inspired and wanted to make the world a better place by sharing his love of literature, who now has a PhD in Renaissance poetry and thousands of dollars of student loan debt; the woman who married the man of her dreams and believed they would be in love forever, who is now a single mom.

When we run away from our mistakes, and try to disown them, we are disowning the things that drove us and gave our lives meaning.  This is why I find the concept behind Failure:Lab so intriguing.  When you look deeply into your failure you will see in the shadow of regret the beautiful dream.

People may try to shame you for not winning everything you try.  Don’t let them.

You were an entrepreneur investing in something important.  If it had taken off–Oh! how the world might have changed!

Related articles:

“The Poor”

Are you “We?”

The Famine in Our Midst

Demonic Pigs and Hearing Voices (discusses poor shaming)

and my Failure Series