When Anti-Bully Bullies Go Mainsteam

I haven’t written anything about the “Stop the Goodreads Bullies” phenomenon, because (1) I haven’t really wanted to give them that extra little bit of exposure, and (2) people like Stacia Kane, Foz Meadows, and John Scalzi have already covered the things that needed to be said about this group specifically, while Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books wrote a fantastic post about the broader reality of public conversations and criticism:

“The conversation and interaction in response to what we consume is essential. It is normal. It is not always positive. It is always valuable.”

I didn’t have much to add to all that, beyond a few tweets.

If you aren’t familiar with this situation, here’s the short version: There’s a cluster of people who are put out by Goodreads users “bullying” authors through negative reviews, so they’ve taken it upon themselves to anonymously (and pseudonymously) harass those users by exposing their personal information. They’re nothing more than a sub-literary version of jumped-up thug wannabes, and even that is giving them more respect than they deserve. They’re the kind of malicious people who claim they’re speaking truth to power, when what they’re really doing is using a thimbleful of power to intimidate people they think don’t even have that much, and convincing themselves they’ve got the moral authority to do so.

They’re a mutual appreciation society of cruel, smug assholes, and I say that as somebody who, nearly half a lifetime ago, was myself capable of being a major asshole on the Internet, until I acquired a proper sense of shame and mortification. I also say it as somebody who’s been in the crosshairs of cruel, smug assholes, and who continues to see good friends in the literary community have to deal with cruel, smug assholes and self-appointed enforcers of what’s wrong and right. But it’s not a pleasant topic, and I didn’t have anything particularly original to add to the conversation, so as I say I’ve held off.

But then the Huffington Post book section decided to give these smug assholes a platform.

I’m not going to link directly to the post; you can find it if you want (and it’s one click away from a link I’m about to give you). Suffice it to say that HuffPo basically gave them an uncritical space in which to make their case for literary vigilantism, and they took full advantage of the opportunity. And when readers began to point out what had happened, HuffPo’s response was to add a note at the beginning: “This is an opinion piece, and does not represent the views of HuffPost Books or its editors.” And to tweet: “We do not endorse the actions or words of people who write blogposts on our site.”

Well, come on: If you don’t endorse the words of people who write blogposts on your site, what words do you endorse? What do you stand for, apart from the pursuit of pageviews? Though it’s couched in the faux-populist notion that “everybody deserves a voice,” as far as I’m concerned this is as irresponsible as media gets—and, to be fair, it’s an excuse that I’ve seen other media outlets use, not just the Huffington Post. But it doesn’t wash: Even if an individual editor doesn’t agree with a post, and suspends his or her judgment in order to publish it, the very act of publication in the Huffington Post is an institutional endorsement conveying on the authors, and the expression, a form of legitimacy—and either genuine power via that public legitimacy, or an illusion of power sufficient to inspire these assholes to keep at it.

And let’s be honest: If HuffPo really espoused an “everybody deserves a voice” philosophy, and only edited blog posts for “grammar, offensive language, and obvious factual errors” as an editor later asserted, we’d be reading a wider range of articulate but morally reprehensible viewpoints there. To paraphrase Stanley Fish, free speech is what’s left after you’ve laid out all the unspeakable subjects.

After a few hours, and a lot of complaints, Huffington Post books editor Andrew Losowsky admitted he’d handled the situation wrong. “I wanted to give the people behind Stop the GR Bullies an opportunity to explain their methods and what they were trying to achieve,” he explains—but he concedes that he went about it the wrong way. Or, as I would characterize it, instead of taking the time to put together nuanced coverage of a controversial topic, coverage that could represent alternate viewpoints and give readers a richer context from which to understand the situation, he handed these clowns the keys and let them take the HuffPo platform out for a spin—then disavowed all responsibility for what they did with it. And if you disagree with them, maybe you could submit some more unpaid content from the opposite point of view—which, let’s note in passing, HuffPo also won’t endorse.

Look, this is simple stuff. Robin at Dear Author nails it: Claiming that you’re striking a blow against bullying by “hunting down someone’s public information, posting it online (or threatening to), and inviting any and all sorts of real life harassment of those individuals” just because you don’t like what they said about a book isn’t a literary virtue: “What this is really about is not reviews or criticism or Goodreads message boards, but threatening, punishing, and silencing women.” (And it’s pretty much always women.) It’s a cruel, vicious power trip being perpetrated by assholes—assholes who, thanks to one editor taking the path of least effort, enjoyed (at least for a little bit) a breezy transition into the mainstream culture. Maybe slapping a few bandages on the problem in the form of “counterpoint” posts would mitigate the problem—except, of course, that HuffPo isn’t actually taking a counter-position… or any position at all, really. Which, like I said above, makes you wonder what it really stands for.

20 July 2012 | theory |