We all kick different hornets’ nests. Whatever you write, whether it’s vegan recipes, erotica, news or even lighthearted comedy, at some point or another you’ll have to deal with a gang of angry people who really want you to stop. You’re too X, not enough Y, you’ve pissed off someone’s idol or what have you. Mentioned something controversial. Unless you want to be either bland or silent, you’ll write things that stir up emotions. You offer your opinion. Make an argument. Tell a story.
And in doing so, you’ll probably kick a hornets’ nest.
Helpful criticism versus trolling
Criticism can be hard to deal with – particularly if it’s dismissive of something you’ve put a lot of time into. It can sometimes be fun, if you think of a satisfying snarky comeback to someone who doesn’t deserve a full response. It’s also often helpful, because it makes you examine things you might not have considered before.
That’s not the kind of criticism I’m talking about here, though. Many a thoughtful commenter has pulled me up on something and made me examine the way I’ve been thinking or what I’ve said. Those aren’t the hornets’ nests though: the hornets nests are the ones which do nothing but sting. And sting. And sting. They have no hope of changing your mind, and you’ve no hope of changing theirs, so you just hope to fuck they go away soon.
Recently I gave a talk on trolls – about what to do when they come and bombard you in comments or on social media, or even in your inbox. You know you have to do something, but you’re not sure exactly what. Delete? Reply? Cry?
I used examples of comments that troubled me. Libellous ones, threatening ones, incomprehensibly twatty ones. We had a good laugh, talked through options, and in the Q+A other people opened up about their own comments: the different hornets’ nests they’ve kicked. It occurred to me that most of the examples I used had a very particular flavour: misogyny. Men’s Rights Activists, Pick-Up Artists (or fans of them) or armchair evolutionary psychologists convinced that because they saw a documentary about lions fucking they’re sure all men are proto-rapists.
They’re my hornets. I kick their nest by talking about feminism, and they come to sting the fuck out of me. But in discussing this with other bloggers, I realised my view on the likely ‘hot topics’ has been skewed by what I write about. Although I’ll kick MRA hornets’ nests, other people’s experiences come from different groups altogether.
One other blogger explained that she’s more likely to get stung by angry, body-shaming women. People who have sucked up the idea that naked pictures equal attention-seeking, and will pontificate by telling sex bloggers to ‘put it away’ or offering their unsolicited critique on every inch of that person’s body. Like one of those creepy magazines circling cellulite with a mean red pen.
Someone else had kicked the religious hornets’ nest – a huge, terrifying structure built over centuries. Ironically, while extremist religion is usually deeply divisive, the extremists can still bond by joining together in condemnation. The furious Christian unites with his angry Muslim brother to drop dog-turds of hate into someone’s email inbox.
As you can tell, I’m not religious. But I’m not Richard Dawkins either – flailing wildly with every limb in the hope of disturbing as many hornets’ nests as possible (perhaps in a mistaken search for precious honey). It’s as possible to be a loving, tolerant Christian or Muslim as it is to care about men’s issues without doggedly haranguing me about rape. I just wish all of them knew that.
If you’re struggling with online harassment, DJFet’s guest blog has some great practical and psychological tips.
How do you prevent trolling?
Is there a way to stop people trolling you? Well, sort of. You can – if you like – avoid kicking the nest. Try not to comment on topics you think are tricky, or edit your posts until it’s impossible for anyone to tell what you’re really trying to say. But it’s hard to tell which nest you might disturb until you’ve put your size 10s straight through the walls, and the hornets are swarming around your head shouting “BUT WHAT ABOUT FALSE RAPE ACCUSATIONS AND JESUS WANTS YOU TO PUT YOUR TITS AWAY YOU FAT SLAG” and you wish someone would come along with a can of insect repellant before you’re stung beyond recognition.
The only way to avoid kicking a hornets’ nest is to never take a walk in the woods.
But that’s no fun at all.
You could try to become immune, I guess. Be so ‘challenging’ that there isn’t a hornet alive who doesn’t want to sting you in your shitty, ‘controversial’ face. I call this the ‘Katie Hopkins’ route (for Americans – Katie Hopkins is what Donald Trump would be if you treated him with the contempt he deserves). The Hopkins route is an option, of course. But it’s a shit one too.
So what do you do about trolling?
Welp. I’m not your mother, your priest or your boss, so I won’t tell you what you should do. But here’s what I do: I accept that I’m going to kick the odd hornets’ nest or two, and I take advantage of all the tools there are to help me deal with the stings when they arrive. Reporting options on social media, snarky responses, the support of my friends and family. Sometimes I get in touch with particularly supportive commenters to say thanks – so they know that their help in dealing with the hornets is appreciated. I have a filter on my gmail labelled ‘possible entitled douchebag’ so that when someone I provoked six months ago pops up again, I don’t fall into conversation with them before I realise that last time it ended with me asking them to please stop. Sometimes I mute people on Twitter. Sometimes (although only in super-extreme cases), I use the ‘delete’ button. And fuck it – sometimes I pour myself a big gin and tonic, stick a weepy film on to catalyse the misery, and I cry and cry and cry.
Lindy West – one of my writing heroes – regularly not just kicks but stamps on misogynist hornets’ nests. In my head I’m picturing her wearing big Doc Martens and a ‘fuck you’ grin. Because that is how I always imagine Lindy West – a larger, brighter, fiercer version of my internal self-image. The warrior I’d love to be. On a one-woman mission to destroy hateful shits wherever she comes across them.
But of course she isn’t magic – she’s just human. As we all are. Sometimes we have to delete, sometimes reply, and sometimes drown our sorrows in gin.
It’s scary to kick the hornets’ nest, and it hurts, but the hurt shows that you give a shit – you’re not at ‘Trump’ stage yet. And seeing you fighting might inspire others to fight too. Your answer might be to delete awful comments and emails. You might report them. You might weep. But whatever your choices, mine is this: I’ll do anything and everything other than stop.