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Beware the Itchy Twitter Finger

Recently there's been a kerfuffle about Portland Community College, where I work. One of the diversity councils has scheduled "Whiteness History Month," a month of lectures, film presentations, workshops, and so on about the Western European origin of mainstream American culture and its effects on race relations today.

There's nothing offensive about the idea in and of itself, any more than it would be offensive to discuss how Han culture shaped laws and philosophies in East Asia, or how Arab culture did the same in the Middle East. However, the controversial term "whiteness" was bound to cause confusion and outrage. Some of the text on the project webpage is frankly incendiary, implying that people who identify as white are the origin of all social ills. So to no one's surprise but the administration's, on Monday the media blew up with indignation over PCC's "White-Shaming Month."

Though it's understandable that people are angry, many are directing their rage at the innocent staff and faculty of PCC, who have nothing to do with Whiteness History Month. Netizens around the country are bashing PCC instructors on blogs and news sites. Librarians are receiving threatening phone calls and emails like, "You bunch of stupid mother fucking liberal hippie dumb fucking ingrates. Go straight to fucking hell you piles of dog shit."

The most shocking thing about these spiteful attacks is...I'm not shocked at all.

Over the past two decades, I've learned to expect unabashed cruelty from strangers. Every time I post a polite comment on a blog or forum, I resign myself to being told I'm a stupid bitch who needs to grow up. Reading Goodreads reviews of a novel is like watching a Spanish bullfight, with the author as the bull. (If you've ever seen a bullfight, you know it's not a fight at all. It's a slow, sadistic ritual slaughter.)

The Internet has torn down protective barriers of politeness. Fifty years ago, people were just as mean as they are today, but they didn't advertise it. Even if they were secretly thinking, "My God, you're dumber than a box of rocks," they wouldn't say it out loud. They certainly didn't stroll around telling random passersby, "You look like your mum sat on a weasel's dick and got pregnant with you, LOL."

So before the 1990s, it was possible to grow up happily sheltered, thinking the whole world was like Mayberry and everybody was just as nice and civil as they pretended to be. But it's hard to stay sheltered when everybody's proudly shouting their most malevolent thoughts for all to hear.

Beware the itchy Twitter finger!

These days, it's so easy to lash out online that people don't bother to hold back. Then they're blindsided by the consequences. You never know when someone's going to take your careless comments on an obscure blog and share them with the rest of the planet. And you never know who's going to visit your Twitter account and see a catalog of every silly notion that's passed through your head.

When I was sending out queries for Kagemusha in 2014, I looked at six resources for each potential agent.

  1. Preditors and Editors
  2. The agency's official website
  3. The agent's Publishers Marketplace profile
  4. The comments on the agent's QueryTracker profile
  5. Interviews and blog posts by the agent
  6. Twitter

Some agents would pass with flying colors through numbers one through five, only to be deleted from my list as soon as I glimpsed their Twitter accounts. They worked for reputable agencies. They represented works similar to mine. Their clients said great things about them. And then...

"Caught a bitch of a cold the night before vacay. Fuck my life!"

Now, I'm no prude. I've written erotica that makes Sweetie blush, and my teenage characters' dialogue can contain more F bombs than the script of a Jay and Silent Bob movie. I don't care if you curse in your own living room, or occasionally in public when you drop something heavy on your toes.

But the Internet is not your living room. If you're a writer or an agent, the Internet is your global office. You use it to connect with the people you're going to work with, negotiate with, and market to. They see it all. They see you being petulant because you're sleepy and you have a headache. They see you whine about your colleagues after a bad day at work. They see you get into squabbles with strangers over whether Jeff Bezos is a saint or Adolf Hitler reincarnate.

Twitter accounts, Facebook profiles, blogs...these feel like "personal" and "private" safe havens. But in reality, people use them to judge you as a professional, and they're anything but private.

I know how tempting it is to vent in writing when you're upset. You want to punish the people who angered you. You want to tell the whole world how unhappy you are. But if you rush to ridicule your enemies in public forums, you could end up looking very foolish and unpleasant to potential agents and editors. Or to potential clients, bosses, friends, lovers, etc.

Now, some writers take caution too far and claim you shouldn't express any controversial opinions at all. For example, they say you can't ever criticize a popular book, because other people like that book and they'll be offended and hate you. I think this is silly. You should feel free to express your opinions without fear, even unpopular ones. But you need to express them in an adult, civil manner.

Exercise A: An agent requested your full manuscript half a year ago, then dropped off the face of the earth and ignored all of your polite requests for a status update. Do you...

  1. Head straight to the forums to post, "This lazy ass agent has had my book for six months and still hasn't read it! This whole system is so retarded!!!"
  2. Tweet, "Still no response from @agent who req'd my full...6 months & counting. #disappointed"
  3. Do nothing.

Correct answer: C, do nothing. This is a personal grudge that isn't worth sharing. Let it go.

Exercise B: You just read a blog post that you disagree with so strongly, you think the world would be better off without the toxic influence of its author. Do you...

  1. Leave a comment saying, "This is the most disgusting article I've ever seen. I worry for the future of humanity, if it's filled with vile people like you."
  2. Calm down. Then write your own blog post that expresses your opinion on the subject without aggressive language or personal attacks.
  3. Do nothing.

Correct answer: B or C, depending on whether you believe the matter is important enough for you to put the time and effort into B. Sometimes, after calming down, you'll find it's not.

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