Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Lesson Re-Learned

There are various communities within the LiveJournal world. I mentioned one a few weeks ago when I plugged the new photography community, beyondpictures. Another one I belong to is called chicago_el. I read it from time to time, but it had been a few years since I’d posted anything there. I won’t replay the whole story, but basically I posted something there that elicited a very snarky and needlessly insulting comment. I fell into the trap of trading a series of pointless, increasingly nasty comments with that person before realizing that my “pen pal” was 16 years old and looking to incite conflict for its own sake. In fact, when I terminated the exchange, the other party thanked me for the “fun” and expressed the hope that we’d be able to correspond in this manner in the future. Well… no. Not what I signed on for.

OK, that one was my bad. I took the bait and got all worked up over the words of a true stranger. It served as a reminder that A) I can be had if I’m not vigilant; and B) a community such as chicago_el is going to draw from a wide cross-section of the public, many of whom derive their cherished illusion of empowerment from shooting off regular flame mails to any vulnerable target.

But like I said, that was a couple years ago, and the passage of time led me to forget that tidy little lesson. The day after I wrote the post titled “Tourists on the Train” (it’s just a couple of posts below this one), I got the bright idea to post it on chicago_el, since it did, after all, take place on an L train.

Within a half-hour of posting it, I’d received two comments on it. The first one consisted of a single sentence informing me that I’m an “arrogant, self-centered person.” The second one judged me to be a “racist” and a “typical stupid American.” Once again, this is not what I signed on for. I did send off terse replies to both commenters, and I followed up by deleting my post from the community.

Still, that was not the end of my work. I next sent a copy of my original post to a friend of mine – the kind of friend who’ll tell me the well-considered truth as she sees it; a person who has delivered many a hard truth to me over the course of our friendship. I gave no clue as to why I wanted her to read it, either for good or for ill. When she was finished, I asked her to pretend, as best she could, that she didn’t know who had written it, and to tell me what kind of person she thought the author might be. She then re-read the post with that in mind.

I won’t recount all that she said, but it was pretty good, including her thought that whoever had written it seemed like a perceptive, considerate individual. When I read her the comments I’d received, she reacted with a sputter of dismay and a few choice words for my correspondents.

OK, it’s always nice to get a little validation, but there are a few other things going on here that I need to bear in mind going forward. The first is that I have to remember that I’m not here on LJ to be a mainstream journalist. That’s not why I came here in the first place. If I were trying to create mainstream journalism, I’d be making very different choices in both my subject material and writing style. I also didn’t come here to talk down to anyone, or to talk up to anyone. I came here to explore my own freedom of written expression; not to have content or style imposed upon me, but to write according to my own standards and interests. I’m always pleased if someone else enjoys what I’ve written – I’m an entertainer after all – but I also realize that I’m assuming a certain amount of risk – after all, I’m posting my little creations in a public place where anyone may come across them and react to them. It’s probably fair to suggest that I should be more thick-skinned about criticism, that perhaps I shouldn’t have removed my post from the community, but I simply can’t be party to that sort of shallow negativity, particularly when it’s aimed squarely at me. One must pick one’s fights, and the fight to post on chicago_el in an atmosphere of peace and respect is not a battle I’m interested in taking on.

There is yet another dimension to this issue. When I read those comments, they resonated with some time-honored issues going all the way back to grade school. As a child, I had a precociously large vocabulary, and it caused me no small amount of trouble. In some circles, it branded me as an object of derision and cruelty, and made some people think I was doing it to make them feel stupid, when all it was to me was a tool with which to communicate; to be understood, which was and still is a fond wish of mine.

This also resonates with my life-long preoccupation with humor. It’s an area in which I have a lot of opinions and which I never tire of exploring. The occasional downside has been the various people who have thought I was out to top them; to “shut them down”; to defeat them in a contest of humorous jousting. The truth is far more benign – such competition has never been my goal with regard to humor, though I understand how it could seem that way. My message has always been, “Jump in, the water’s fine! All jokers and all jokes welcome!” I will accept my share of complicity in this misunderstanding; there have been many times when I’ve needed to just give it a rest. At the same time, I cannot absolve those who insist on projecting upon me thoughts I’ve never thought and even words I’ve never said.

In summation, the quest to be understood continues, as does the quest to understand others. I want to enter into a relationship under the assumption that we can like and enjoy one another unless and until we find out it can’t work – whether the relationship is personal, professional, or in the quasi-personal world of the Internet. As long as I feel this way, I have to accept the risks associated with that sort of vulnerability. The alternative – closing one’s self off from society – is too high a price.

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