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Ask Chris: Being Part of the Problem

No question this week. I think I have a pretty good idea of what everyone would be asking about, anyway.

Between 2007 and 2010, I harassed and bullied Valerie D’Orazio online. It’s recently become a topic of discussion, and to the people who weren’t following me then, I know this is at best disappointing, and that I’ve rightfully lost a lot of the respect I’ve built up in the years since. I don’t blame you, and I accept that judgment. To paraphrase a friend of mine, this isn’t about whether I did it (I did) or whether any part of it was remotely okay (it wasn’t), but talking about anything else right now would be disrespectful and disingenuous. Believe it or not, this is something I care about quite a bit, so this week’s question is one that I’ve had to ask myself: What do you do when you realize you’re part of the problem?

At the time, I never thought of what I was doing as harassing, or being a bully. There’s a mindset that a lot of people subscribe to, and I used to be one of them, that if something is out there for the public, then it’s fair game for criticism, and that makes it very easy to lose sight of a bigger picture. The thing is, nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing exists on its own, and even when you’re thinking of it in your head as one person needling another over a couple of websites, there’s a much larger context that’s going to inform and amplify everything that was going on.

I’ve always been prone to hyperbole, and while I’d like to think that’s fine when it’s directed at a story or Richie Rich, it becomes an entirely different creature when it’s directed at a person. Coming out and saying that I didn’t like someone, and even making it a prominent part of reviews of her work, gave other people an excuse to jump on the bandwagon, directing an incredible amount of bile that, as I’ve said, went far beyond just one person being a jerk to another. That wasn’t what I intended to happen, but intent doesn’t change facts, nor does it change that I was tacitly encouraging it.

Before I go on, I want to reaffirm that I was completely responsible for my own actions. At the time I was writing in an environment that made it easy for me to step over the line. The comics blogging scene of the mid-to-late 2000s was all about personalities and trying to find a distinct voice, and I was fine embracing that abrasiveness and tendency for hyperbole, because it was what made me stand out. To some extent, I still do, although I’d like to think that I’ve learned lessons and gotten better about things in the ten years that I’ve been doing this. But because of that, there was a level where I was fine being a jerk, because that’s what I’d built myself as. I think it’s similar with a lot of commentators across all media – if you shoot for “lovable jerk,” then you still get to be a jerk when you want to, and there were definitely things I wanted to be a jerk about.

Which is another thing: Even at the time, I knew I was being a jerk. But the combination of self-promotion by positioning myself against someone and good ol’ fashioned bitterness and jealousy made me okay with that, right up until the moment where I realized that that wasn’t the person I should be. It’s really easy, especially given what we’ve devoted our lives to, to look at ourselves in a binary of hero and villain and see ourselves as the former, but even if I had been as firmly in the right as I was in my own head, the way I behaved about it still made me the bad guy in every way. I was the one doing the needling, the one leaving the douchey comments, the one who wasn’t just ignoring it and moving on, the one who had no idea what the other person was dealing with and what I was doing to compound it.

When you’re on the Internet, especially when you’re a straight white man on the Internet, you kind of feel like everybody’s dealing with the same stuff. Who cares if some dude’s being a jerk, right? You do you, focus on your work and just get through it. Except that assuming that everyone else is in your same position is not just ignoring that larger context, it’s refusing to deal with the privilege that you have. That is, after all, what privilege is — the assumption that everyone has a level playing field, and that we’re all reacting to similar circumstances. We’re not, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re aware of that already. I wasn’t. And with regards to this specifically, I can tell you that the flak, insults and criticism I’ve had on my worst day are an unbelievably tiny fraction of what any woman blogging about anything in pop culture gets on an average day.

A while back, I wrote a piece about harassment, looking at it from outside, and part of it was about how my entire life has been a series of these moments where I’ve had that same revelation over and over and over again. There have been moments in my life, over and over, where I’ve had to realize “hey, you shouldn’t use that word,” or “hey, you need to stop assuming that your situation is what everyone else is experiencing.” If you’ve been lucky enough to have that kind of revelation, then you know it’s not a good feeling.

So what do you do once you’re at that point?

To be honest, my first mistake was not owning up to it immediately. I had a reason, in that I don’t think it’s right to push an issue once someone has made it clear that they have no interest in continuing, but that’s another instance of privilege, too. It’s a lot easier for the person who was in the wrong to try to correct their behavior and move along than it is for the person who was wronged to deal with the ongoing consequences. At the very least, not apologizing years ago allowed it to get worse in the meantime, and anything that could’ve been ameliorated by owning up to it then didn’t happen.

As for why I’m doing it now, it is, quite simply, because I got called out on it, both privately and publicly. That’s made a lot of people assume that the apology is hollow and impersonal, and they’re certainly within their rights to see it that way. If I was looking in from the outside, I probably would too. But at the same time, I’ve always felt like the only thing you can do when you’re called out on something like this is to meet it head on. Deflecting it or trying to mitigate it doesn’t help and won’t make anything better. So since this is the biggest platform I have to say it, I want to make this the place where I apologize to Ms. D’Orazio. I’m sorry, I was completely in the wrong, and you have every right to reject this apology for being nowhere near as timely or helpful as it should be.

As for where I go from here, I’d like to think that I’ve spent the intervening years doing a better job as a critic and a person. I’ve tried to use the platform I’ve had to work toward things I believe in, and while it might be hard to believe coming from me now, online harassment really is one of the issues I care about. You don’t hate anything more than the person you used to be, after all, and I know firsthand how easy it is to fall into a pattern of behavior that makes things worse. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve been quick to criticize this behavior when I’ve seen it in others; it’s also why my best case scenario when I call someone out is that the person comes to regret what they did.

By the time I was smart enough to look at what I was doing in a larger context and ask myself if I was making things better or worse, irreparable harm had already been done. So if you take one piece of advice from me over all of this, it’s to ask yourself that question now, keep it in mind going forward, not just for yourself, but for those around you. I’m very lucky to have had people around me, both friends and people that I work with, that have done that for me, and it’s one of the reasons I try to be better and keep working to an industry where things I regret doing have no place.

On a final note, I want to make it clear that abuse and harassment are completely unacceptable. They were when I did it and they certainly are now. To be perfectly frank, and to add on to something I should’ve said a long time ago, anyone who sees this as an opportunity to “support” me by attacking others and dismissing their feelings is without question in the wrong.

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