On words and awareness and ignorance and compassion

Social media is a hyper-emotional space, fraught with extreme opinions, extreme sensitivities, extreme expressions conveyed in extreme compression which leads to extreme misunderstanding.

This is true on Facebook, on blogs, on Instagram, on Reddit, and perhaps especially on Twitter, where the limitation of 140 characters demands an extreme attention to and care with language but where the speed at which Twitter operates often allows time for neither attention nor care.

Such was the case yesterday with Anne Lamott, who, as a hero to writers and a champion of wordsmithing, ought to have known better.

I won’t bother repeating her words more than I already have on Facebook and Twitter, but the gist is this: yesterday, for reasons we may never know, Lamott issued a bizarre pair of tweets about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition, openly refusing to use Jenner’s correct feminine pronoun and fixating on her genitalia in weirdly infantile language.

As her son later took to Twitter to explain, Lamott is from a certain region, culture, and generation, and she seems not to understand or easily accept some of the social progresses we’ve been making these past few months/years/decades. And that’s fair — I completely understand the difficulty many people have in shifting our societal habits and assumptions, and I have certainly advocated for giving people the benefit of that particular doubt and letting them come around.

But what was especially surprising — and what added further insult to the injury Lamott caused (intentionally or unintentionally) yesterday, was her eventual response to the outcry from her fans. Rather than address the controversy, she initially refused to delete her hurtful tweets, and she dismissed hers fans’ criticism as “inaccurate, vicious hysteria.”

To be fair, all this unfolded at Twitter speed. The gap between Lamott’s initial tweets and her later snide dismissal of the controversy lasted more than a dozen hours and, in Twitter, felt interminable and utterly heartless. But in real life, hearts and minds can often take lifetimes to change, so the fact that Lamott came into Twitter this afternoon, barely more than 28 hours after her initial tweets, and finally apologized — and, eventually, deleted the most harmful of her two initial tweets — is progress indeed.

https://twitter.com/ANNELAMOTT/status/609085220554326016?s=09

Some good friends and great writers I know have said it seems too little too late, that the apology seems disingenuous, and I can’t argue with them. But I’m grateful to see it anyway.

None of this is why I’m here writing all this on the blog.

Here’s what I want to write — and this is directly to you, my friends, my family, my fans:

It is important to speak out when we see these things occur.

Even when they’re innocent. Even when the author of such things never intended any such offense.

A lot of people love Anne Lamott so much they were bending over backward trying to excuse the tweets, inventing all sorts of background scenarios or pointing to obscure rules of Twitter syntax to shift the guilt for the offense away from Lamott. And I don’t blame them — though I was one of the tweeters who called Lamott out for the offenses, I certainly didn’t want the offenses to be hers, because I’ve long been a fan of Lamott, not only as a writer but also as a human being. I, too, was looking for any excuse I could find to let her off the hook.

But ultimately, I realized that wasn’t the point. Because it wasn’t Lamott who was on the proverbial hook — it was all the transpeople, all the trans allies and all the friends and family of transpeople, who were on a hook, tormented by the tweets on Lamott’s page. And whoever was responsible for that pain (some suggested Lamott had been hacked; some suggested Lamott was simply quoting a friend), Lamott ultimately was responsible for the tweets on her account. And she eventually took responsibility and apologized.

And I want to say here, now, that I expect you all to do the same for me. Hold me accountable for the things I say here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook. I try hard to remain relatively inoffensive, especially in my public face, but we’re all human beings, and human beings are deeply, inevitably fallible creatures.

So if you ever see anything offensive here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, or in any of my other social media presences, please call me on it.

I’d like to say that whatever offended you wasn’t me — that I got hacked, or that I was unclearly quoting someone else and failed to make my point — but I still want to know that what you saw was offensive. I want the chance to explain it, or to delete it, or to apologize for it. Even if I wasn’t responsible for it in the first place, I never want to ignore it.

Because when others speak out against inhumane offenses, we help each other see what hurts us. And if we’re willing to listen to that, we can begin to develop compassion, we can begin to heal.

I’m not going to say whether Anne Lamott is off the hook she set herself — I’m glad to see any kind of apology and I’m willing to accept it on face value, but I’m also a white straight cisgender male, so I wasn’t the one she (accidentally?) attacked in the first place, and others have rightly written about the pain of those attacks, here, here, here, here, and elsewhere — but I want to join her son, whose tweets in this time have been a model of patience and compassion, in taking that apology as an invitation to further dialogue, to further awareness. To further healing.

And I’d like to invite you all along.

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2 thoughts on “On words and awareness and ignorance and compassion

  1. “…in real life, hearts and minds can often take lifetimes to change…”

    “…I expect you all to do the same for me. Hold me accountable for the things I say here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook. I try hard to remain relatively inoffensive, especially in my public face, but we’re all human beings, and human beings are deeply, inevitably fallible creatures.”

    This is why I hold you in such great esteem, Sam.

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