By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
The most important topics cause the most intense controversy when breached. It has often been said that if you are an activist, and no one hates you, you simply cannot be doing your job. I have been through a near spiritual journey over the last year, figuring out how to navigate the waters of controversy due to my outspoken articles. At this point, I have been called every name in the book, have survived all kinds of outrageous slander, have endured slews of hate emails, and I am still here, breaching the most painful of issues. People used to yell at me all the time for not having thick enough skin when I would delve into controversy. But that presupposes that I knew my words in that instance were going to be controversial. I say lots of things. I really cannot predict which ones will set off the hailstorms of controversy that some do.
Some things that I write about, I know will cause a reaction. When I wrote an article about the faceless, state-subsidized fathers of the welfare system, shaming women and putting them into double-triple duty to make up for the missing man, I knew I was going to take a hard hit. Still, I have to admit, some of the slander going on was pretty outrageous. I was called everything from a whore to a child support fraud criminal to a child abuser... it was pretty amazing. The first 50 hate mails from that article irritated me. The next 50, since they said the same stupid things over and over, started to become humorous to me. The next 50, again saying the same things about how the mother of their kid is a whore gold digger, and then the next 50 after that... well, by the end of it, the aggregate of those hate mails was humorous. They were extremist, they were ridiculous. And taken as a whole, they were even more revealing. So, in the end, I felt more validated in my controversial opinions, due to their reactions to it.
Very often you can tell whether you are doing right or not by WHO is reacting to you. When my article about the Genocide in New Orleans in 2005 was reposted by others and circulated on the White Pride forum circuit, that was a compliment, actually. If I am pissing off Nazis, that is a good thing. When you get raving racist email, from people you pissed off talking about racism, that is a great affirmation, honestly.
I just stirred a bunch of controversy recently by questioning the message we are getting from Cindy Sheehan. My favorite hate mail from that controversy so far is from Leo Hughes ( email@example.com
): "Hey traitor: Nice article there, on bashing Mother Sheehan, it's always great to read about one commie whore bashing on another commie whore. It's a shame that a slimy whore like you gets to call itself an American. I implore you to immediately go to Iraq and become a human shield, to protect the terrorists you obviously love. It's my fervent hope that I will someday read of your gruesome death at the hands of the terrorist scum, knowing that you refused to defend this country and actively worked to undermine it. You are a disgusting PIG!" I can only laugh out loud at that one! So, for voicing my personal opinion on Cindy Sheehan, I am now a whore? That was a radical leap! And so stereotypically Archie-Bunker-ish! Sometimes it is amazing when your controversial articles expose how people are still thinking and functioning in America! For the insights the hate mail brings, I am thankful for controversial articles with punch and power.
I can pretty much tell where a raw nerve is when people fly off around some article posted somewhere on the internet. When I get loads of hate mail, and some fan mail too, in one day, I know I have done my job! It is a trip how an article I post one morning, will have been reposted all over the f*ckin' world within the day if it is something that really touches a nerve. Mostly class, race and sexism issues spurn that type of internet wildfire. The things that piss people off is as telling as any social science research. I often think it would be fun, or maybe I already do this, to throw things I think out there, to just see what freaks everyone out, to gauge where people are at. But it is not fun to play with words, and emotions, and societal faultlines, if you are going to be hurt all the time from the attacks. Or if you are going to stress out trying to defend yourself from the slander about you, personally, in media, for saying what you think out loud and much too clearly.
I am not sure how to get that thick skin you are supposed to have as a political journalist except through experience. I could not get it just coming out of the gate. I took my share of black and blue bruises when I first started getting a wider reading audience. The open comment sections in a lot of alternative media, especially, was a challenge and killed me off at first. When every article I wrote, ended up with the post, "go write a diet book, you hog" with a picture of a very fat, disheveled person posted ON my article's tail, it got really irritating. Other times people would post complete lies on my articles, like I was wanted by the police and criminally charged with this or that horrible crime. But the thing is, over time, I simply had heard the same things over and over again, enough times, like the complaining missing in action welfare fathers, that it became predictable and humorous after a while. In time, I realized there was even a name for these people who just try to get under your skin to divert your energy... they are called "trolls." But it took me quite a while to distinguish a pattern with these trolls so I could get to a place where they did not "win," so to speak. There is a saying on the IMC's, "do not feed the trolls." Unfortunately, no one really explained what that meant to me until I lived through it. I have gotten much better at figuring out when to defend myself, and when to not bother replying to things in comment areas or email, as I now see the pattern and know how to play the game better.
I wrote an article about men who use women, nonconsentually, for sex when they do public exhibitionism. I said that most women 1) did not want the contact of a naked stranger's penis thrust upon them and 2) felt physically threatened by the way men only did things like that when the women and the man are alone in some corner of the public sphere. I knew some idiots would try to stop the discussion of women taking this back into their own hands by putting a spotlight on the man with his penis out. But I did not realize how many men would defend this behavior wholeheartedly as a natural need of men, as something that is good for men and women and something that does not hurt women. Woman after woman said that yes, they were traumatized by "weenie waggers" in their past. Even some men said they also had felt physically frightened and threatened when they experienced weenie waggers whipping it out on them. Over and over people said they did not want the unasked for contact, while man after man posted they were not hurting anything! The vehemence and persistence these men showed regarding this topic was quite telling.
Perhaps my most controversial article to date was one about the Republican National Convention (RNC) protests in New York City in 2004. That thing set people off right and left. All I said was I felt excluded from the protests due to social class and no means to get there. And I began to resent the protests beginning to sound like a big, fun, activist party that I could not attend. So one day, when I was sad that everyone was leaving to the RNC protests but me, it seemed, I wrote an article about how maybe this protest hopping is elitism. I said maybe the RNC protests were just elite white kids protesting FOR everyone else, but never facilitating those who they supposedly represent to any of these "parties." And oh, man, friend and foe alike took me on for that one. Friends said, "how could you have picked right now, right before this protest to put this article out? I am so upset with you!" And others said I was a traitor to the movement for speaking about that. Yet many a poor person wrote me email and thanked me and said they did not feel so left out after reading my article. Adbusters.org asked me if they could post the article on their front page, which they did. Yet others, such as Infoshop.org, would not publish it. It was interesting to see the mix of very intense reactions to that. But my goal was not to set off some huge controversy. My goal was to speak my mind on what was bothering me that day and to make people think. Period.
Some people complain that I always bring my articles back to me, so I am just self-centered. But reality is, I can really only speak about my own personal experience. I think it is weird to talk about important things in third person. I would rather hear things in first person, usually. So, I, purposely, talk about my experiences predominantly. I think it is important to bring things down to earth with real stories that exemplify what I am talking about. The easiest way to do that is to speak from my own experience. Also, there is a certain safety in only criticizing what you know and are part of. When I did a religious comedy act, I did not feel, raised as a Catholic girl, I should be doing Jewish comedy, for instance. I felt I could do Catholic comedy, like Cheech Marin did, coming from the same Catholic high school I came from... but for me to do something like Muslim comedy as a white Catholic girl would have been inappropriate, I think. Likewise, as an American, I can openly criticize my own country's policies, as I am its citizen, but it is not appropriate for me to be talking trash about other countries, generally. It seems there is enough dirty laundry in America that I do not need to tend the mote in any other country's eye, so to speak. So I talk about what I know. And I claim nothing more.
Somehow I am pretty good at causing controversy. I know people who try to be controversial, but nothing they do seems to really ignite people. I do not have that problem. I am somehow able to ignite people, for and against me, quite well, consistently and effortlessly. Some people say that I am incoherent, that my words make no sense and that no one should listen to, or read, me. But I think the problem is that I am too coherent. People can tell exactly what I am saying, and it is shocking, apparently. It is a little disconcerting to know that your own thoughts are so off center from much of society, but with a society as sick as ours in America, being off center from society is not a bad thing.
I encourage writers to take on controversial issues, even though you get battered in the fall out. Even with all the controversy that has come my way in the last few years, I would not trade it for me just towing the party line, and being published in all the lefty mags, without ruffling any feathers, soaking up merely praise and fat paychecks. I would prefer to actually stand on my own, and say things that are not mainstream and to have freedom from the peace activist rhetoric. I would rather have the freedom to think on my own, and to say what I think, than to just please complacent clients and editors with copy edit that says nothing. I would say that the most controversial articles I have written are the most important ones too. They are the ones with the messages in them that haunt you, that make you think later, after reading them. I think there is a good measure of activist effectiveness in controversy and I think it is foolish to shy away from honest writing simply for fear of controversy. I am finding my skin is getting thicker the longer I hear the same old slander and online buffoonery about me, and you will see humorous patterns in your critics too. To shy away from controversy in the media, is to shy away from the really important issues.