"Just Because You Said Nasty Things About Me on Twitter it Doesn't Mean We Can't Be Friends"
Mental Illness, Writing, Social Media and Manners
Freddie deBoer has, this week, launched a Substack. (And not only a Substack -- he’s been chosen by the site to be one of their sponsored writers; for a year, he will get paid whether or not he sells subscriptions. One is envious, but pleased for someone one admires greatly.)
Perhaps you know who Freddie is, perhaps you don’t. He’s an author of a recent book on radical education reform, and a long-time writer and blogger for lefty/libertarian sites. He and I have never been friends, though we have many in common. Mostly, I’ve been fascinated by Freddie because he too had an epic meltdown online, and he too is frank about his battles with mental illness, despair, and self-loathing. We are men who have burned many bridges, and who have caused our friends and defenders endless amounts of exasperation, worry, and heartbreak.
As a former friend to both Freddie and me put it, “There’s a thin line between talented and tiresome, and I think you both cross it just a little bit too often.”
I am fascinated with Freddie because of our similarities and our differences, particularly in the divergent ways we look at the world through the cracked prism of our illnesses. (We have different diagnoses, too. I don’t know his, but mine is primarily a personality disorder, and secondarily bipolar disease).
Both Freddie and I “namesearch,” on Twitter, meaning we cannot resist the urge to see what other people are saying about us. (If you do a Twitter search on my full name, you’ll see nothing good.) We have both received contemptuous reactions to our returns to writing after long hiatuses. I wrote in October about how my erstwhile critics on Twitter responded to my launch of this site; Freddie, in only his second Substack post, writes about it today.
He accurately diagnoses what’s at the heart of what makes Twitter so toxic—it is a popularity contest, replete with the same set of double standards and opaque hierarchies that made junior high school so unpleasant for most of us. It is where powerful bullies regale us with claims of their own powerlessness, competing for the wittiest and most cutting remarks and the dopamine hit of likes and retweets. (The salons of the ancien regime, only with slightly fewer wigs.)
Freddie explains that nicely in his letter, but if you have any experience of Twitter, you probably knew this anyway. I want to focus on just one thing he writes today:
At least a dozen times I have met media types in real life who had talked shit about me online. And they were always all smiles. Oh hey dude, nice to meet you. Call me old school, or maybe I’m just weird, but I think that’s a mark of poor character. I tell people I don’t like them in real life all the time, because when you’re an adult you express how you feel honestly rather than feel one way and act a different way.
I have had the exact same experience that Freddie mentions in that first line. I have met people at conferences, and at parties, whom I know perfectly well have said cruel and cutting things about me. They know that I know. As with Freddie, most of these people were polite, even warm. And unlike Freddie, I didn’t think it a mark of poor character in the slightest. Perhaps it’s a consequence of how I was raised, but I’ve always felt that how we behave at parties and in coffee shops is far more revealing of character than what we write on a social media site.
My assumption has always been that the people who claim to hate me most either don’t know anything about me, or their claim is entirely of performative necessity – they need to put some daylight between themselves and me, for political or social reasons. I am convinced down to my bowels that the “shit-talking” is the lie; the warm handshake and the “Hail, fellow, well met!” is the truth. Sites like Twitter, or in the old days, the pages of academic journals, are the places where petty disagreements are fought out in the bitterest of tones, but I’ve always known in my core it’s all for pretend. After we finish saying all these appalling things about each other, do let’s grab a drink and have a laugh? How is your mother doing? Give her my best!
This isn’t just a fantasy of manners. Back in early 2012, when I was wrapped up in a tedious controversy with now-defunct sites like Feministe, a friend of mine called and left a voicemail while I was teaching. “I need you to know I’m going to call you out on Twitter in a few minutes, and it’s going to be rough. I think you know why I need to do it. Don’t take it personally, Hugo, but I will understand if you do. It’s just I have no choice.” I sent them a text back, thanking them for the heads up, and adding “A gentleman doesn’t hold grudges!” A few weeks later, that same person wrote to ask for an introduction to an agent I knew. I gave it gladly.
“A gentleman doesn’t hold grudges” isn’t just some bizarre classist anachronism. It’s a code that has been essential to me as I navigate the world as someone with a mental illness and a penchant for getting myself into scrapes. My self-loathing is an unbelievably powerful force, and it is entirely self-generating. It is a perpetual motion machine, and neither praise nor condemnation from others can do much at this point to change its mode of operation. One of the most effective ways I have found for living with self-hatred is to assume that I am mistaken in my contempt for myself, and that other people think better of me than I do. Assuming that most people love me, or tolerate me with affection, or don’t think anything about me either way, is vastly preferable to suspecting that they despise me.
Freddie writes, “I tell people I don’t like them in real life all the time, because when you’re an adult you express how you feel honestly rather than feel one way and act a different way.”
Feelings are not facts. My emotions fluctuate constantly, and to paraphrase the Red Queen, if it’s a typical morning, I’ve had six different feelings before breakfast. If I were to tell you I don’t like you, it would be to capture a very small snapshot of how I feel, and I’d regret it in ten minutes – but the damage would be done. If I don’t like someone, which is rare for me, I assume it’s because there’s something about them I haven’t seen. This is why manners are so vital – you treat people with generosity and kindness and warmth by default, because you know that your fleeting negative feelings about them are just that, fleeting negative feelings, and not representative of any actual truth.
I do not call out people online. I loathe call-out culture, not just because it is impolite, but because it reduces someone’s infinitely complex identity to something they’ve said or written or done. At the heart of the manners code that sustains me at my lowest is the belief that all offenses, no matter how egregious, are rooted in error or necessity or deep pain rather than genuine malice. And when someone who did say something mean to me online greets me warmly in the flesh, I do not stew at their imagined hypocrisy – I sag with relief to see my belief in people’s basic goodness confirmed.
I shall continue to read Freddie, and I commend him to you as well. And I shall continue to marvel at the varied ways human beings respond to each other’s frailties.