Jane published an excellent post yesterday, and I urge you to go read it now. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it – it’s one of those things you read and then turn over in your head in bed, instead of shutting your brain down and going to sleep. So Jane will have to forgive me here for responding to her article with my own perspective.
I couldn’t help relate Jane’s article to a bunch of ‘etiquette’ advice posts I’ve read on some big blogs lately. The sense of frustration I felt when reading these left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s clear to me that many such posts are created with good intentions, and no doubt many bloggers and readers out there would like to emulate the model of ‘success’ of the big blogs. But what we actually end up with is a flattening out of ourselves into some formula. Like Jane, what disturbs me the most is the advice thrown out to be happy, positive and avoid the negativity at all costs; to avoid criticism (both on the receiving and giving end), to avoid expressing sadness and to avoid calling people out. It’s like trying to sanitise both your blog and your life where the default tone is happy shiny positivity with a ribbon on top.
I’m aware that many of these blogs are businesses and so the people who run them feel they have to manage themselves this way in order to maintain their income. Fine, I get that. But maintaining a blog that is also a business does not mean having to rule out any space for critique, sadness and necessary negativity. It’s also about time the blog world learned the difference between abusive trolling and valid criticism. I’m sorry, but I do roll my eyes repeatedly when I hear a blogger exclaim in a preppy dismissive tone when encountering thoughtful criticism that ‘life’s too short, be happy and nice!’ I can definitely get behind the sentiments of being kind, giving people the benefit of the doubt and treating other people with decency and respect. What I can’t get behind is the assumption that I should just ‘get over’ stuff that is ethically wrong or problematic, simply because it is deemed ‘negative’ to raise these topics and discuss them honestly. Yes, life is too short; it’s too short not to fight for things that are worth fighting for – things that may make others uncomfortable, and things that may be difficult. Life is too short not to care. If I am only here on this planet for a short time, I sure want to live it as ethically and as responsibly as I can. I don’t want to gloss over the ‘bad’ stuff, I don’t want to look the other way when I see something that feels wrong, I don’t want to shut my mouth all the time and play ‘nice’.
These advice posts aren’t particularly unique as they speak of the general suspicion within our culture of any emotion that isn’t readily upbeat and simplistically ‘happy’. When somebody asks you how you are, you’re supposed to say ‘I’m great’, or ‘I’m fine’. If you tell the truth on crappy days you will most likely risk alienating people – because, after all, you’re supposed to be ‘happy’ all the time! This should be obvious, but life isn’t a freaking rainbow. Human beings have a wide range of valid emotions and our default setting isn’t HAPPY WITH A SMILE. And you know, sometimes responsible adults have to be negative, they have to criticise when they see something wrong, they have to call out unacceptable things. This is not being a grumpy nasty-pants, it’s called living in the world as a self-aware human being with standards and ethics. I am a human being, not a brand; I do not need to be fixed, managed, or marketed.
There is also another issue here. Because I regularly write about feminism on my blog and elsewhere, and because I have a PhD, I get repeated rounds of other condescending ‘advice’ via emails and comments (and sometimes twitter and tumblr) telling me how I am just so wrong about everything, right down to how I do my hair (gleaned from the one measly photo of myself I was willing to put up on this blog), to what I think about a certain film, to guys lecturing me on how my feminism is just bullshit and they’ll teach me how to live properly. I think my favourite ‘advice’ comes in the form of ‘what would your mother say?’ or some other lame attempt to infantilise me by calling upon the authority of my mother. Here’s a hint: only my actual mother can get away with this, because she is my actual mother. Everyone else who thinks they can talk down to me by virtue of my gender can fuck right off.
I know the inner tactics of this unsolicited ‘advice’ now. It took me some time to recognise how it operates through implicit sexism. But now that I know what it is, it simply comes across as desperate attempts to put me in my place. It’s perhaps the most demeaning and insulting form of the ‘be happy!’ advice that I regularly receive. Because it always comes masked as ‘concern’ when I talk about difficult and uncomfortable topics on my blog – fake ‘concern’ that my poor little female self just can’t handle life.
I guess what I’m saying here is that the imperative to ‘be happy’ comes in all shapes and forms, and whatever way someone tries to put you in your place, there is usually an internal bullshit-detector that will warn you of what they are doing. It takes time to find this bullshit-detector when it’s been buried under years of ‘be nice little girl’, but it’s there. And I hope everyone finds their own detector, because your humanity and individuality is a fragile and beautiful thing, worth preserving and worth fighting for – even if it means being (gasp!) ‘negative’ sometimes.