What I Learned About Myself from the “Keep YA Kind” Debate

Merriam-Webster, Full Definition of NICE
1 – obsolete
  a :  wanton, dissolute
  b :  coy, reticent
2 a :  showing fastidious or finicky tastes :  particular <too nice a palate to enjoy junk food>
  b :  exacting in requirements or standards :  punctilious <a nice code of honor>
3 :  possessing, marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision and delicacy <nice measurements>
4 obsolete :  trivial
5 a :  pleasing, agreeable <a nice time> <a nice person>
  b :  well-executed <nice shot>
  c :  appropriate, fitting <not a nice word for a formal occasion>
6 a :  socially acceptable :  well-bred <from a nice family>
  b :  virtuous, respectable <was taught that nice girls don’t do that>
7 :  polite, kind <that’s nice of you to say>

I am a recovering nice girl. I say “recovering,” because I have learned several times over that always being nice — emphasis on the always — is not a good life strategy. At least not the way I learned to be nice. Being nice means you silence yourself; it means you put your needs below those of others on a regular basis; it means you regularly tell white lies and lies of omission so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings, whether or not the truth would be useful, important, necessary. Being a nice girl, one who understands, who considers things from all viewpoints all the time, who tries to see the good in everyone and give the benefit of the doubt always, is exhausting and dangerous both.

Of course there’s a healthy way to do it. Of course there are ways to be nice while still taking care of yourself. But I’m learning better words for how to be. Friendly; compassionate; empathetic; polite; forthright; you can be all those things and not be nice. From my time in Al Anon (the friends and family branch of AA), I learned to consider my words from different angles. If I feel the need to say something, there’s THINK: Thoughtful, Helpful or Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, Kind. If it’s necessary, and I can hit two of the remaining four, I’m good to go. There’s HALT: am I hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired? Maybe reconsider. There’s the three-point Does It: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me? All of these tools have helped me be a better, happier, and more forthright person in my daily life, but nowhere do I struggle with “being nice” the way I do on the Internet.

I’ve worked in books for over a decade, and it’s always been my policy not to speak negatively about books or authors on the Internet. Except for extreme cases of unequivocal badness, if I didn’t like a book I just didn’t ever mention it. If I didn’t like an author, ditto. Why spend time talking about the things that you don’t love, when there are so many great things to talk about? I don’t have the same compunctions about things outside my industry; I’m happy to tell you how much I hated Expendables 2, or that the person who put the “whore” joke in Guardians of the Galaxy should be sent to Writing Boot Camp. (It breaks the internal logic of the movie! It’s not just sexist, it’s BAD WRITING. Still mad about it.) But inside my own industry, it just never seemed worth it.

The last few weeks’ controversy over Andrew Smith’s interview and the ensuing Keep YA Kind campaign have pointed out to me just how flawed that strategy is. I watched it unfold, and saw friends on both sides of the line in the sand that developed. I saw reasonable, thoughtful pieces on why his words were wounding for many female readers; I didn’t see the trolling of him, but I’m certain it existed. I definitely saw the trolling of those who were upset by his words; I definitely saw authors (people I know personally, and/or consider role models as well as favorite writers) tell others to stop talking about it, to be nicer, to be kind, that “one of our own” was being unreasonably pilloried. I talked to people who were afraid to say anything, regardless of what they thought about it. I retweeted the statements I agreed with, most particularly Ellen Oh, but other than that I stayed out of it. Because I was afraid of being perceived as mean; because I was confused by the overwhelming support that Smith was getting for what I considered a thoughtless statement. Even now I’m tiptoeing around it, so here goes: I believe his words had the power to hurt and frustrate women. I was one of the women who felt hurt and frustrated. I like to think we’re past the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality, but I know we’re not, and this is just another example that proves it. It’s nice that he is trying, but that doesn’t change the statement itself. And when good friends and smart people were then targeted and harassed for saying so, it made me that much more scared. And to hear people who disagreed with me call those speaking out “overly sensitive,” using gendered language to dismiss concerns, I felt ashamed of my own opinions as well as enraged by their condescending dismissal.

No one hurt me on purpose; no one told me specifically to keep my mouth shut. But that’s what I felt and heard, because people who are important in YA were telling other people that their concerns were invalid, manufactured, or ridiculous. (Sarah McCarry spoke thoughtfully about this.) Nothing about any of the above is unusual for fights on the Internet. They get toxic and they get toxic fast; they get divisive, they attract trolls who drown out the reasonable voices on both sides of any issue. They may not even be about things you would consider important. I’m sure that looking at this from the outside, it looked ridiculous. I’ve certainly observed huge fights I couldn’t even fathom how they had begun. And none of that is ever going to change. Whether or not Twitter gets better at dealing with trolling and harassment; whether we all go somewhere else to have opinions about politics and social issues and books and movies; whether we all use all the strategies all the time to make sure we’re saying everything the most reasoned, thoughtful, necessary way; things will still, occasionally, regularly, be horrible on the Internet.

What I’m thinking about now is what I will do next time. (There will always be a next time.) Because this time, I felt mentally and physically ill about a fight I wasn’t even directly involved in. Would I have felt worse if I had added my voice to the conversation in a meaningful way? What if I said it wrong? What if I’m saying this all wrong now? What if posting this piece means I add fuel to a fire that should by all rights be out? What if the trolls come after me?

Recently, I got a tattoo from a comic book. It’s the non-compliant symbol from Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, and it’s on my left thumb. It’s visible; it’s noticeable; it’s a feminist symbol from outer-space. Why did I do that? To remind myself that I don’t have to be nice all the time. That being socially unacceptable does not make me a worthless person. That I have a responsibility to myself to take care of myself. Because I’m a recovering nice girl, and sometimes I still believe the opposite of all those things. And maybe now, I’ll add to the reminder list. Maybe from now on, it will also remind me that the damage I do myself by staying silent is just as bad — if not worse — as the damage I might receive by speaking. That I don’t have to be perfectly right, perfectly reasoned, perfectly kind all the time to have something worth saying. That that’s ok. That my voice is necessary to me, if no one else.

What I Learned About Myself from the “Keep YA Kind” Debate

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