Saturday, 25 March 2017

Flying the flag for Freedomville.

On Friday morning, I rang a wise friend. ‘How is dear old London?’ I said.
She said: ‘You know how it is. Rather quiet yesterday, with lots of helicopters overhead, and then today it’s as if everything is back to normal.’
I remembered that exactly after the Admiral Duncan bomb, when I was staying in Soho, and Old Compton Street was like an open air memorial the day after. And the day after that, the crowds were gossiping and hurrying and laughing and the boulevardiers were out and the cool media types were running into the looping studios and London had got her mojo back.
‘Can I be rather bathetic?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ said my wise friend, who puts up with a lot.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Someone came to the blog and called me petty and passive aggressive and a coward. Also, not a nice person.’
Slight pause. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I see.’
The absolutely dazzling thing was that she did see and she set the thing in context and saw what it all meant and we laughed quite a lot and I thanked her from my heart and then I went and fed the horses and wrote some book and did my work for HorseBack and walked the dogs and went about my ordinary life.
I have a technique for when people are angry with me on the internet. The attacks used to hurt like buggery and I would get so upset I had to shut myself in a darkened room. I felt ashamed about this, as if I were being the wettest of weeds. So I devised a strategy. It is: give permission. Not to the actual person – that ship has already sailed – but to everyone. Freedom of expression, I cry, flying my flag of liberty. Everyone must think what they think and say what they say. I make out my imaginary certificate, hung with official seals, and stamp it with a socking great stamp. There. Now all the keyboard warriors are living in Freedomville, and must type exactly what they please. The old lady in me does wish that there was a little less fury, the restraint of good manners, perhaps not the automatic knee-jerk of ad hominem. But if I get to express my own opinions, so must everyone else.
This particular jeremiad had a lot in it, and it made me think. Oddly, it did not make me cry. (This kind of stuff usually does. I told you I was wet.) The writer was wrong about some things, but she was right about others. I have an awful lot of human flaws, and she hit some of them right on the bullseye. I can absolutely fall into the ugly pit of passive aggression. I’m absolutely terrified of confrontation, and sometimes I hit back at people whilst pretending that I am being perfectly reasonable and charming. I think I’ve got my inner bitch locked up in a room like the first Mrs Rochester, and she bloody well climbs out the window and puts on a hat and goes on the rampage. These are not my finest hours and I am not proud of them.
I am, as the writer points out, shockingly repetitive. I get hold of beloved tropes and phrases and quotes and flog the poor buggers to death. I used to yearn to be original, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. If I had a report card on this one, it would say, in stern black letters: must try harder.
I also have a habit of going into a defensive crouch when someone says something disobliging. So the accusation of cowardice is not a million miles off the mark. I should come out swinging. I should get sweary and make jokes and draw on my Blitz spirit. Yes, I should probably say, I’m not fucking perfect and thank you so much for fucking saying so and now will everyone just fuck off.  Instead of which I retreat into my room and feel a bit bashed and bruised and gaze at my navel in a most unsatisfactory manner. I long for every day to be a butch day, but it isn’t.
Ignore the critics, everyone always says. I’m not so sure. I’ve made someone absolutely incandescent with fury and I think that deserves some attention. Another of my acute weaknesses is that I have a secret desire for everyone to think I’m fabulous. It’s a revolting wish, and I try every day to let it go. Here, that tragic part of me says, I’ve done a lovely tap dance for you, tell me you love it. The rational part of me knows that some people will hate it. There she goes again, they will say, livid and disgusted, with her buggery jazz hands and her bogus hat. The irrational part of me says: but I did a dance. The plaintive voice says: is that not worth one flower?
Here is what happened. A long time ago, I wrote a post about love. Someone wrote a comment on it. I was rather hurt and crushed by the comment, and later I put it into a book I wrote. It was in a chapter on unsolicited advice. I have a visceral dislike of unsolicited advice and I used the incident to illustrate why. The way I saw it, possibly with the sliver of ice in the writer’s heart that Graham Greene wrote about, was that something had been written in a public forum and I had a perfect right to say what I felt about that. (Freedomville! Fly the flag!)
Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a long response. I’m going to reproduce it here because I want it out in the open, not hidden away in the comments section. I want to hold to my belief in freedom of expression. There are a couple of errors of fact – I did not call the writer smug or de haut en bas, I said that unsolicited advice has that air about it. But the person feels what she feels and I’m not going to argue with that. In some ways, I’m sad she’s gone from the blog, because I’d like her to see that I’m not deleting her words as she said I would, but putting them right up front, where they can be seen. As long as nobody is shouting fire in a crowded theatre, everybody has the absolute right to express their opinion, think their thoughts, feel their feelings. That is what modern democracy and liberalism are all about. The thought police are not going to bash down the door; nobody is going to take you away in the night for not adhering to the state line. Words, beautiful, vivid, expressive words, are free, and some people really did fight and die for that freedom. Don’t shut it down, I think: open it up. It’s a gaudy festival, not a cold three-line-whip.
Some of you will agree with this; some of you won’t. I think some of it is right and some of it is wrong. But I’m damn well not going to go and hide in my darkened room. It deserves its place in the sun.
Here it is:
I have been a loyal reader (and commenter) on your blog for several years. When I saw that you had a new book out, I excitedly went to Amazon to take a peek at it.
And, there, in black and white, I saw that you had written about… me! Or, more specifically, flayed my skin off in a scathing, passive-aggressive manner for giving “unsolicited advice”. I went back to your blog to read exactly what I had written in the comment section, to refresh my memory.
As my last comment to you, I would like to respond. (You know, in an honest way, directly to you, not writing it in a book so you don’t have a chance to reply.)
1. When you write a blog and leave the comments section open, the things people write there are not “unsolicited”. If you didn’t want to hear what people thought, you should have disabled the comments section. Having an open comments section is giving people implicit permission to express their views. It’s a common part of blog culture. For you to “make an example of me” – to dedicate an entire chapter of What Tania Thinks You Shouldn’t Do to my “unsolicited advice” is really the pot calling the kettle black, sister.
2. You write that my comment was “not meant as a rebuke” – so you admit that you knew my intentions were good. The fact that you decided to throw a hissy fit because I dared to suggest that you keep an open mind to something is entirely your problem, your choice.
3. You said that I had “effectively told you that you do not know your own mind.” You, who spend your life changing the way horses behave, looking for the “perfect canter” (when they probably just want to be left alone, as they are very capable of being perfectly horsey without help), can’t tolerate a person (who has encouraged you and clapped for all your successes, and cried right along with you when The Duchess and Pigeon and Myfanwy and your mum died) saying “hey, I know what you mean about this, but keep an open mind to other possibilities”… “hey, I know you have experienced this thing, but I have experienced this other thing, and since we are both human beings, it’s possible you might experience this other thing too.”
4. You write “One Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece about how I do not really do romantic love. ONE Valentine’s Day? Are you kidding? You’ve written about that topic over, and over, and over again. You repeat yourself constantly, whether it’s “I was going to write this great blog today, but all the words have gone.”, et al, and etc. and etc. forever. I had to wade through at least five posts on the topic to even find the one where I left my horrendous, offensive, “unsolicited” comment.
5. You criticize my comment, using the word “smug”, immediately followed by the phrase “de haut en bas air”. Wow, good thing you’re not smug or superior, Tania. All of us regular folks always hate a “de haut en bas air”, rahhly we do.
You’ve had your little spite, you hurt my feelings in a public forum, and did a good job of it. Thanks for letting me know that you’re really not a nice person, no matter how many dogs and horses and hills you go on about. You’re petty, and passive-aggressive, and you’re a coward.
I'm not signing this because you know exactly who I am, having been so singularly offended by me that you dedicated a whole chapter to me in your book, and I'm sure you'll delete this comment from your blog immediately, just as I am deleting you from my blogroll.
As far as your “passionate declaration” about “not doing romantic love”? I retract my advice, Tania. You’re doing men (or is it women?) everywhere a big favor. Stay single. Please. Good romantic relationships require guts, up-front honesty, and willingness to give and take opinions and ideas. You wouldn’t understand.

There. It’s out. I freely admit that the getting it out is slightly self-indulgent. It’s a psychological thing. I need it out of my head and onto the page. And since it’s Saturday and I’m allowed to indulge myself on Saturdays, here is the offending chapter too:

Chapter Five: Don’t say the thing. Or, the fatal error of offering unsolicited advice.
Whilst there are things one should say and not merely think, there are also things one should think and not say.
            There are some people who take an overweening pride in their honesty, their plain dealing, their straight talking. All these are good things, but, pushed too far, they can tumble into narcissism and self-importance. Do other humans really need to know exactly what someone thinks of their life choices, their personal belief systems, their taste in clothes? I start to believe that unsolicited advice is not only bad manners, but an act of aggression. Who died and made some earnest expert the judge and jury?
            I see this giving of opinions all the time. People tell other people, in real life and online, what they should be doing with their husbands, their wives, their children, their dogs, their horses, their jobs, their hamsters. The rise of social media has turned everyone into a pundit, so that this spreading of opinions has gone viral.
            One Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece about how I do not really do romantic love, of how I believe much more in all the other loves, the ones that are not written about in poetry and plays and pop songs. I wrote of the love of place, of family, of friends, of words and trees and stars and hills. I waxed eloquent. I must admit that I was pretty pleased with that little hymn to the other loves.
Someone came along, and, in the most well-meaning way, stomped all over my passionate declaration. I was wrong, said the helpful person; romantic love was marvellous and I should keep myself open to it or I would be missing out.
The interesting thing about this was that it was clearly meant as a kind and useful piece of advice. The writer obviously believed that I was motoring down the wrong road, and she was pleased that she was there to set me right. I suspect she might have been horrified to know that I felt it like a whack in the solar plexus.
            Her comment was not meant as a rebuke, but it felt like a rebuke. Fury descended on me like a sandstorm, stinging my exposed skin. It was just one person, with an opinion different to mine, and it took me a while to work out why I was quite so cross. I think it was because someone had come along and effectively told me, without being asked, that I did not know my own mind.
Women get this quite a lot, and it drives me nuts. I spend many hours pondering the good life and trying to get my existential ducks in a row, and this person had effectively told me that all that was for nothing; she knew better. There was nothing mean or unkind in her remarks, but they hit me like a kicking mule. When I want to know, I thought furiously, I will ask.
            Unsolicited advice is a way of saying: I know best. It has a faintly smug, de haut en bas air to it, the lofty certainty that the speaker has cracked the secret of the universe whilst you are still flailing around in the swamp. As a result, it almost never helps. Even if the advice is good, the fact that it is uninvited already has the person to whom it is directed cross and resentful and deaf.
            Everybody is going to make mistakes. That is how they learn things. You can’t stop them from tumbling into error, or make them do what you want them to do or think what you want them to think or like what you want them to like. If a young person came to me this minute and asked me for two suggestions about life they would be: learn to touch type, and never, ever give unsolicited advice.
Sometimes, it is kind and right and polite not to say the thing.

Right. I really am finished now. If any of you have actually read this far, I think you deserve a prize. 


  1. Tania,
    I'd already read your Valentine's Day blog and the recent rebuke before reading today's post. I suppose everyone does have the right to be offended and it's not always clear to the offending party what might cause offence. I also think that none of us can be absolutely fabulous all of the time - with the exception perhaps of Jennifer Saunders! But you generally seem to do a pretty good job.

  2. Unless I managed to miss something, you never named the writer of this unsolicited advice (here or previously in your book). And, if/ since that is the case, I'm wondering why she is getting/ has gotten her knickers in such a twist (I LOVE that British expression; there's nothing equivalent -- that I can readily think of -- in American English). It smacks of a feeling of self-importance that segues all too well with all the worst characteristics which go with imparting "unsolicited advice".
    You do what you do. She doesn't like it. Who's forcing her to read what you write?
    PS I once said to a psychologist (several lifetimes ago & at the beginning of my first strong sense of adult self feelings): "I want everyone to like me" to which she replied, "Even Hitler?" (Obviously in the years well before the whole "Godwined"/ Nazi references came into existence.) Of course I said NO. Point being not everybody is going to fall all over you -- and, for whatever reason some of these people are determined to tell you exactly why not....for "your own good"...of course!

  3. Dear Tania, I think you're fabulous. I saw the comment in question on your earlier post, and my eyebrows nearly shot off the top of my head. My goodness, I thought, someone has certainly taken things to heart. It seems like an enormous overreaction.

    Rude comments drive me nuts. Yes of course people have the right to express themselves, but what about MANNERS? Twitter is a different beast, but to my mind, coming to someone's blog and making rude comments is the same as going into someone's house and being unpleasant. Probably I'm old fashioned, but there it is.

    Please keep doing what you're doing. I follow hundreds of blogs (I'm one of the few who was left so bereft by the loss of Google Reader that I pay for The Old Reader to keep up), but there are a very few that are on my 'A-List' and I'm always thrilled when I see there is a new post from one of them. You are the A-est of the A-list and I'm very grateful that you take time out from your professional writing to share your posts with us. I love your writing and I've learned a lot from you; I often find myself muttering "say the thing" under my breath and taking that advice has been a very good thing.

    1. To clarify, I should say - say the kind and polite thing, not every unfiltered or unsolicited thought :-)

  4. Oh, wow. Just wow. I think you may have been too generous in your assumption that the person meant well. Self-righteous advice is disguised as "meaning well" but it really means to criticize just the same. I hope the commenter will take that to heart. I don't often say stern things in public but sometimes a situation requires it, and this is one of them.

  5. This is a love her and set her free and pray she does not come back to thee situation. LOL! Adore your musings, they quite often make my day!

  6. Wow! That was a long post and so sad. It's sad that the person who made the initial comment meant no harm. Her subsequent comments to you after picking up your book at the bookstore were from someone who felt very hurt and in some ways betrayed. I feel you have been unkind in your response to her reactions. You should have recognized them for what they were without trying to justify using her well-meant words in the way you did and continuing to display her anger and hurt in this post. May I advise that the next time you wish to make a point, you do so without hurting someone who meant no harm. Be kind, always be kind.

  7. Very expressive, thank you! I think these terrorists are just criminals who have latched on to ISIS as a way to self-justify their murderous urges. They use religion for a cover.



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