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“Haters Prove You’re Doing Something Right”

Two Slate writers read and consider their foulest hate mail.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Slate’s journalism is built around argumentation, and Slate commenters often cheerfully join the debate. Not all readers, however, stick to the rules of the game. This week, Outward’s Mark Joseph Stern and DoubleX’s Katy Waldman exchanged views on hate tweets, anonymous vitriol, and reading your hate mail to your parents.

Mark Joseph Stern: Good afternoon, you repellent hater of men!

Katy Waldman: Greetings, you pustule of humanity!

Stern: Our topic today is haters: how we deal with them and how they influence our work. Katy, you write about women’s issues from a feminist perspective; I cover LGBTQ issues from a gay perspective. Between us, we’ve probably got enough dedicated haters to fill Dante’s fifth circle of hell. How do you keep them from devastating your ego?

Waldman: My philosophy of haters: I wish they did not exist, but I enjoy finding the silver lining in their screeds. They can be really clever! Their hatred has “passionate intensity,” as Yeats would say. It is inspiring. And I’m always kinda glad if I can make people … feel in our deadened world. What’s your take?

Stern: My philosophy, which I fear might sound like a #SlatePitch too far, is that the existence of haters proves you’re doing something right as a writer. Slate is largely opinion journalism; we’re hired to make arguments. If those arguments aren’t ruffling feathers, then what’s the point? I take it as a compliment when someone despises my work with a passion—it means, at the very least, that s/he’s engaged with it at an analytical level.

That said, sometimes haters are just crude and vicious, as our hate-read video illustrates. What’s your reaction when a person you’ve never met calls you the C-word?

Waldman: In a way, the truly hateful haters—the ones who go after you personally—are easier for me to stomach. I don’t get the sense that they have engaged with my work as an argument. They’re just mean! And they don’t like the surface of what they see, but they can’t take the time to explain why. It’s the really smart, meticulously worded hate-o-grams that get to me. It’s a lot easier to just type the C-word and call it a day. But what about you? Does the sheer vileness of those personal insults bug you more than something more restrained?

Stern: Sometimes a hateful tweet or comment is so absurdly nasty, so over-the-top in its vitriol, that I find it hilarious, and save it to show my friends and family. In a sense, I’m honored someone would spend so long crafting such a cruelly poetic missive all for me.

Waldman: Ha! How does your family react? Do they laugh, or are they outraged on your behalf?

Stern: I think my parents are still a bit disturbed that someone I’ve never met would, for instance, confidently cast my soul to hell. But almost everybody else enjoys it. You’re right, though, that these comments sting a lot less than those that, with laser precision, claim a terrible flaw in your argument.

Waldman: Yes. There is definitely some artistry going on in the best takedowns, an evil genius.

Stern: I also must admit: Sometimes, if someone drops a “fag” in an otherwise well-reasoned rejoinder to a piece of mine, I’ll be relieved—it means I don’t really have to take that criticism as seriously.

Waldman: Ooh, that’s a good point. It’s like they are trying to craft this elegant, discerning persona, but then that little gob of bigotry gives them away. I agree—those moments are a huge relief.

I have to say, there are a few completely unsubstantiated claims that have made me feel really sad! For instance, someone once told me I had no friends and would always be sad and alone. And I do have friends! (I think?) And I don’t believe I am destined to be sad and alone for my entire life. But it made me really bummed that someone would prophesy that about me. Like, what if this is the one psychic person who reads Slate? And I’ve attracted his wrath and also his powerful supernatural foresight? IT COULD HAPPEN.

Stern: Oh dear! Now, that’s interesting—I rarely get criticism so strangely personal. I think misogynists operate different from homophobes, creationists, and intactivists, which are the main demographics that deeply despise me. Misogynists clearly want to make you feel insecure and alone; that gives them the most pleasure. My haters are more concerned with neutralizing my argument; even ad hominem attacks are meant to assassinate my opinion as much as my character.

Waldman: I’m interested in whether you think managing haters in your online life has any offline repercussions. Do you feel that your skin in general has grown thicker? Does a harsh word from a co-worker no longer sting, you jerk?

Stern: The biggest threat that arises from having such a sizable hive of haters, online and off, is that you’ll become not just inured to criticism, but immune to it. When haters are flooding your Twitter with nastygrams, it’s easy to just block out ALL critiques, to lump them all in the same pile of craziness. But that’s an impulse that needs to be stifled. Hate is bad. But criticism is good. It’s necessary and healthy for any writer.

Waldman: That’s a great point! Because the fact is, I do really care what readers think. I want them to like my work or feel challenged or intrigued by it. I don’t want them to feel like they’ve wasted their time! And even if someone is griping in order to make you feel bad, that’s not a sufficient reason to discount what s/he’s saying, unfortunately.

Stern: Agreed! I always read my comments—though I beg my parents not to—and I often engage with my readers. Some of them are whip-smart. I even value the input of some of my readers who clearly dislike my work; they show me the weaknesses in my arguments, where I can improve next time.

Waldman: I feel like I learn a lot from reading comments. A lot of times, I really enjoy it. Sometimes I do not … but I force myself. Readers will call you on your bullshit.

Stern: That’s right. So the trick is sorting out the critics from the haters. And sadly, I don’t have a bright-line rule to guide that process.

Waldman: Yes, that’s the holy grail.

Stern:  The only bright-line rule I can promulgate: If you’re writing about circumcision, prepare for an influx of PURE, RAW HATRED.

Waldman: I don’t think I’ve ever received so much hate for ANYTHING as when I published a piece against grapefruit.

Stern: Certain topics—grapefruit, foreskins—will always be a flashpoint, I suppose.

Waldman: Mark, can I close by observing that you are a total pit stain, a putrid tuberculous scumsack, a mendacious little dolt?

Stern:  Indeed—but only if I can bid adieu by noting that you are an execrable, foul-smelling, misandrist wretch.