Bold Type: How I Learned to Reject My Online Abusers

Bold Type: How I Learned to Reject My Online Abusers

By Juan Michael Porter II - Juan Michael Porter II is an arts & culture journalist dedicated to the intersection of Black lives, media criticism, and HIV advocacy. He is a National Critics Institute Fellow as well as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and has written for TheBody, TheBodyPro, The Washington Post, SYFY Wire, Observer, TDF Stages, Time Out NY, American Theatre Magazine, Colorlines, AMC Outdoors, Anti-Racism Daily, HuffPost, and Ballet Review. You can find more of his work at juanmichael.com.

After writing a series of essays about my experience with racism as a Black man hiking across public lands, I received an incredible amount of feedback online.

While the bulk of these emails were innocuous and kind, 40 percent of them included dehumanizing threats upon my well-being or extravagant praise that sometimes escalated into spam, sexual harassment, and aggressive demands for my time and engagement.

An Unhealthy Dialogue

What began as a deluge of forty messages a day, from across numerous social media platforms and emails, soon slowed down to between ten and twenty. Unfortunately, these hanger-ons seemed obsessed with scaring or taunting me into responding in ways that only caused me harm.

While I did not take that bait, I did fall into a trap of reading every comment. Sometimes, I responded with polite messages that I hoped conveyed I was paying attention.

If you’re like me, you crave dialogue and embrace engaging people who have read your words. I will admit that I was flattered that anyone had taken the time to track me down, even if it was solely to insult me. In this case, that proved detrimental. The exchanges began to spiral out of control.

When responding to hate mail, I became convinced that I could redeem my detractors if I engaged them respectfully. While corresponding with sycophants and sexual objectifiers, I tried to redirect them towards volunteering for good causes or speaking up against racism instead of fixating on me. Of course, none of these time-consuming endeavours were my job. In fact, I became so distracted that my actual deadlines began to pile up.

When I lecture about writing and criticism, I frequently tell my students that “the enemy of progress is interruption.” I had effectively become a journalist interrupted by the need to respond. Worst of all, I was giving away my most valuable resource: my time.

The Turn Around

That all changed after a few of my correspondents made veiled threats towards some of my former students. The violence in their words awakened me to the fact that I had fallen into a set of toxic relationships with people who I didn’t even know. But even if I had known these people, their behavior would have repulsed me.

Emboldened, I began “ghosting” and blocking anyone whose words felt unpleasant. I moved on to creating a filter in my email accounts that quarantined anything related to hiking or race within a separate folder. And I embraced the mantra that “anyone is free to write to me, but I am not obligated to imbibe their hatred or to respond.”

Advice from a Professional

Dr. Nathaniel Currie, D.S.W., LCSW, a clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in treating trauma, told me that it is essential for all people, but especially writers, to reject abuse and threats.

“Once you read them, they’re in your head and become part of who you are”, he says. “It’s the reason why we don't allow children to watch horror movies; because they can't control what happens with the images in their head. The same theory applies to adults; don’t expose yourself to something that will most likely cause you to feel upset, especially when you already have to deal with so much trauma as part of your everyday job.”

Dr. Currie has personal experience with online harassment. After a tweet about racism went viral, he found himself barraged by unpleasant messages. He responded by making his social media platforms private, turning off comments, and ignoring the urge to respond to any distractions that managed to slip through. Even as a therapist committed to helping people overcome negative behavior, he says that establishing and respecting boundaries is essential.

Looking at how journalists can disengage from online abuse, he says that it starts with acknowledging one’s natural curiosity and then prioritizing personal well-being by refusing to read the comments. “I don't want anything that comes across as harmful or abusive to be part of my experience”, he says. “So I'm going to block it. And so should you.”

I wish that I’d had these strategies in place before I wrote about my time in the outdoors. I wish that I had thought about the potential blowback that my words ended up generating. But I am happy to say that I have embraced that what happened is not my fault and that no amount of hate mail can ever define who I am.

Rather than fixating on the time I invested into unhealthy, online relationships, I forgive myself, write out my angst in a stream-of-consciousness email, and delete it. Having already acknowledged my own role in the drama, I no longer feel the need to speak with anyone else about it. Instead, I have committed to investing solely in things that serve my well-being. This is the only resolution that I need.

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