This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges I’ve been forced to grapple with again and again throughout my life. More so recently, as I’ve found I’m giving less and less of a shit.
It’s especially difficult for women. (Yes, I see you all!)
Let’s take the most recent (and ongoing) incident that I’ve been faced with…
So I write for a local newspaper. I’m the only editor/writer/reporter/photographer on staff. It’s a community driven newspaper, which means much of the content is submitted and I write/cover newsworthy events, such as festivals, 100th birthdays, etc. Let me be clear: it is NOT a politically driven publication, nor do I do investigative journalism.
The local politicians, however, don’t seem to grasp that.
One politician in particular, who tried running for town supervisor in 2017 and lost, would frequently text me (yes, text, as opposed to calling me at my office or emailing me on my work email, despite the numerous times I asked him to do so), demanding that I cover certain topics that served his agenda. Note that I had met with him twice in person. He puts on a good show… as long as the people around him are giving him praise. Once someone disagrees with him, he gets angry and starts lashing out like a child throwing a tantrum.
Anyhoo, I first got a taste of this man’s true colors when he called me (again, on my cell) about submitting a letter to the editor. I remember very distinctly what he said (regarding the upcoming election):
“I’m going to win. Don’t you think so? I’m definitely going to win. Know what I’m going to do when I win? I’m going to sit in the supervisor’s chair at the first town board meeting, look straight into the camera, hold up my middle finger, and say “f#*% you, [name of the incumbent supervisor].”
It was then that I knew I was speaking with someone who was very unstable and unfit for public office. But instead of ending the call right then and there, or calling him out for his inappropriate remark, I was so afraid and taken back that I laughed.
I laughed. To this day, I regret that.
Two years later, as the next local election began approaching once again, I learned that the political party that had endorsed this politician the first time was endorsing a new one. Let it be known that I had little to no experience covering a primary election prior to this. I was still learning the ropes while still trying to maintain the newspaper’s “not politically motivated” stance.
I made a mistake. A big, but human nature mistake.
I didn’t research as thoroughly as I should have and didn’t realize the politician who I had dealt with before was still going to run against the endorsed candidate. So when I ran a list of the candidates for supervisor and town board for the local primary election…
I inadvertently left his name out.
Of course, it wasn’t long before his angry texts came rolling in. I apologized and said I would run a correction with his name included on the front page up through the primary election date. (I regretted the mistake and took action to make amends; remember what I’ve said about regret versus guilt?)
It was then that he angrily started insisting that I interview just him, and write an article about JUST HIM to make up for it. I told him I was not comfortable doing that, and that if I were to write an article about the election, I would write about each candidate, not just him. I then asked him to remove my cell number from his contact list and to call me at my office number or email me instead. He refused, insisting that I was an editor of a tax-paid newspaper (not true, btw) and should always be accessible.
It was then that I finally blocked his number.
Which meant he would turn to his next preferred platform: Facebook.
Haters Gonna Hate
In a Facebook post, this politician falsely accused me of working for “the other side,” and for trying to hurt his campaign.
Now: I’ve never engaged with such posts before. I’ve always “stayed out of it,” not wanting to “stir the pot.” But this time, for some reason, I felt compelled to comment.
As professionally as I could, I simply said he was welcome to write a letter to the editor, as the other candidates had done, to share his stance on certain issues and what his plans were for town supervisor. I also explained how the newspaper does not endorse any political party, and that the only reason I had not yet written an article about the candidates yet was because one of the candidates made me feel unsafe, so I was still trying to find a way to conduct interviews safely.
Not once did I name him as the candidate who made me feel unsafe. But he pushed.
Before responding to his push-back, I thought long and hard about whether to engage. I started to feel guilty for saying anything at all. But then I looked at it realistically: what was wrong with what I said? Was it true? Yes. Did I say it professionally? Yes. Was I rude? No. Was I trying to “get back” at him? No.
The only thing I was doing: speaking up for myself.
So then I thought about what would happen if I did NOT explain what made me feel unsafe. The public might unknowingly vote for someone violent. Others who have had similar experiences might continue keeping it to themselves and feel responsible for his inappropriate behavior.
Would I be risking verbal harassment from him? Yes. But I was already a target. Would I risk losing a subscriber or two? Yes.
But could I live with myself if I didn’t say something? I decided that I could not.
So I did it. I stated simply that his “aggressive demeanor” made me feel unsafe.
Long story short: the town went wild.
I became a target for the (very few) supporters of the candidate (one of them later discovered to be a fake Facebook account). They accused me of being an irresponsible journalist; that journalists are supposed to put their lives on the line for the sake of the public. (I am NOT The New York Times, people!) They implied that I was lying, and demanded that I give evidence of such behavior. They accused me of “becoming the news” when I should only be reporting it.
In other words: “How DARE you speak up? How DARE you tell your truth? How DARE you confront a man who is saying negative things about you? How DARE you not apologize?”
Obviously, I began to feel guilty. Were these people right? Should I apologize? Am I going to lose my job?
But a couple days later, something interesting happened. I started receiving emails and Facebook messages from people who had experienced similar aggressive encounters with the candidate. They expressed their support, commending me for “sticking to my guns.”
Of particular significance were the messages I received from women who have experienced similar harassment from this man. One woman said she still suffers from PTSD from her experiences with him, and told me how fearful she was of the idea of him serving in public office.
She confided in me, hoping somehow I could do something.
Long story short, I’m still being harassed by this man as he now accuses me of influencing his loss in the primary with my comments.
And while the feelings of guilt keep trying to slither their way into my thoughts…
My conscience is clean.
It’s amazing what you realize when you look at the thing you feel guilty about in the microscope of reality. What did I feel guilty about exactly? Speaking out? Telling the truth? Trying to stay safe? Following my gut? Giving others a voice?
Why should I feel guilty about any of these things?
Others will do their darndest to make you feel guilty about something that really isn’t a problem with you at all: it’s a problem with them. They even try to convince you that your intentions were to hurt them, and were malicious. I can’t tell you how many times I have second guessed myself, starting to believe what others claim about my intentions or motivations: “I’m a manipulative journalist spreading lies! How could I?” “I’m a troll trying to influence the outcome of the election; how could I?” “I made someone angry; how could I?”
How could I… How DARE I??
Pick Your Battles
All this is well and good, but I think it’s worth pointing out the importance of picking your battles. You don’t want to become the boy who cried wolf by speaking out about every single thing.
As a journalist, I am no stranger to criticism. I have received many an angry email throughout my 5 years on the job. It’s the nature of the beast.
In many of those cases, I ask myself: “Is this worth making a big fuss over?”
Yes, criticism hurts. But if it’s merely your pride or bruised self-esteem that’s prompting you to argue, it is usually a battle not worth your time. Engaging is simply giving your critics what they want.
In some cases, however, you owe it to yourself (and sometimes to others as well) to speak out. For example, I determined it was important to speak out because I was standing up for my own personal safety and making it known to the public that this individual running for public office has violent tendencies that could hurt others.
If you are not sure whether or not it’s worth the stress and anxiety to speak out for yourself, it often helps to sleep on it for a day or two. This allows you to calm down any impulsive emotions so that you can really listen to your inner sense of reason.
Because you always have the answer. But sometimes our emotions get really loud and make it difficult to hear.
Don’t Let Others Tell You Who You Are or How to Feel
“Give it a rest.”
“Let it go.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“Don’t make it a big thing.”
These are all things people have said to me. Interestingly enough, they’ve all come from men… (Not to put down all men; my dad is one of the most outstanding human beings I know.)
When it comes to speaking up, people will often make you feel guilty for feeling what you feel and wanting to defend your own honor.
Or your attacker will say all kinds of things about what you are “trying to do,” painting a picture of your “malicious” motivations as if it were fact. You start to feel convinced that what they are saying is true, causing you to spiral into the pits of self-hate.
DO NOT FALL FOR IT!
Only YOU know what your motivations are, what you feel, and what your gut is telling you to do. Just as any other human being is worthy of love, so are you. Sometimes (most of the time, actually), you are called on to be your own hero. And you have that right. You are a human being worth standing up for.
In conclusion, I would like to refer you to the wise lyrics of Kelly Clarkson in one of my favorite songs by her, Mr. Know It All:
“Mr. Know It All
Well ya think you know it all
But ya don’t know a thing at all
Ain’t it something y’all
When somebody tells you something ‘bout you
Think that they know you more than you do
So you take it down, another pill to swallow
Mr. Bring Me Down
Well ya like to bring me down, don’t ya
But I ain’t laying down, baby
I ain’t going down
Can’t nobody tell me how it’s gonna be
Nobody gonna make a fool out of me
Baby, you should know that I lead not follow
Oh you think that you know me, know me
That’s why I’m leaving you lonely, lonely
‘Cause baby you don’t know a thing about me
You don’t know a thing about me
You ain’t got the right to tell me
When and where to go, no right to tell me
Acting like you own me lately
Yeah baby, you don’t know a thing about me
You don’t know a thing about me”