A hostile act

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Joan Didion has always been one of my favorite writers because I’ve always so easily found myself in much of what she’s written. The following quote being a good example of that:

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

Most writers don’t sit down knowing what they’re going to write. They write to figure it out.  And in doing so hope to achieve some kind of forward momentum, however small. Each attempt at writing is a step on the path of discovery and clarity.

But there is also another reason I am a fan of Didion’s. Because of one specific idea she wrote in a New York Times Book Review in 1976. She writes,

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I’m pretty sure that truer words have never been put to paper. And I’m pretty sure that what I wrote earlier this week demonstrated this idea in a truly epic fashion.

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There are many ways to gauge the quality of a piece of writing. By how many people read it. By how many people were moved by it. By how many people were angered by it. By its originality or clarity.

But perhaps the simplest way to measure the quality of a piece of writing is by how the writer feels after writing it. And when I apply that barometer to the blog post I wrote earlier this week, I can confidently say that it’s probably the worst piece of writing I’ve produced to date.

I certainly stand by what I wrote, but the fact remains that I regret writing it. And I have regretted it since the second I clicked “Publish.” For lack of a better description, I’ve felt like I needed a shower ever since I wrote it. Publishing it should have provided me with a sense of release, a sense of purpose and a sense of closure, at least for that small moment in time. But it did not. Which means I may have needed to write it, but it should never have been shared publicly.

Because the fact of the matter is that we do desperately need more critical literacy in the field of animal welfare. We need to find ways to create critical consumers of information who produce and process information for what it is, rather than blindly clicking Like or Share or Commenting, and tossing up a Facebook post based on emotion and ego. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. We’ve all made these mistakes, and we continue to make them.

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But my post did two things, neither of which I am likely to live down anytime soon: 1) It caused additional grief in a space where there was already plenty of grief to be had, and 2) It wasted a golden opportunity to add something productive to the conversation, and to really dig into how we might help our field develop some of those critical reading and thinking skills.

I could have done justice to the issue of language and how we frame particular ideas for others using any number of other appropriate texts. The recent Esquire article on pit bulls, for example, would have been a great one to use since it may actually be one of the more counterproductive texts ever written on pit bulls.

But instead, I chose to tackle the issue using the most radioactive example of text I could find, because I was angry. I chose to fight fire with fire and managed to burn down half the neighborhood in doing so.

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One person who read what I wrote actually made the comment that they “kept reading and reading trying to find the spot where I would say which camp I was in” and that they were disappointed that I never did. That is perhaps another major indicator of what a poor piece of writing this really was: That one of my readers so profoundly failed to understand what it was that I wrote.

The definition of a bad reader is someone who reads through a text, never actually comprehending anything in it or the piece as a whole, because they’re too busy looking for information in that writing to reaffirm their own beliefs. I used to do that as a reader. And once I stopped doing it, a whole new world of nuance, complexity and discovery unfolded before me. A world that allowed me to embrace the gray, and stop boiling everything down to black and white.

It was really unfortunate the way BAD RAP chose to frame that post last week, and I can’t say I’m interested in following them on this new path they’re on. But the way I chose to respond to it this week was even more unfortunate. And no matter how many times I click my heels and hug my dog, there’s no going back on such a monumentally unfortunate decision.

What I wrote was, as Didion puts it, a hostile act. And all I can do at this point is keep writing, and hope that I find a way to be smarter and more productive in doing so.

About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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11 Responses to A hostile act

  1. EB Calkins says:

    I understand your regrets and have suffered similar pangs after writing an inappropriate email or letter to the editor. However, I feel that all important social movements need a variety of tactics in order to create change. Peaceful sit-ins and loud protests, legal challenges and in-your-face pointing fingers. I know that my skills and comfort level are in the quieter arenas, but I count on others to be loud to balance my more conciliatory ways. Together, there may be a chance of making a difference. So you crossed your comfort boundary, and now you have regrets. Perhaps that’s not your strength. But, I’m still glad that I read it and thank you for writing it.

  2. Brava. I loved last week’s piece, and I love this one. I know that awful feeling. My friend always reminds me, as EB Calkins touches on above, that social change needs people in all sorts of roles. It’s OK to go over the edge sometimes. Thank you, thank you for BOTH posts.

  3. I’m with EBCalkins and Eileenanddogs. What they said.

  4. Gosh, really? I liked the piece about the BAD RAP post a lot and felt it took courage to write and post. It didn’t offend me in any way and I thought it made some important points about how social media can be used to create drama. Don’t beat yourself up too much!

  5. Blanche says:

    Not only are you a smart writer, you now reveal yourself to be an ethical and honest one. That’s a pretty decent thing to be.
    I liked both of these pieces very much. And for what it’s worth, I thought the point you were trying to make in “Reading between the lines” was well made.
    I’m sorry that you have regretted publishing it and that it seems to have started something you for which you weren’t hoping. But it was still a nice piece of writing.
    The animal welfare world can be thin glass darkly tinted….hard to see through to the real issue, hard to walk across without breaking, hard to handle without getting cut.
    I think you did well.

  6. calkinsbetsy says:

    My mother was BORN (and is still alive) the year that women FINALLY got the right to vote, despite our clear constitutional rights from the birth of our nation. Many women suffered and fought so that their daughters and daughter’s daughters would not have to. Some things are worth getting people riled up. Keep up the good thinking and communicating, it’s needed!

    Women’s Right to Vote: Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.

  7. Pingback: Reading between the lines | The Unexamined Dog

  8. I am a new follower to your blog and although I certainly can relate to feelings of regret at words I have said at times, this blog reminded all of us to be critical readers. It is far to easy to read the lines alone and move on to the next one but so often it is vital that we really read what is the meaning of the words. Whether it was begun out of frustration, you touched people about a very important topic that is always going to generate disagreements. I never felt that this was a hostile article in any way. One thing that I particularly liked is your reference to the importance of working “with” shelters. We are not able to pull a lot of dogs but we work tirelessly with shelters and shelter staff to help them work with dogs, and working with the public to help them understand behavior and help them to keep their dogs. Thank you for inspiring me to read between the lines more often! Please don’t change!

  9. Hi Emily –

    There are times, I think, when writers can pull too many punches in an effort to avoid being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Your piece on the BAD RAP issue is a great example of a well thought out and well presented piece. It is possible that some of the feedback you are receiving (e.g., not knowing which side of the issue you are on) only serves to prove your point. Readers have a difficult time applying critical thinking and critical reading skills to writing beyond 140 characters or so. Ironic, to be sure, but there it is.

    In my own writing, I walk that fine line between saying what I feel and saying it in a way that will minimize any misinterpretation of what I’m trying to say. I find that I am more or less successful at that depending on the level of controversy the topic may generate. The more challenging the ideas, the more people seem willing to ignore whatever I’m trying to say and simply re-interpret it in the leasts or most favourable way to support their own views.

    I find your writing refreshing in its personal and unapologetic approach to self-examination (something I feel is greatly lacking in the dog training world). As a writer myself, I totally understand “writer’s remorse” but at some level I feel that I do have a right to my thoughts and my words. Sometimes it’s not my job to fix the problem or make a legitimate contribution when I write. Sometimes I feel that I have the right to just say what’s on my mind, to say I think something sucks, or that something should get fixed even if I don’t have the answer.

    There is a world of difference between setting out to set fire to a topic and pulling back and describing the fire you see and expressing your feelings about it. You can’t feel responsible if others misunderstand and throw more gasoline or complain that you aren’t throwing water.

    Keep up the great work! I look forward to more good words.
    Eric Brad
    Canine Nation

  10. Peri says:

    I am also a new follower. Found you on FB with the “Bad Rap” blog. I thought it was a very insightful piece and I read several of your older blogs as well. You are obviously, bright, articulate and extremely knowledgeable about that which you post. I thought the best point that you made was the part about Bad Rap withholding vital information to increase the drama (at least that was how I read it). I think that happens so often because rescue is such an emotional topic and all the stakeholders have a vested interest. Anyway, long story short, I think you do a great job and am looking forward to reading your thoughts on a regular basis.

  11. carol says:

    as a fellow animal welfare blogger..i read both posts and learned something about myself. that is what i think the real point is in reading other people’s thoughts. i have written some truly horrible blogs, many utterly boring blogs and a very few that maybe were actually worth writing.
    anyone who reads needs to read with critical thinking skills in place…we can find more pertinent answers in questions that pop into our heads while reading someone else’s thoughts.
    you wrote what you were honestly feeling at that particular moment…i am all for honest thoughts….it made me think about the days i use writing to manipulate.
    good blog!

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