When Shit Hits The Fan
I can’t lie. I expected my 10 Things Americans Don’t Know About America to stir up some controversy. And I had hopes it would be shared and attract some new readers to the site. In fact, I had been sitting on it for a few months. The article felt like something which needed to be saved for the right moment.
Over 50,000 visitors flooded the site over the next day and a half, and with them hundreds of angry (mostly Indian) commenters posting about how I was either brilliant, a moron, completely naïve, or some combination of all three. Many of them trashed me personally and asked me how I would feel if someone criticized my country and culture.
How would I feel? Allow me the pleasure, I thought. I had been sitting on my America article for a while and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, not only to rebut my angry Indian brethren, not only for my cathartic release of frustrations about my home country, but also to cash in on a surge of traffic and hopefully get even more viral social media attention.
What I got was more than I ever expected, in every way imaginable. As of today, the article has been shared on Facebook over 145,000 times and tweeted 2,900 times. The past week, the site received almost 1.1 million (yes, a million) new visitors. My server crashed more times than I can count. By the end of the week I was so familiar with my host’s technical support staff I probably could have invited them over for a barbecue.
The Comment Cesspool
And along with that avalanche of traffic came the commenters. Everyone knows that internet comment threads are not exactly the pinnacle of the human experience. But wow… did this devolve into a 1,400-comment-deep verbal shit-heap.
Not to say there weren’t some really bright and insightful comments, there were plenty and I appreciate them. And not to say that I’m some all-knowing worldly guy who doesn’t say dumb stuff or put his foot in his mouth with some regularity (I definitely do).
But what a mess.
And look, I realize I was asking for it. Few topics get more controversial and obnoxious than calling out the ignorance of entire countries. I know I can come off as a condescending know-it-all. Part of that’s just me (I’m American, after all). And part of that is that this is a personal blog and not the The Economist. I get that. And I get that I flubbed some generalizations or maybe exaggerated things here or there. But the uproar from the commentariat crescendoed to a level of parody.
I’d like to take a moment and address a few of the more common attacks made:
- People projecting whatever negative attributes they wanted onto me. Between the two articles, I was referred to as a meat-head jock, a womanizing douchebag, a pretentious hipster, a closeted faggot, a glorified tourist, an elitist liberal, an uneducated simpleton, among other unpleasant stereotypes. I was told by some that I need to travel more (what?). I was told by others that I needed to stop running away from my problems (err?). And predictably, I was told if I don’t like the US to get out (already did?). Either way, it seems that anyone who didn’t like reading what I wrote decided to color me onto a caricature of whichever stereotype they personally loathe.
People who hate pigheaded jocks characterized me as a pigheaded jock. People who hate pretentious hipsters and dirty backpackers characterized me as a pretentious hipster and dirty backpacker. People made assumptions about my life, my childhood, my education, my politics, my family, and my love life, without knowing anything about any of it. And in the process many of them merely reinforced my original points. Bravo.
- The “generalizing based on personal experience” irony. These comments got the biggest chuckle out of me. They would go on about how arrogant and self-absorbed I was for characterizing an entire nation based on my personal observations and experience. They would then go into detail about how Americans “really are” and proceed to generalize and stereotype them in the same but opposite way. And then there were those who told me that their community/family/school/study-abroad-program/Wednesday-night-bridge-club didn’t fit my generalizations and therefore I’m wrong. Or they claimed my points were “obvious” and that I must be an idiot to not have noticed them before.
OK, I totally over-generalized and stereotyped. You got me. I even admitted it in the beginning of the article. But over-generalizing and stereotyping back at me doesn’t make it any better.
And look, you have to remember, I have to remember, we all have to remember, that even the fact we’re discussing this on the internet, on a blog that you found from Facebook, makes us all part of an elite minority. Only one-third of American citizens own a passport, and that’s an all-time high. 46% of Americans believe the universe was created in seven days. Most Americans believe global warming is a hoax. 22% of Americans think the world will end during their lifetime. So no, I’m sorry. I am going to generalize here: your internet buddies, your college buddies, your upper-middle class family and neighbors, they all may know better. But the majority of the United States does not.
- Picking fights over history and politics. Despite mentioning some historical anecdotes and statistics, some commenters mistook my post about my subjective cultural observations as a socio-political dissertation and decided to nitpick the hell out of everything. When I say people are generally friendlier towards me in places like Guatemala or Russia, pulling up the homicide rates on Wikipedia proves absolutely nothing other than your lack of reading comprehension. Get your head out of a book and go experience life for yourself. This was a big one for the India article in particular. As if my historical understanding of the Mogul Empires is supposed to negate the thousands of people living in piles of garbage around me.
I think for some people it’s easier to argue facts and statistics than confront the emotional and social realities in ourselves and our cultures. I found it interesting that the vast majority of people who had traveled widely and lived abroad agreed strongly with the America article, while most people who disagreed with it resorted to statistics, historical facts, and studies. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m no historian. I just find it interesting that that is what their mind immediately jumped to.
So there’s my vent. Having blogged for over four years, I thought I had gotten good at handling criticism. But there were a few nights last week where I’d prune through 200+ comments of angry criticism in a single sitting. It got hard to bear at times. There are few situations in this world where you have the chance to sit down for an hour and let 200 anonymous people deconstruct how stupid and ignorant you are. Whether they’re right or wrong or just angry, emotionally it’s a hell of an experience and not exactly pleasant. Regardless, I read every comment.
For what it’s worth, the majority of comments and personal emails raved over the article and the website in general. There was a ton of support from people on Facebook and Twitter as well. And that doesn’t even count the marriage proposals from a few beautiful ladies. I’m so grateful for people who enjoy this site and enjoy my writing. It allows me to keep doing what I love and I never take that for granted. But psychological studies show that we experience the pain of criticism more severely than the praise of adulation. And I’m no different. So it was rough-going at times.
I’d like to wrap this up by acknowledging some legitimate criticisms and thank people for bringing them up.
- Location selection in India/Not knowing what I was getting into. A number of Indians (and knowledgeable westerners) commented on my location selection from my India article, saying that I selected some of the worst possible places to visit in the country. A number of them also mentioned that the experience is quite different if you know a local to show you around and introduce you to people. Enough people commented on this to compel me to go back at some point and get off the beaten-path a bit more. A few commenters were kind enough to offer to show me around if I came to their city. A few even called me out for my self-pitying, rich white-boy act, saying that I got off more on feeling sorry for the locals than actually do anything about it. So I when I return, I pledge to volunteer for a charity organization.
- Gender/race factoring into experiences of other countries. I’m a young white male. Many cultures and countries still discriminate (heavily) against women and different races. This is very true. And on the charge that I was being totally self-absorbed in making some of these assumptions as a white, single male: guilty as charged. It is a different experience and one of the great things about the United States is that relative to the rest of the world, it treats women and people of race fairly well.
- The Aussie/English-American love/hate relationship. A LOT of Aussies and English chimed in saying that they, in fact, do not love Americans. I made the statement that the English and Aussies like us somewhat facetiously. The commenters claimed they disliked us. Based on my experience (a few months in England, a few weeks in Australia), I would characterize it as more of a love/hate relationship. I get the resentment and annoyance — my English and Aussie friends regularly rib me for being American. But there is an attention and affection I get in those countries that I don’t get elsewhere, especially in places like, say, France or Spain. But maybe it’s just the accent.
- United States versus America. A lot of commenters took the liberty to lecture me on the difference between “Americans” and citizens of the US. I live in South America, trust me, I’m aware of this. But unfortunately, in US media, we refer to ourselves as “Americans.” Since people in the United States were my primary target for the article, I consciously went with the decision to refer to them as Americans since they’d be more likely to identify with it. Shoot me.
Overall the experience has been a wild flu-inducing ride. The traffic is still flowing in pretty steadily and I’d like to take a moment to welcome all of the new readers. Beyond all the vitriol, the pretentiousness, and the self-aggrandizing generalizations, this blog is not about country or politics. It’s about relating real experiences and coming to terms with them. A lot of the old content revolves around dating and women, but the site has moved in a more lifestyle and self development route. I hope you’ll take the time to look around and discover that. And whether you like it or not, I thank you for your time.