The Fair Fight

Many arguments are pointless; they start out over something small then escalate beyond proportion. Here’s how to keep conflict from damaging all.

People Posting Vile, Hateful Comments: What’s That About?

People posting cruel comments can be very interesting, psychologically

Recently, some nasty, personal, gratuitous remarks have been posted to the comments section of this blog; others have been sent to me by email. In a way, that's just part of the blogosphere, and I know that others get targeted like this far more than I do, so I'm not complaining. But I am curious.

When I was writing Singled Out, I spent a lot of time thinking about why some people get so unnerved by people who are single - and especially by those who are happily single. I wrote about it in Chapter 14, "To be or not to be single: Why does anyone care?"

Here are the first few pages of that chapter (pp. 243-246):

To Be or Not to Be Single:
Why Does Anyone Care?

In my experience as a public speaker, there are good days and bad. One day in May of 2003, I had a very good day. At the meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, I gave a talk entitled "Marginalized, derogated, happy, and effective: The untold success story of people who are single." Hundreds of people were in the audience, the biggest crowd yet for any talk I had ever given on singles. It was also the most simpatico group I had ever addressed. After a while, the group started to anticipate what was to come, and to react in all the ways I hoped they would. After I finished speaking, audience members raised dozens of thoughtful and challenging questions.

The next day, in a cab back to the airport, I was still on a high. When the driver asked what I had been doing in Chicago, I was delighted to tell him. He then had quite a few questions for me.

"So, you're single?"
"Um-hmm."
"Have you ever been married?"
"No, never."
"Why not?"
"I love being single."
"Some guy treat you badly? They're not all like that, you know."
"No, no, nothing like that."
"Maybe it's not guys you like. Nothing wrong with that."
"What I like is being single."
"I bet some guy was too controlling. Wouldn't let you have your freedom. They're not all like that, either."
"No, it is not that at all. I'm not running away from anything. I just love my life just the way it is."
"You're being so negative!"

I was speechless.
Negative? The accusation shocked the smile off my face. All along, I thought I had been brimming with enthusiasm. In my mind, I had not answered any question in any but the most positive way. Yet the person who posed all the questions insisted that I was being negative. Plus, he seemed incredulous that I could have such a "negative" attitude.

When I got to my gate, I pulled out a notebook and wrote down as much of the conversation as I could remember. Once I figured it out, it seemed obvious: The cab driver interpreted my positivity about singlehood as negativity about marriage. I don't think it bothered him that I was single; I think it bothered him that I was happily single.

The conversation and the way it followed me around after it was over captured a lot about what it has been like to study singles. Just when I think I have some issue all figured out, something fresh and new and perplexing pops up. By now, I have a few favorite approaches for trying to solve singles puzzles. One is to rewrite the relevant script substituting a married person for the single person. In the case of the conversation with the cab driver, I'm married and have just given a well-received talk on married people. If the cab driver treated the married-me the same way he treated the single-me, here's what his side of the conversation may have sounded like:

"So, you're married?
Have you always been married to the same person?
Why is that?
Are you afraid to live alone? It's not that bad, you know.
Do you see yourself as incomplete without a mate? Nothing wrong with that.
Do you think you need someone else to validate you and make you happy?
Maybe you are just not very imaginative. Lots of people think that they should get married, so you just assumed the same thing applied to you.
What! You love being married? Why are you being so negative!"

That conversation would not happen. That's telling. Married people are rarely asked to justify their decision to marry.

Here's another heuristic I use. I ask myself about the questions that were not asked, and the comments that were not made. In polite conversations between strangers, often there is a search for common ground. For example, the cab driver might have said, but didn't: "Yeah, I loved being single, too." Or, "my sister is single and doesn't seem to be in any hurry to change that."

If he had wanted to pursue something he considered strange, I think I gave him far better material than my love of singlehood. For instance, he could have asked why I spent all that time in a windowless hotel ballroom, when I could have walked out the door and found my way to the waterfront, the shops, the ballparks, or the Frontera Grill.

The cabdriver example only hints at something else I've discovered in the time I've spent studying and talking about singles: It can get personal rather quickly. I mean nasty-personal. One time, I was doing a radio interview about singles, and before the segment even ended, an email message appeared in my mailbox. It was from someone whose name I did not recognize (probably fake): "I love your ideas, but with a mug like that I beg of you not to reproduce. Please remain single and consider a tubal ligation just to be safe. Thanks, Jill." I wish it were the only one like that.

I'm not entirely new to the world of radio and television, and I have not shied away from discussing hot topics. When I was studying deception, for example, I had a thing or two to say about the sex and lies of an American president. That too was controversial, but no one ever asked me to go sterilize myself.

At first, it was easy to think that it was something about me that provoked such hostility - and that may well be true. But now I'm quite sure that when it comes to the topic of singles, I'm not the only one whose claims of contentment elicit something akin to rage. In 2002, a cover story in Time noted that "more women are saying no to marriage and embracing the single life" and asked, "Are they happy?" Some said they were. That did not sit well with the reader who wrote that "as long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what's best for children and society." He signed it with his full name and hometown, and submitted it for publication to a magazine with a readership of about four million.

Perhaps he thought it was selfish of those single women not to be mothers. A different story in the same issue reported on the experiences of single women who wanted to raise children, and went ahead and did so, without the help of a husband. That didn't work either. Another reader scolded, "It is sadly typical of our narcissistic age that so many women are opting to have children and raise them ‘on their own.'"

What I found interesting about the snide letter-writers is that they were complaining about single women who were not complaining about their lives. The women in the first story were embracing their lives as singles, and the women in the second were pursuing their dream of loving and nurturing the next generation. Plus, the women in the stories were strangers to the letter writers. It was not as if the men had some obvious personal investment in the way those particular women lived their lives. It made me wonder what single women (or single men) could do, short of marrying, that would not provoke the ire of others. I think the answer is nothing. If you are single and you do not have kids, you're selfish. If you are single and you do raise kids, well then, you're selfish, too. That's the power of the set of myths - taken together, they wipe out the entirety of a person's life. There is nothing a single person can do that cannot be denied, dismissed, or belittled.

It used to amaze me when tremendously successful singles such as Condoleezza Rice or Ralph Nader got the singles treatment. Now, though, it seems to fit the developing pattern. Singles who excel at their careers, like those who are so dedicated to their parenting, are not raising hackles despite their success or their fulfillment, but because of it. They are making a mockery of the marital mythology.

[You can read the rest of the chapter here in Singled Out. The book also includes a Notes section where you can find the sources of the various quotes. Also, thanks to everyone who posted kind comments and sent me supportive emails after seeing the nasty stuff.]

The Fair Fight