Guest Post by Stepto: I’m tryin’ to get down, to the heart of the matter.

This is a guest post by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. Stepto currently works at HBO and is the former banhammer at Xbox. He is an author, comedian, and leader of The Steptos.

He made a comedy album you can get on Bandcamp (cheapest option), iTunes or Amazon and wrote a book called A Microsoft Life. He blogs at Stepto.com.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among the members of my tribe who are my age. We really know how to hold a grudge. Especially if it’s borne out of the Internet or Internet culture. I’m seeing more and more people refusing to forgive even in situations where they should and I wonder if we’re setting a bad example.

I should pause here and let you know up front, I’m going to have to be a little vague in providing good examples for my opening sentence. This is Wil’s blog and thus (through no fault of his own) functions as a sort of orbiting Ion cannon for focusing opinion. I don’t want to name any names or provide concrete descriptions. So please bear with me as I navigate this topic with a tad less specificity than I might my own blog.

Here’s how the situation usually goes:

Person says or does something either on the Internet or at a con or industry event that’s objectionable to about 99% of normal people. In the grand scheme of crimes, “objectionable” isn’t high on the list. However the Internet allows us to elevate and publicize. For many topics that’s good! Because those topics are often ignored or normalized and thus need the shock value of a large mass of people saying “That’s not OK!”

Occasionally this out-sized reaction results in the person who committed the original offense saying they are sorry. Not “sorry you were offended” but “wow. I had no idea I was being that bad. I’m sorry.” Maybe they got fired from their job. Maybe they got hounded or received death threats. Maybe they lost sponsors for their YouTube channel. Whatever the reason, justice was served (sometimes way past the original crime) and they realized what they did was wrong.

Then the geek tribe welcomes the person back, pats them on the back, says ‘that’s OK glad you learned your lesson, maybe you should hold a panel or something on what you learned?” and everyone just gets on with their lives.

Oops that last part doesn’t happen.

Instead many of us assume a bizarre mantle, that of “Well they apologized but I simply can’t accept a person who would do or say such things to begin with!” I know a person who actually keeps a list of all the Internet people who have done something that offended them. They simply refuse to interact with those people ever ever ever. The list is at last count three dozen people, at least four of which I know personally who are not bad people at all just made a mistake and atoned for it.

I’ve carried a lot of hate or grudges in my life and let me tell you something true and strong: they are heavy. You don’t realize it when you pick them up, because the initial umbrage or anger gives you a kind of emotional +15 to STR. But forgiveness is like being morbidly obese then dropping 100 pounds at a go. Not to mention one crucial fact: there can be no salvation without forgiveness.

I want to be clear I’m not saying you have to forgive everyone, I’m not even telling you who to forgive. My fear is that people my age, those of us that grew up before nerd and geek culture resulted in number #1 rated prime time TV comedies, back when we were getting punched in the throat for drawing a dungeon on graph paper by Joey McJockBully or teased for being a girl who liked Super Mario by Susie McEasyBake, we formed an early skill at seething hatred. Sometimes we create a bad example for the younger set who are perhaps no less tormented but far more ingrained in the general culture.

Again, this is merely a concern of mine. I see it, and hey maybe I’m blowing it out of proportion. But what I have learned to do when I see the latest Twitter outrage is I might join the conversation or I might not. But I will watch like a hawk to see how the perpetrator reacts. I watch for actual contrition and regret. And I’m starting to see a lot more “An Open Response to X’s ‘Apology’” then responses to those responses then responses to those responses etc. etc. when maybe, just maybe, we pat X on the back and, if we truly believe it, say “try not to do it again, and share what you learned.”

Everyone says and does something stupid or hurtful at some point. The Internet allows us to do it in front of the Earth. If we’re going to set the bar for forgiveness as high as “some words on a forum or a hurtful comment on a panel are unforgivable crimes even in the face of true contrition*” then I fear for the future of our tribe.

Wil says don’t be a dick, my corollary is to steal from Bill and Ted and that we also should be excellent to each other. Some things really are unforgivable, it’s true. And it’s up to each of us to decide the baggage we want to invest in carrying. But I’m old enough to have inadvertently perfected the art of being a jerk, forgotten it, then reinvented it only to regret it all over again. For that, I am sorry. I have to forgive myself, because that’s what comes with age.

So there but for the grace of the flying spaghetti monster go I.

*While we’re at it let’s define contrition by intent not execution. I watched a guy apologize for his apology because his apology wasn’t apologetic enough (even though it was accepted by the original aggrieved party) and he still ran into the Internet umbrage buzz saw.

17 thoughts on “Guest Post by Stepto: I’m tryin’ to get down, to the heart of the matter.”

  1. My only defense when faced with an overwhelming Internet with pitchforks and torches ablaze is to become very small. Sadly, that was my strategy for avoiding fights when I was faced with bullies. The parallels are sadder than is care to admit.

  2. I heard an interview on CBC radio (yes, I am Canadian) this morning that almost dovetailed with this. The editor/primary writer of a new website called The Philosphers’ Mail was talking about how readers are being inured to the bad stories with which we are constantly being bombarded. He then went on to state that his site does not allow readers’ comments is “they makes very hard to love your fellow man or woman after you have read them. They are so full of anger, bile and viciousness and this goes right across media… We have got to get out there and love and do business with our fellow humans. Once you have read the comments that becomes pretty hard.”
    After the vitriol I have read in comments on certain media I found this interesting enough I am even now browsing through his website.

  3. Oh, wow, you know Paula? Or… is there *another* person out there with a $#!+list that is actually a list?!?

    1. There are far too many people who do this. And in some cases spread people’s comments to other parts of the internet (often cherry picked or edited) to drum up new outrage/support for their outrage everywhere they can manage.

      It’s not only jerky, but its freaking creepy. And yet often criticizing it? Gets you on “the list” too.

  4. Social or political issues tend to bring this out in a lot of us, especially those of us who’ve either converted liberal (and thus have the fervor of the newly-converted) or hardened conservative. The wedges these things can drive are amazing. I was unfriended for a few months by my sister for a comment I made on something she posted. We’re back okay, but we’ve pretty much agreed to keep our political/social views off each other’s walls. I’m working on that with my brother, as well.

  5. Hmm. Your comment about “early skill at seething hatred” resonates with me. But apologies are a game-changer in my book, and I feel like I can tell the genuine ones from the “I’m apologizing to get out of trouble but I honestly don’t give a damn that I hurt people” ones. I received one sincere apology from one of the people who helped me develop that early skill at seething hatred, and I never forgot it. The downside (sort of) is that it made the non-apologizers all the more grudgeworthy. But yes, I agree with what you’re saying. Real apologies are hard to make. You have to swallow your pride and you have to admit you’re wrong (which is OHMIGOD HARD to people, *especially* smart people!!) and you have to brave embarrassment and you have to get past the feeling that it’s not worth apologizing because nobody will forgive you anyway. Let’s help to get that last thing off the obstacle list and make it easier for people to try to make things right.

  6. Could it stem from a feeling of powerlessness? People feel like they have no power influence positive change. Their vote is powerless. Their money is powerless. Their opinion is powerless. So, in this new social media world, ‘attention’ becomes the new power, the new currency. You have offended me, I will exercise the only power I feel I have left; I will remove my attention from you or anything you do in perpetuity and use that same social media infrastructure both let you know that I have and to convince others to do the same. Odd? Yes. Solution? Unknown.

  7. There are the Paula Dean-style trial and sentence by the public at large, but those seem rare (and random). Much more often, the perp/penitent goes on with their life without much drama. But our outrage comes at a personal cost. There is a true physical penalty for sustained anger/frustration – the chemicals we produce (adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress-related responses) are damaging in sustained doses. It’s actually healthy to forgive (true forgiveness, not emotional supression). My attitude is that unless I’ve been personally harmed, it isn’t worth my health to get worked up over some random famous person who said or wrote something stupid. Not always easy to do, but still worth the effort.

  8. I become outraged by people who are outraged by people who do/say something who apologize for it and are then told by the offended that their “sorry isn’t good enough”. What a bunch of hypocrites we all are. We, as a nation, are still apologizing for crimes and atrocities that were committed by the generations before us. I feel like i am supposed to apologize for something i didn’t even do, or support! When is enough “enough”?

  9. Forgiveness is important when there was earnest growth. However, some “apologies” are a thinly veiled excuse to restate the original offense.

    “Maybe they got fired from their job. Maybe they got hounded or received death threats. Maybe they lost sponsors for their YouTube channel.” In this context, you are referring to the person who gave offense. But let me turn the tables. This kind of real-world harm is exactly the kind of harm that can and does result from some of the original offenses in question. Does an apology make the death threats stop? Does an apology bring the sponsors back? Does someone who causes this kind of harm deserve more empathy than their victims ever got from them?

    Still, I completely agree that forgiveness is important all around when there was earnest growth.

  10. P.S. I know that you address the question of earnest versus disingenuous apologies, but there’s no objective way to assess the earnestness of a statement, so interpretations will vary wildly. If you are a close friend of the person giving the apology, then you have more insight into their motivations and growth but also personal bias regarding your friend. And I don’t mean to single you out; everyone has biases one way or another; there is no such thing as an objective opinion.

  11. It was still great art watching you drop the ban hammer on racists and other assorted miscreants on the XBL forums.

    “Why I wuz banneded?”
    “Unsure? Let me drop it on you like an atom bomb…”

  12. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. We’ve all offended people, cut other drivers off on the highway, misspoken. People who remember every offense given them are, quite frankly, miserable lumps of coal and hard to be around. And either the person who gave offense doesn’t know, knows and took care of it as they felt they could, or doesn’t care/isn’t affected by the vitriol. In any of those three scenarios, what’s the point in holding a grudge? Let it go. Just let it go.

    1. That’s such a great comment, Evelyn. We all need to consider what our anger that we’re holding onto–sometimes for completely unrelated reasons–is costing us.

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