By Deborah Reid
Count your blessings if you’ve never been the target of a social media attack. I’ve been through that fire. Because sometimes I write about sexism and bros culture in the restaurant business, I expect it to happen again. “No one with a public platform and an opinion is doing his or her job effectively if they are not being attacked from time to time,” writes songwriter Nick Cave in his brilliant weekly Q&A newsletter, The Red Hand Files.
The universality of the experience can be hard to recall in the middle of an online ambush by strangers. It all feels so personal. But when it comes from a fellow food writer, it can mess with a person’s mental health and professional identity.
Food writers have done their part to rid the restaurant and publishing world of some high-ranking abusers and rapists. We’ve grown adept at recognizing toxic behavior in chefs and editors. But do we ever examine our whisper networks and how we show up in them with the same rigor? Or consider the psychological impact of quieter but no-less-offensive forms of bullying and harassment?
A Not-So-Secret Hater
Alicia Kennedy recently posted about a food writer taking shots at her on Twitter. The man replaced letters in her name with asterisks to avoid detection in search. “It made me worry there were a lot of people who thought I was full of shit or secretly hating on me.”
Kennedy says, “A man doing this to a woman added to the cruelty in terms of the power dynamic.” You might stop and ask, “Who does this?” Maybe he was talking shit about her last week in your presence. Have you heard of the bystander effect? You’re an accessory if you’re riding shotgun. The responses to her question are beautiful and funny. And it’s a relief to see so many people jump in with support.* Besides, having a nemesis or two can be professionally beneficial.
The whisper network has its benefits. It can warn us of people who might not have our best interests at heart. But if the character assessment is based on heresy (sic) and not first-hand experience, how much should it color our opinion?
“The intention likely originates from a good place: look out, be warned, there is much to learn about this person. Yet, it establishes some personally anointed supreme judiciary position to the person doing the whispering that I find a bit…grotesque,” says author Lisa Donovan. “It also assumes the person being warned cannot judge the character of others.”
Great story leads often come when we spill a little tea with colleagues. But turning up in DMs or text groups regularly to gossip about others comes with reputational risks. It erodes trust and can quickly digress into pillaging the character of strangers. When I’ve gone there, remnants of it lodge in my body, and I can wake at night feeling uneasy and self-loathing. Toxic gossip is a bad habit, like smoking. With enough practice, it starts scanning for more brazen outlets.
Hurt that People Don’t See
Ostracism in its harshest form is the psychological equivalent of being branded with a hot sauté pan by an angry chef. At least in the latter, the enemy is obvious. Research suggests the hurt from it can be greater than other forms of aggressive behavior. The most common of its many manifestations are shunning and gossip. Both can leave the person targeted feeling crazy, questioning if social isolation is real or imagined.
When an executive chef berates a cook, does it feel any different than a writer facing silent scorn from those with better jobs and a bigger platform? When it comes to shunning, they’re two sides of the same coin and trigger shame and insecurity in the victim.
The Art of the Shun
Muting on social media can constitute shunning. Of course, it’s irritating when someone you follow fills your feed with a weeks’ worth of praise for their book or performance. With a social media attack or other conflict, though, it can provide much-needed space. Even though you’re not supposed to know who has silenced you, their absence in your feed is obvious. Clicking the mute button is like the snub from the cool kids.
Chronically failing to share the work of others also qualifies. Few of us can afford to skimp on self-promotion. But a social media feed that reads like one long red carpet rolled up to its owner can give the impression they’re peerless. We gather to lament low pay rates, but when it comes to giving in a way that costs nothing—sharing and tagging—we’re suddenly bankrupt. There’s plenty of beautiful writing to go around. Thinking beyond your best friend’s desk is a plus.
I’m not suggesting we all get Gooped-up on kindness. I’m still scrappy and won’t flinch at a showdown with a bros chef or writer and his chummy consorts. Why squander the authority that comes with 32 years of career experience?
“There are no exceptions to be made for rapists and abusers,” says Donovan, “Anyone who still thinks Mario Batali, for instance, deserves some level of redemption can go fuck right off with him.”
Like you, I try hard to be humane. Maybe you are better at it. We all need a trustworthy circle to talk about stories in process and ideas, and yes, even gossip on occasion. But when it comes to taking action against colleagues and peers over a social media attack, I’ll let the philosopher Seneca have the last word, “All cruelty springs from weakness.”
* * *
* The tweets are not available because Kennedy locked her Twitter account for the holiday.