I’m Just a Soul Whose Intentions are Good

Oh Lawd, please don’t let me be misunderstood

I was a radio show once where a caller blasted me with a long indictment of my alleged opinions. The host and the other guests were all shocked, because I hadn’t said anything like what the caller was railing against. Indeed, the caller and I agreed with each other. When the host pointed this out to the caller, she just repeated her gripe. A friend of mine who listened said to me later “It doesn’t matter what you said, it matters what she wanted to hear as an excuse to rant.”

I had an unpleasant little run lately with my writing that brought that memory back to me. Regarding a post I wrote about the state prison population I got an angry tweet from someone who thought I was writing about the (utterly different) federal prison population. This was followed by someone emailing me to complain that my piece on the Euro was idiotic because I only discussed the psychological failings of the system without mentioning its absurd economic underpinnings. This angry chap couldn’t have known I agreed with him unless he had read all the way to the second sentence of my post (A lot to ask, I realize). The same week, someone wrote a whole lengthy blog post criticizing a methodological approach to research which he attributed to me, when the paper I wrote (nicely summarized by Austin Frakt here) had specifically argued that the approach he was complaining about was flawed and therefore was proposing an alternative.

I can’t personally imagine getting pleasure from attacking people who agree with me as if they were disagreeing with me, so I am not sure what motivates so many people to engage in this behavior. In addition to being rude, it is (or ought to be) embarrassing as it announces to the world that you are comfortable criticizing things that you haven’t troubled to actually read.

Writing for the public really does require a leap of faith sometimes, namely that among your readers are many people who actually want to understand what it says and to agree or disagree with with it honestly. Most days I don’t lack that faith, but a run like this is rather soul-killing for me as a writer.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.