My conversational style brings lots of response from readers. Usually, that response is intelligent, thoughtful, and sometimes even very entertaining. Now and then, the response is stupid, ill-thought-out, and sometimes even very entertaining. While I obviously love the first kind, it's a lot more fun to deal with the second type.
This doesn't have anything to do with letters from readers who think a story "isn't funny", by the way. Darned right: I have made it very clear that not all stories are meant to be funny; they can, in fact, be deadly serious -- and sometimes tragic. There's already a page with my response to such "that's not funny" story complaints.
And sometimes a minority of readers think that my responses to the more "stupid" reader letters sound angry or upset. Not at all, but I've heard it enough that there's reassurance about that on this site, too.
The "Should Readers be Exempt?" concept came from my editorial space in the newsletters, after the stories. It was brought up by a guy named Randy in Florida. I published his letter in the 18 June 2006 issues -- first in the Premium edition, and then in the free edition. He wrote:
- I've thought many times about upgrading to the premium edition, but every time I get really close to doing so I come across something similar to what I read in [a recent] issue, [where you wrote]: "...they made themselves look like fools. Proving once again, there's no way I'll ever be short on material for this column...". I don't understand how you can stay in business yet repeatedly and regularly insult your customers. Every time it happens I have to stop and think to myself that I'm glad I'm not paying for this. Please don't misunderstand; I agree completely with what you're saying. I have no doubt it's frustrating to get so many emails about an error when it's already posted on the errata page. Regardless, it doesn't seem appropriate to publicly denigrate the people who pay for your service. --Randy, Florida
There are two key messages in Randy's note: 1) He "completely agrees" with what I'm saying, but 2) I should excuse the occasional stupid letters from readers because, well, they're my readers! Seems to me that if you "completely agree" with what I'm saying in True, you should support True. (And there are plenty of ways to support it that have nothing to do with spending money upgrading to Premium, such as recommending it to others, linking to this site on your web site or blog, etc.)
It's actually quite rare that "the people who pay" are the ones sending stupid letters, but even then I don't let it influence my decision to run the letter (and reply to it!) when it happens. I told Randy that "The reason I am successful is I say what needs to be said, no matter who is involved. If all I produced was a namby-pamby PC-driven drivel, then I would be out of business." Randy replied, "I do enjoy your work, but such cheap shots have cost you this reader's premium upgrade since pretty much the time you started offering premium upgrades."
They're not "cheap shots", they're telling it like it is. And readers have made it clear they like it when I tell it like it is -- that I don't pull my punches. Far from making my business suffer, it's thriving, so on that measure I'm doing it right. But more than that, I couldn't respect myself if I made fun of every kind of foolishness except those committed by my readers. I mean, what kind of integrity would I have if $10 for a sample subscription bought me off; not to mention that I'd be accepting a few pieces of silver to deprive the readership of a significant source of entertainment?
But then, I thought, maybe I'm wrong; I'm happy to admit it when I am. Should readers be exempt? So I asked the Premium subscribers -- "the people who pay". I asked them what they thought about this, and promised to post a representative sample of those letters, no matter which way they argued the question.
I got a lot of response, so this page is long. I think it's worth your time to read it -- especially the last "pro" letter!
By the time I selected the representative letters for this page (about a week after asking the question), I had 149 "pro", one "con", and six in-between. As expected, most are intelligent, thoughtful, and sometimes even very entertaining. Here are just some of the "pro" letters. One thing in particular to note: the readers who weighed in are from all over the planet.
- You offer everyone the same opportunity to avoid an unwanted mention in your column: Think before you act/speak/write! Your column is a weekly reminder of the importance of doing so. I would not want such a valuable reminder diluted by cheap exemptions. I hold it as a source of pride that I don't appear each week, and that I did so by living my life intelligently and thoughtfully, rather than by buying my anonymity for $2 a month. --Steve, Queensland, Australia
- I completely agree with the way you deal with letters from the "idiot" crowd. Here's why:
- People need to get used to being challenged when they say something dumb. Otherwise, how will they ever learn?
- You show how people can find insults where none were intended -- one side-effect of the PC movement.
- You use facts to make your points rather than ducking an issue or making up some convoluted explanation for your position.
- You don't go off on angry rants. You make your point concisely and let it stand on its own.
- You do not come off with an attitude of infallibility. As you stated, you are "happy to admit" when you are wrong. Something the average person writing to complain is unwilling to do.
All in all, I would hold up any of your exchanges with people who feel insulted or injured by you as a primer for how to deal with disagreement in general. I learn a lot every time you show us how to disagree with someone and not let your side devolve into something ugly. As for alienating your customer base? I've always thought responding in the way you do to this type of letter was an excellent way to weed out people you wouldn't want as customers anyway. If you catered to everyone's personal whims, you wouldn't have much left to write about. --Dustin, California
- While I personally appreciate your responses to complaints and criticism, I would like to help those like Randy in Florida. Their issue is with the words that you write, so they should boycott by not reading True. If they are really upset, they can get a Premium upgrade so that there will be twice the number of stories to boycott. --Hyman, New Jersey
- If there are those out there who allow themselves to believe that they deserve special treatment because they choose to enjoy your hard work in putting out This is True, either as a free or paid subscriber, they are likely in for many disappointments in life. Those who dig in their heels and will not acknowledge that another viewpoint exists, much less that it may have validity, are demonstrating a strong lack of both courtesy and respect and as such deserve none in return. Those who cannot follow basic and often repeated instructions such as "check the error page first" or who fail to read the entirety of an article before deciding to respond to it also don't demonstrate it. In short, an amnesty on stupidity is unneccessary. If that offends some, then so be it. No matter what you do, you will never please everyone. It would be a pity to lose out a large part of what makes This is True very different, and to me appealing. --Daenna, Alberta, Canada
- The stories are, for me, still more important, but the weekly This is True experience would be lacking something without your comments. I say that even though I, personally, don't always agree with your positions. Even so, I can always understand your position and I have yet to find a comment of yours that would seem irrational. So, please, don't stop doing things your way and keep up the good work! --Rene, Austria
- Refute me, point out my fault, illuminate my stumbling; I love it, I laugh at it, I learn from it. --Chris, California
- You are doing exactly the right thing! I enjoy reading the stories and your comments, but what often is even better are the letters from "bright" readers and your answers to these and comments about them. I find your comments and answers written with humour and in good taste. --Sixten, Finland
- Namby-pamby PC-driven drivel? No thanks! Stick to your guns mate! The thing that makes this newsletter unique is that you cannot be bought. I don't know of too many publications that are so 'fair' and consistent when it comes to critical comment. It is so damn refreshing... --Shanea, Queensland, Australia
- It's your even handed way of dishing out criticism to everyone that keeps me coming back, and your ability to say the things that people don't want to hear. I would be disappointed if you didn't continue posting critical e-mails with your candid replies. --Dave, a Canadian living in Bulgaria
- I don't pay my subscription to read about you making fun of other readers -- but I don't feel this is what you do. I have always thought your replies to letters were sensible, not insulting. If the person you're replying to feels insulted that's one thing, but for other non-involved people to complain that you were insulting someone else is the worst kind of PC thuggery. It's like white people complaining that something might offend black people, Christians saying it might offend Jews, straights complaining about 'potential' offence to gays, etc. Can't these people stand up for themselves? Why do they need others to do it for them? --Jon, United Kingdom
Sure, Jon, those people can stand up for themselves. And they do -- when they're actually offended. Which is approximately never. Yes, I've had white people stand up "for minorities" -- and it's paternalistic and patronizing. And in the case of the white lady who complained about the story on that page, I was fairly hard on her in response -- and she's 70 years old! So did she shrink, cry like a baby, or unsubscribe? Nope: she vowed to "think before I write, and even more before I speak" -- and apologized for complaining! That is exactly why I challenge readers -- to make them think first. What a great lesson not only for that reader, but for everyone who read her comments, my response, and her "lesson learned". Awesome!
- One of the main reasons I subscribe is to get the unbiased exposure of stupidity from all of the dark corners, not just the ones that don't pay you. I would likely let my premium subscription lapse if I felt that you could be bought off. I am a Technology Director for a small school district, and am forced everyday to maintain a level of PC and decorum to continue my employment. Your weekly dose of common sense helps me to maintain my calm professional manner when a teacher (for the fourth time) calls up screaming the computer doesn't work, and for the fourth time I go down and plug the power cord in that he knocked out with his chair. For me, going back and rereading the weekly column is a form of meditation that brings me to a calming place. --Steve, Massachusetts
- Yes, you are harsh. However I don't think that harshness is necessarily a bad thing. While people would like to be coddled their entire life, that does not make for a well rounded individual and society suffers as a result. If someone can be directly told that they are acting like an idiot, they are then given a chance to change themselves. If we all shirk away from pointing out idiotic behavior, then the person will continue as they are. --Susan, Missouri
- I have cringed more than once when reading one of your comments, but only because you have said something so very true and so much like what I wish I had the guts to say, but don't. I appreciate your comments because they are thoughtful, pointed, and, yet, not insulting. --Mary, Virginia
- An idiot by any other name is still an idiot. Your spot-on comments make the subscription price money well spent. In a way it's sad that you'll be able to produce This is True for the rest of your life, but at least I know I'll be entertained for the rest of mine! --Paula, Iowa
- Wisdom is learning from one's mistakes. Often a person doesn't know they have made a mistake until someone else points it out to them. At that point, maturity is supposed to kick in and allow the person being corrected to graciously accept correction. So, as a Premium subscriber, paying for this service, I not only encourage you to continue exactly what you've been doing, I expect it. It is what I pay for. --Jim, Oklahoma
- Should readers be exempt? Heck no! Stupidity needs to see the light of day, even, or perhaps I should say especially, if it's me. :-) Those who criticize this harsh light should be reminded of HeroicStories and your connection to it. HeroicStories was the reason I became a Premium subscriber to True. --Chris, California
- I could put it best by asking, "What is the best idea to come out of True?" I think most people would answer the Get Out of Hell Free cards. How was that generated? By a stupid letter written by a reader. --David, California
Right you are, David. The cards are actually my response to a complaining reader -- and people like her. The story that generated her letter, my reply to her, and some reader letters are here.
- Randy, whether I've always agreed with you or not -- and sometimes I've felt like you've hammered the education community pretty hard -- I've always known that your comments were not dumbed down by a desire to please, political correctness, or any other drivel-driven reasoning. This is what keeps most of us coming back, even when our toes get stepped on a little. Your dedication to entertain us and to make us think also makes your publication the most anticipated e-mail that most of us receive. The fact that you always try to call 'em like you see 'em is what makes the paltry sum we pay for the premium edition such a terrific bargain. The fact that you don't play favorites, even for the premium crowd, just reinforces my belief that your comments are honest, well thought out, and usually dead on target. --James, Texas (PS: We in the education community usually richly deserve the hammering we receive.)
- You asked, "I mean, what kind of integrity would I have if $10 for a sample subscription bought me off; not to mention that I'd be accepting a few pieces of silver to deprive the readership of a significant source of entertainment?" Answer: A politician. --John, California
- You are NOT wrong. Why should readers, paying or otherwise, be exempt from their stupidity being pointed out to the world? Too many people are unwilling to hear the truth about themselves or others; thus the near universal reviling of [American Idol's] Simon Cowell for telling the untalented that they are untalented. The complaint is usually in the form of "You could have said it more nicely!", but that's the reason people think they are talented or intelligent when all evidence points to the opposite: no one has ever told them they suck. --Gene, Washington
- The single biggest issue facing western societies today is that as a whole we teach people not to think for themselves and not to question the 'information' presented to them or the impartiality of the sources of this information. You have always attempted to do your part in changing this culture; this year I returned to university to attempt to do mine. Please don't now become part of the problem by exempting people from fair comment because they pay. --Tim, Victoria, Australia
- I was the editor of the student newspaper at [my college] for a few semesters, and I would often receive passionate comments from readers that they specifically asked me not to publish because they feared that other readers would argue back at them. I would always respond, "Then what good is your opinion? You make some valid points, but my staff and I are the only ones who will ever know. You have a right to speak out and make your points, but others also have a right to respond. So you have to make the decision: will you allow the viewpoint that you feel so strongly about to remain silent, or will you take the chance on starting a dialogue?" I find it interesting that you are often accused of being overtly defensive. When someone challenges something you believe in, it is your right to defend your position, and you do so by arguing against the letter, not the writer. I find that far more often, it is the reader that jumps on the defensive and takes cheap shots at you rather than your arguments when you respond intelligently. --Mark, Florida
- Just because someone has paid the price of premium edition to This is True does not indicate a lack of lunacy on their part. Please, if I ever write something truly bone-headed to you, be my guest. A little slap to the back of the head has helped more people than it has hurt. --Jeff, 25th Signal Battalion, Kabul, Afghanistan
- If you really wanted to make progress in life, you should find someone who would tell you the truth. They are apparently very rare. You can find people who will gossip and back bite and make snide comments, but someone who will tell you, with real concern about you, that you have screwed up or done something stupid and potentially harmful, is very rare. --Charlotte, South Africa
This one's not from a Premium subscriber -- he wrote after the free edition came out, but it's really worth reading anyway:
- I am terminally ill and all my money goes to doctors so I will never be able to get the paid subscription. The people who complained about your articles: well, they're idiots. Sticks and stones may break their bones but words hurt their itty bitty feelings. AWWWW poor widdle people. Jeez, I hate whiners. Anyway I enjoy your letter and as long as you keep a-sendin' I'll keep a-readin'. Thanks for being real in such a fake society. Thanks for being you and putting a smile on my face. I don't get those too often anymore. --Butch, Texas
Kinda puts it all in perspective, doesn't it? (And yes, a Premium subscriber who saw Butch's letter upgraded him for a year as an anonymous gift.)
Considering I published 25 of 149 "pro" letters, I should run about 1/6th of the "con" letters. There was only one, but in the interest of fairness I'll run it:
- Be nicer to the readers; save your perceptive rapier remarks for the outsiders. --Tom, Pennsylvania
Not terribly irate, is it?
Only six letters got classified as "in between", and they all said essentially the same thing. I chose one as representative:
- I hesitated before writing this mainly because I have crossed wits with you several times in the past and come away feeling the worse for it! However I wouldn't feel true to myself if I didn't at least try to explain my unease with your treatment of readers. The issue isn't that you call attention to the fool things that people do or say (hell, that's why I subscribe!). To me, it's the way that you relay it to your audience, the way that you wrap that correspondence with often heavily barbed statements or slightly tongue-in-cheek comments. Should readers be exempt, no definitely not. But I would ask that you report them in the same way as your main items, brief and leaving it to your readers to draw their own conclusions. --Jim, United Kingdom
One reader took me to task for even suggesting that I "could be wrong" about this. He said I'm obviously not wrong and shouldn't even admit to the possibility. I absolutely do feel I have an accurate reading on True's readers and didn't figure I was wrong. But I think it would be foolish to insist that I was right no matter what; then I'd be in the same boat as some of the "idiots" who write -- not willing to test the theory that there just might be something I've overlooked. So indeed my question to "the paying customers" was genuine, even though I did anticipate the answer -- I know my readers a lot better than "Randy in Florida" thinks.
But I'm still surprised how one-sided the answer was. The most "con" letter I got was not very bad. The "in-betweens" essentially said that I of course should continue, but maybe I could be a little nicer about it. To err is human, after all. The error I think I make is to not be as clear as I should be about when it is I'm ranting about the reader's logic or thought process, and when I'm ragging on them personally. I try to do the latter only when I lay clear and obvious evidence in front of them, but they refuse to look at it in favor of their own pre-conceived notions. But sometimes I fail when I try, since I'm human too.
So my conclusion is, the readers absolutely do enjoy my holding readers up to the same standards as the rest of humanity, but even though the vast majority doesn't see any need for change, I still pledge to be better at separating the message from the messenger in the future.
I heard back from Randy in Florida after he read this page "from top to bottom". A lot of you won't be surprised to hear he still doesn't get it. My exchange with him is below, as published in the newsletter.
So you're probably wondering: what did Randy in Florida have to say about it all? I did hear from him: "I am not at all surprised by your results given the way you obfuscated the question. You still COMPLETELY miss the point." That's an awfully interesting thing for him to say, considering I quoted him directly in asking the question. He continued: "You led people to believe we were talking about situations such as a reader supporting an idiot school board member defending ZT. I was talking about the unnecessary cheap shots you take at readers for trivial things such as sending you an error when it's already on the errata page." Yet the responses from readers, which I published, were quite clear in what they were talking about -- no one even mentioned ZT. (And there he goes with his "cheap shots" bit again. Sheesh.)
I asked Randy if he actually read the page. "Yes I read the page, top to bottom, and yes the page is about readers, what they say, and what you say back. That's my point!!! My complaint was NEVER about the readers, what they say, and what you say back! My complaint was the cheap shots you take at readers' behaviors (specifically, sending you email about errors that are already posted on the errata page) that is unrelated to the stories or the readers' comments about the stories. Why can you not see the difference?"
Apparently, Randy, for the same reason you can't see the similarity. This is about calling the readers on the carpet for doing dumb things -- in relation to the Errata page, in relation to not checking the Errata page (which comes to my attention -- duh! -- when they write me about it!), in relation to the stories, in relation to anything to do with True. But you want to be more specific? You bet! Let's get back to your original statement when you first wrote to complain: "I don't understand how you can stay in business yet repeatedly and regularly insult your customers."
I explained that. That wasn't good enough, so I invited my readers to explain it. You say you read their responses on this page, yet you still don't get it.
It doesn't matter what the readers do that's dumb; if they do it, they don't just put up with me replying to it, they demand that I do, and in the way I have been doing it. And they say that overwhelmingly. You "don't understand" how I can stay in business with that policy? That's fine; you're not required to -- even if the vast majority of your fellow readers clearly do understand it. The bottom line is, it's not a matter of my business suffering because of it, but rather it's why my business thrives, and (as I explained when you first wrote) if I didn't do it, then business would suffer. I don't care if you don't understand that, but for you to insist that I'm wrong about it, when I'm the one who fills out the tax forms, is (yep!) just plain stupid.
A Sad P.S.
Randy just couldn't take it -- once he saw this he resorted to childish name-calling. He said he'd been reading for over a decade, but True isn't "as good today as it was a few years ago" (sure: it was great for Randy until he was featured himself!); "I just don't think you're smart enough" to know I've "lost the argument", and I'm "a perfect asshole". If that makes Randy feel good about himself so he can continue along, that's fine. But to insist that I have to subscribe to his worldview is pretty silly. As I've said, I'm not going to hold my punches. Would you really have it any other way?