How I Got Over My Fear of Being ‘Difficult’ Online

Every year Facebook reminds me of when I turned my private outage into public discourse

Every year Facebook reminds me of when I turned my private outage into public discourse for the first time. It was June 2016. I had just spent the afternoon reading about how the GOP presidential nominee had disparaged a federal judge for his Mexican heritage. I was deeply hesitant and a little bit panicky when I hit “post.” In the status update I implored friends and family to consider the long-term consequences of supporting Donald Trump. I wrote about systemic racism; I wrote about age-old prejudice and the risks of passing it on to the next generation; I wrote about what it says to our children to overlook misogyny and sexual assault charges because we like someone’s tax plan.

I eased back in my desk chair, and I waited for the backlash. I decided that whatever came next was less important than encouraging even one person I knew to reconsider his or her vote. What I didn’t realize, and what I’d only come to understand in hindsight, was that in taking the step to speak up, I was beginning to take the necessary steps of finding my voice, and in doing so, finding my power.

First, let’s rewind: I’d always been a fairly brash, outspoken, open-minded kid. Like many Gen X women, I was raised on Free to Be… You and Me. We were taught to believe we could be anything we set our minds to, do anything we put our minds to. I was encouraged to think critically both at school and at home, where my pie-eyed political beliefs didn’t always align with those of my more prudent parents, and we spent many a dinner engaged in loud debate about the state of the world. In high school I volunteered at Planned Parenthood (so many colors of condoms!) and penned an essay about David Duke that granted me entrance to my esteemed university. In college I further honed my voice and my feminism, volunteering for various women’s groups and using my outsized confidence to snap at Wharton boys who said things like: “Wow, I didn’t expect you to actually be smart.” (Really, they said this. To me. On group projects.)

By the time online public fury and political discussions became a thing, I’d shed the brashness of my teenage era.

Postcollege, my attitude about the state of the world didn’t change. And yet, I suppose, in many ways I did. I grew into adulthood in the early dawn of the internet age. In my New York studio, I waited excruciatingly long for my AOL dial-up to log in to check my mail, and certainly, online and public forums for political discourse weren’t available in the way they are now, if at all. Facebook was eventually a tool for my girlfriends and me to spy on old friends and exes and laugh about it all over dinners. Was I still worked up over the fact that health care covered Viagra but not my birth control pills? That male politicians felt they had a right to say what I could do with my body? You bet. But by the time online public fury and political discussions became a thing, I’d shed the brashness of my teenage era, and honestly, though I’m embarrassed to admit this, it didn’t occur to me to scream into the post-dial-up void.

In the ensuing years, between high school and my late twenties, I’d come to understand that the world is easier for compliant women. For nice women. In my early 20s I dated a series of men who, sure, enjoyed my occasionally prickly conversation, maybe because they found it cute, but who also made it clear that they preferred me in my less challenging state. So I backed down, morphing myself into a more agreeable girlfriend in a variety of ways—requiring less and less of them as partners, asking less and less of my authentic self. Looking back now, I don’t know why I didn’t just leave them rather than slice parts of myself away. I embarked on a freelance writing career—I spent seven years writing a variety of “ways to live your best life” service pieces for high-profile glossy magazines, where being well-liked and saying yes to frantic deadlines and so-so pay and ending my emails with exclamation marks meant that I got more work. Being nice literally paid (albeit often less than I wanted, but pushing back made me cringe behind my keyboard, so, oh well!). Besides, I genuinely liked my career, and I didn’t want to be thought of as difficult.

So I watched the world spin on around me, through 9/11 and its governing aftermath, through continued attacks on women’s reproductive rights, through repeated civil rights injustices, saying very little that could be perceived in any way as controversial. True, I got up and left a dinner when a discussion of gay rights turned toxic; I shut down a relative who mocked a female celebrity’s weight and disparaged her worth; I snapped at another who remarked that my daughter wasn’t “ladylike.” But in hindsight, so what? These weren’t Herculean steps; these weren’t much of anything other than immediate fury at the inciting incident. These were knee-jerk residual reactions from my teen years.

I never thought of myself as someone who was ruled by fear, and yet, I suppose, at the heart of it I was.

Now, of course, I can see that my lack of public outcry was a privilege. I was a white woman living in a white person’s world, and though being a woman didn’t make me a protected class, being so many other things—financially stable, employed, well-educated—did. But I wasn’t aware of any of that then. I was aware only of the costs that came from taking a stand. I watched the Dixie Chicks (now The Chicks) get ostracized; I saw countless memes of celebrities being told to shut up and stick to acting. What was the upside of adding my own voice? I was building my own sort of brand at the time, first as a magazine writer, then as a novelist. Protecting that brand by being inoffensive felt necessary; speaking out and risking that felt foolhardy. I never thought of myself as someone who was ruled by fear, and yet, I suppose, at the heart of it I was. I was scared of being told my opinions were wrong or unformed; I was scared of being told I was offensive or getting into an online spat that would stress me out the rest of the day; I was scared of being told that I was sophomoric or uncouth or that I should just shut up and stick to writing because, well, I already thought that maybe I should shut up and stick to writing. Isn’t it amazing what the patriarchy can convince you of?

I suppose Donald Trump changed all of that, but that makes him the hero in this part of the story, and needless to say, he is not. Still, in reaction to my disgust for his platform, I did indeed change in a fundamental, visceral way that I could no longer ignore. I was angry all the time; I was appalled all the time; I was terrified all the time, and this terror of what the future of our country looked like for my kids and for women and for the already marginalized scared me more than my terror of looking dumb or being disliked by speaking out.

Which brings us back to that initial Facebook post in 2016. As I eased back in my desk chair, I waited for the backlash. Surprisingly, it didn’t come. (It later would—just check my Twitter feed now!) Instead people messaged me asking if they could share the post, so I changed the privacy settings to public, and soon it had taken flight into the communal space of the internet where maybe a friend of a friend or a friend of a friend of a friend might reconsider his viewpoint. And that felt powerful.

Through all of this, I shored up my backbone and decided that I liked myself much more in a state of public outrage than in a state of private complacency.

So I started using Twitter, previously a tool for Hollywood gossip and book recommendations, as an outlet. I began to tweet not with circumspection or a taste for celebrity snark but with real anger and with real fear over what would happen if the scales tilted toward Trump in the election. After November 8, 2016, that anger and fear boiled over. I inhaled the works of incredible feminist trailblazers, like Lindy West and Roxane Gay. I devoured Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, which traced the history of women’s rage and gave me further courage to lean into my ire, not away from it. I was lucky enough to get to know female role models, such as staffers for various congresswomen and presidential candidates, and Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, whose book, Fight Like a Mother, is a road map for activism. And just as important, I began to gravitate to women in my private life who shared my viewpoints: Needless to say, these past four years have been sheer hell, but the silver lining is that they drew me closer to women who are now part of my likeminded tribe. Through all of this, I shored up my backbone and decided that I liked myself much more in a state of public outrage than in a state of private complacency. That outrage made me feel powerful because I was powerful. What is weaker than knowing you have something to say and staying silent?

At some point a relative asked what I hoped to accomplish by being so loud online. It was a reprimand disguised as a helpful suggestion, of course. Do you really want to be seen as that type of woman? What if people read your Twitter feed and decide not to buy your books? My answer was swift and unmoving: that maybe I give someone else a voice to speak up, that maybe I help someone feel less alone in her views, that maybe I encourage someone to rethink his allegiances, that maybe—and this is the one that matters the most—because I am in a position of privilege, it is simply what is required of me now. That if I squandered this, I’d be squandering everything.

These questions lingered as I started my next book, originally titled I’m (Not) Sorry—now titled Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing. It’s the story of a young female senator who decides to run for president, but must address an eviscerating op-ed by an old childhood friend before she can. The book is unapologetically feminist. It just…is. It deconstructs all the ways that women are held to a different standard, all the ways that we have to be better, smarter, more agile, better dressed, always smiling, never unlikeable. I love the book. I love my heroine, Cleo McDougal. And yet. And yet. When I was batting around the idea, I had several frank conversations with some of my publishing peers, none of whom had anything other than my best interest in mind: Perhaps you should write something else more innocuous. Perhaps this is a risky subject. Perhaps some people will leave you one-star reviews.

Perhaps they will.

But so what? It was in my best interest to write the story of a complicated, ambitious woman, even if this might rile some readers. This entire endeavor couldn’t be more in my best interest because my best interest is well beyond just me right now. I’m not going to quiet my voice on Twitter because I’m going to get some asshole responses. That is the opposite of agency. I crave my agency now. I’m like a monster who feeds off it. Give me more, more, more. Don’t like me? Who cares. Don’t want to read my books? That’s cool. This moment is so much bigger than I am.

In the end the most powerful tool that any of us have is our own voice and our own choices and how we intend to use them. I’m fucking furious. Why shouldn’t I let the world know? If I don’t, how can I expect it to change? And if I do—and I put in the work behind it—I phone-banked for Hillary; I text-banked in the midterms and am doing it again for 2020 (it is so, so, so easy and fulfilling—I highly recommend it for those of us who avoid the phone!). I march for gun control, for Black lives, for better representation. I donate to candidates I want to get behind—it feels like I can help tip the balance back toward sanity, toward a step closer to justice. That’s privilege, I know. But it’s also power. And it’s also freedom.

And that’s worth the price of losing a reader but gaining my rediscovered sense of self.

Allison Winn Scotch is the best-selling author of eight novels, including the just released Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, her two teens, and their dogs.

Originally Appeared on Glamour

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