Help my friend unfairly accused of homophobia
August 9, 2007 5:33 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: how to deal with someone who deflects criticism with accusations of homophobia and social ostracism?

A friend of mine came to me recently with a puzzling problem. Someone he knows can't write very well at all. (I will call this guy Alex.) Alex seems like an intelligent guy, but his academic prose is absolutely purple, even taking into account his background is far stronger in Sociology than English: picture sentences beginning with "Therefore, it isn't unnecessary to consider the fact that...". Alex also tutors others to write like this. This peeves my friend a great deal. He tells Alex his writing needs work.

Alex is also gay, very militantly so. He responds by accusing my friend of being insensitive to gays, and then outright homophobia. My friend tries to explain his criticism has nothing to do with sexual orientation, finally retracting it completely, but Alex is still visibly upset. He tells others my friend is vocally antigay, and some people believe him. This makes social situations very awkward for my friend, and talking to Alex again makes the situation worse, as he simply questions the personal agenda of those who disagree with him. My friend has never been antagonistic towards gays, and is agnostic and liberal. He has only a few gay friends, who believe him but live farther away.

Short of joining, say, PFLAG expressly for the purpose, how can someone separate personal criticism from identity criticism when someone uses their identity like a shield?
posted by StrikeTheViol to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Stop criticizing him for his writing. Your friend is not a professional writing critic? He's not Alex' boss? He's not one of the people paid or asked to review or critique Alex' writing? He's not one of Alex' professors, or an academic peer asked to review Alex' writing? And Alex did not ask for this criticism? Yeah, then stop criticizing his writing.

Unless your friend actually has some business vocally criticizing Alex' writing style, then your friend should deal with Alex by stopping being a jerk about Alex' writing.
posted by The World Famous at 5:39 PM on August 9, 2007

Your friend should let it go. There aren't winners in these kinds of fights. If "Alex" is really unreasonable then other people will eventually see it, if he isn't then maybe your friend unwittingly set off some legitimate questions. Either way, nothing your friend can do is likely to help his position.
posted by OmieWise at 5:47 PM on August 9, 2007

What if a fellow gay guy told him he was a bad writer?
posted by jonmc at 5:53 PM on August 9, 2007

I think your question is not "how do you separate the two kinds of criticism" as much as "how do you deal someone who responds to any criticism by aggressively attacking back without regard to facts". There is nothing your friend can tell Alex and have it be heard in the helpful way it is intended. I would advise him to avoid Alex as much as possible.

The more important thing is to deal with character assasination so that his reputation is not damaged with other people. If Alex makes the accusations in your friend's presence, he should say something in mild tone that puts the facts on record for people who listening. Maybe something like "Just because I think your writing is verbose, doesn't have anything to do with your sexual orientation. After all, {insert famous, straight, verbose writer here} was straight and he was as verbose as they come."

If he knows for sure Alex said something to someone whose opinion your friend cares about, he might want to go to that person and say, "I've heard Alex tell others that I'm vocally anti-gay which is really upsetting to me. What actually happened is that I criticised his writing and he responded by making these false claims about me that have nothing to do with what I said to him. In fact, they are so out of character it would be funny except for the fact that people who don't know me well might believe him." [Don't use this except when he is sure Alex said something - your friend doesn't want to look defensive, just concerned.]

As for everyone else, tell your friend to be patient. If Alex responded this way to him, he will be doing it other people. Eventually he will get the reputation he deserves and people will know who to believe without your friend having to do anything.
posted by metahawk at 5:56 PM on August 9, 2007

I don't quite understand the connection between sexual orientation and criticism of writing style. Is Alex saying that his writing style is a typically gay, campy and operatic style that homophobes don't appreciate?

Or is Alex just thinking that homophobia lurks under every criticism of him, regardless of the subject of the criticism?
posted by jayder at 5:58 PM on August 9, 2007

If your friend does have a professional reason for criticizing Alex's writing style, I'd suggest that your friend make sure that he lets go of the "peeved" feelings before assembling what he needs to say. Perhaps he could couch his evaluation in some more objective manner, consulting a style manual or suggesting less "purple" alternative wording that makes the same point. This might open an avenue that the criticism is not related to Alex's gay identity.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:59 PM on August 9, 2007

Although I agree that your friend should not be engaging in gratuitous criticism of his writing style, I have to say that the man's reaction is strongly reminiscent of blacks who respond to criticism (or anything negative directed to them) by accusing the speaker of racism. They know that racism is a highly charged issue, and that such accusations carry much emotional weight.
posted by yclipse at 6:04 PM on August 9, 2007

It's possible to shape criticism in such a manner that it doesn't come off as criticism. Instead of saying 'your writing is terribly overwrought' you might say something like 'I had to read this three times before I understood it' and so on. Inverting the criticism so that you become the 'victim' is passive-aggressive and a bit sneaky but it's the only way to get through to people who can't handle criticism.

Really though Alex sounds like an asshole and, as a rule, assholes are right after flammable gasses on the list of things to avoid.
posted by nixerman at 6:21 PM on August 9, 2007

Ah, I should've AskedMe sooner! I heard from my friend that he contacted another gay student who discussed the matter with Alex, who very begrudgingly apologized. I'm not quite sure I'm ready to mark jonmc's answer as best, though, because the question is still young. Is the best way to deal with people like Alex really "Get someone with Identity X on your side too"?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 6:31 PM on August 9, 2007

Never argue with an idiot. They drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience.
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 PM on August 9, 2007 [15 favorites]

There is no reasonable way to prove that someone is not a homophobe just as there is no way to prove the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist. If someone defends him, they can just as easily be painted with the same brush. The problem is that this guy is a prick and there's no way to change that. The way to deal with it is to avoid him to the extent that is possible and act in a good and decent way to others. Those who unthinkingly accept the claims of homophobia are not true friends to begin with.
posted by MasterShake at 9:42 PM on August 9, 2007

Is the best way to deal with people like Alex really "Get someone with Identity X on your side too"?

Not really. Probably more like Get someone who Alex can't possibly see as being homophobic. Could be a good friend of any orientation.

It's possible that Alex feels very self-conscious about his writing and also generally not very comfortable in the particular community he's in WRT his gayness. If he feels generally ostracized or not accepted in some way (even not a major way; could be, for instance, that nobody seems to ever remember that he's gay and so won't want to talk about bangin' chicks), any criticism could bring up his anxieties around that.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:08 AM on August 10, 2007

As petty as jonmc's response feels at first read, it's absolutely true. Unfounded claims of discrimination only stop when peers make it clear that such behavior is not sympathetic.

I'm glad your friend resolved the problem. If your friend commented on the writing style because he was invited to read and comment by the author, is in a writing group with same, or he is in some way affected by the writings of people the writer in question tutors -- I can only imagine having to grade multiple steaming piles of prose, knowing they were all excreted onto my desk from a single bad influence. If so, it was justified; otherwise he was simply tactless.

The damage is^H^H was done, and Alex is^H^H was out to destroy his critic by an ad hominem attack, which is uncool.

This kind of thing happens more often than I feel comfortable acknowledging, and there's no particular 'monopoly' on it. All facets of contemporary multiculturalism, identity politics and "The War on Christmas[tm]" (there's probably a better term for that bullshit, but doesn't that just sum it up?) have been used for cover by people who would rather wave the discrimination flag than honestly address real issues.

Discrimination really does happen, and people who disingenuously seek the high ground by falsely claiming discrimination make everything and everyone around them more readily disregarded as noise.
posted by willconsult4food at 9:17 AM on August 10, 2007

OT: flabdalblet... I love that quote. Source, please! Is that Scott Adams?
posted by willconsult4food at 9:19 AM on August 10, 2007

Thanks for the input! Just to let people know, it was the tutoring that got my friend worked up..."Alex" didn't solicit the criticism, but did apparently brag about his skills a bit... but the advice here is useful either way.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 9:53 AM on August 10, 2007

Sarcasm? "Hey Alex, there's no stereotype that says gay people are bad writers. Even if I was homophobic, you should respect my diversity too! I can be both homophobic and critical of writing without those aspects being related."
posted by mikeh at 12:56 PM on August 10, 2007

(Not being sarcastic.)
posted by StrikeTheViol at 1:44 PM on August 10, 2007

willconsult4food: I believe so. In any case, if I were Scott Adams, it's certainly the kind of thing I'd claim to have said first.
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 AM on August 11, 2007

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