Writers Cannot Allow Themselves to Be Influenced by Death Threats

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Writers Cannot Allow Themselves to Be Influenced by Death Threats

We have to recognize that harassment is effective and deliberately work to overcome censorship tactics

Photo by Ben Collins on Unsplash

I’d like to sit here and say that it doesn’t bother me when people send me insults and death threats, but I’d be lying. It does bother me. Insults and death threats have a huge impadt on my writing.

It also bothers me when people bring my wife and children into the conflict. People say that family should be off limits, but don’t make the mistake of believing that’s true. Vague threats against family are a highly effective way of shutting people up.

The simple, unfortunate reality of the world is that there are groups of people who will not hesitate to harm children to achieve their objectives. There’s no way for decent people to retaliate against that kind of an attack.

I’ve written articles that have attracted as many as a thousand hostile comments. When you’re attacked, it’s natural to question your own thought process. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that any opposing viewpoint that resorts to insults, death threats, and other forms of harassment must be in the wrong.

Writers are fragile creatures

Ask any writer about impostor syndrome and they’ll immediately know what you’re talking about. You never need to define the term. Writers wrestle with impostor syndrome all the time.

“Is my work good enough?”

When you see other writers sign major deals, it’s natural to have questions about your own ability. Sometimes it seems like everybody but you is winning contests or having their work featured in major distribution channels.

Zero response is bad, but what happens when your work starts attracting the wrong sort of attention? Would you rather have no comments on a post, or 1,000 people calling for your death? Writers infrequently consider that second possibility.

I’m beginning to suspect the second possiblity is inevitable.

Too often writers assume that they’re not having enough financial success because “they’re not good enough.”

Once you do start making money, it’s natural to assume that you’re being harassed for the same reason.

Writers want the process to be: write, find success, achieve universal adoration!

The true process is more like: write, get ignored, struggle, receive negative attention, die, one hundred years pass, pick up a few favorable comments.

The sooner you accept that this is the reality, the more tolerable your writing journey will become.

I wonder about these hostile comments

Fortunately, I grew up in an abusive household so I’m used to enduring unfair attacks from beings of virtually limitless power. I started out in life seeking praise. Along the line I learned that rage is just another facet of attention.

Provoking rage can give you a certain amount of influence. It’s just important to remember to keep out of arm’s reach.

All you have to do is scan the political landscape of the United States and you get an idea the kind of philosophy that attracts a hostile response. We’ve just finished a contentious election season. We all know the preprogrammed belief systems of our country. People lecture because they think you don’t understand that belief system. It rarely occurs to anyone that you do understand it, but you perceive it to be flawed and you want to suggest some improvements.

Threats are never acceptable

We all know that some topics are considered off limits. If you dare to discuss those topics, some people are going to threaten your life.

The fact that we accept that is a problem.

Some writers will say, “If you knew that was a contentious subject, you shouldn’t have written about it. Go write about something that’s not controversial. If you write something controversial and you are attacked, it’s your fault.”


I disagree.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

Too often, we passively justify vigilante justice. Vigilante justice is not how we should handle things in a civilized society. If somebody writes an article that causes harm to befall innocent people, there should be consequences, but those consequences should come in the context of a legal process, not death threats.

We can’t have mobs showing up at your front door.

The effect of death threats

I would like to think death threats wouldn’t change what I write about or how I behave, but they do. Salman Rushdie recently suffered terrible wounds because of an attack at a reading. The threat is real.

I don’t have the public notoriety of Salman Rushdie, but before the pandemic I used to make around $1,000 a year at readings. I don’t know if it’s worth scheduling those events anymore. Might somebody who was angry about some ancient article rush the stage to hurt me?

It’s possible.

My profile has gone up in the last few years and honestly it’s made me more anxious. Be careful what you wish for, right? Writing was easier when nobody knew who I was.

It makes me angry to think that dishonest people who resort to vile and dishonest tactics can get inside my head, but they can. It would be dishonest to say it doesn’t work.

From nothing, to one-star reviews, to “I’m going to kill you!”

I remember back in the old days writers always used to talk about how you shouldn’t engage with negative reviews. There would be funny stories about writers penning long responses to hostile commentary. These responses are usually presented as case studies about what not to do.

I often thought the response from the writer was pretty funny.

Writers aren’t always innocent either, here’s a story about a writer who tracked down and assaulted the author of a negative review. Obviously, you can’t do that under any circumstance.

What all this tells me is that writers need to have more realistic conversations about the topic of hostile responses. We can’t allow ourselves to fall into the simplistic mindset of “I’m not making money so I’m a failure,” or “I’m being attacked, so I must be wrong.”

As writers, our obligation is to understand the power of narrative. Our most direct application of that skill set comes in the production of our creative efforts. A secondary application comes in our understanding of how narratives control society. We have to take it upon ourselves to pierce faulty narratives, even if that puts our perspective outside of the Overton window.

It irritates me that writers can’t seem to comprehend this.

It takes skill to incite passion

If somebody despises you with every fiber of their being, it means you’ve had an impact on them. You might not like that they despise you, but at least it shows passion.

Indifference is the opposite of love, not fiercely burning hatred. Whenever a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio, I turn the radio off. Whenever I see an article about Kim Kardashian, I turn off my computer. I don’t send them threats. I’m indifferent. I scramble to get as far away from them as possible.

I have to wonder if our whole publishing industry has become terrified of passion. Is a publishing house willing to stand beside you and help shield you from the death threats of a work that inspires murderous rage?

Why should they? They control the distribution mechanism. Why risk death threats when they can publish a book about the “incredible journey” of a puppy who makes friends with a kitten? They only publish it after fifty editors have combed through every word to make sure nothing can be taken as a metaphor for any kind of social change.

Have you ever noticed that Superman never topples an anti-humanitarian political regime? He’s too busy getting kittens out of trees, as if that’s important. But the audience goes, “Aw!” the money rolls in, and the author doesn’t get stabbed in the eye.

But does everybody win, or does everybody lose?

Some people don’t like chocolate

All of this is obfuscated by the fact that you’re going to attract some conflict no matter what you write about. After all, some people don’t like chocolate. If you get 1,000 comments on an article praising chocolate, there will be a few people who disagree.

But that’s only the appearance of conflict. The truth is that the author has avoided conflict by choosing a topic people are less likely to get killed over.

That means you’re done. You’ve taken yourself out of the game. You’re irrelevant.

I turn off radio shows that talk about chocolate. I turn off my computer when I see them. Those articles are insignificant. I don’t even care if the authors make more money than I do and don’t have to endure death threats.

I don’t want that.

Attacking, victim blaming, and allies

When a writer receives a death threat, observers are likely to pick one of three responses:

  • The audience was correct in making an effort to silence the writer
  • The writer shouldn’t have picked such a controversial topic
  • Death threats are always inappropriate

Take note that two of those three responses side with the aggressor.

Attackers are sociopaths, so I consider them a lost cause. We must appeal to those who practice victim blaming. We can’t default to the reaction of saying, “If your work provokes that kind of a reaction, you have to stop.”

Our default reaction has to be, “Insults and death threats are never appropriate.” We have to work to shift our cultural perspective on this issue.

Writers have to remember that they can’t change what they write about based solely on the fact that they receive insults and death threats.

Yes, all writers have an obligation to constantly reevaluate their own work. But, as a general rule, good people don’t resort to insults and death threats. If you receive death threats, most often you will be correct in assuming you are in the right by virtue of the fact that those dishonest tactics are deployed against you.

Writers must prepare themselves for the modern marketplace

It has always been said that writers need to develop a thick skin. However, a thick skin is no longer sufficient for the kind of assaults that modern writers have to endure.

There’s a difference between what you feel when an editor points out you used a tired cliché, and what you feel when a reader threatens to track down and murder your children.

It’s a big difference.

I wish I could sit here and reassure all writers that they’re never going to experience the latter, but that would a be a lie. The topic you write about isn’t going to save you. Some people feel very strongly about chocolate too.

First, you have to protect yourself. As a public figure you have to take reasonable precautions and not offer any personal information. Second, you have to numb yourself to death threats. Third, and most importantly, you have to be deliberate in how you think about death threats.

Don’t default to the lazy thinking of assuming everything bad that befalls you has something to do with your own inadequacy. Bullies beat you by making you surrender.

It’s important to come to the understanding that people who send you death threats based on your writing are cowards who are terrified of you. If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you have to teach yourself to become indifferent to those threats.

But, yeah, it’s not easy.


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