Dealing with abuse

What’s the right way to deal with abuse? Take the moral high ground and reply as a paragon of calm reason? Or treat people with the same disrespect they showed you? It probably depends, of course, but here’s a really striking case study, courtesy of Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre writes the Bad Science column and blog, and I’ve interviewed him for the next issue of tpm. This is a story he told which I had to leave out because of space constraints. I’m not sure whether this is brilliant, terrible, or both. What do you think?

“I once wrote something about MMR and I got this huge long hate diatribe from this guy. It was about six pages long, calling me every name under the sun, saying that I was in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry to rubbish the concerns of anti-vaccination, when, in fact, I’m probably their biggest critic in the UK at the moment, or at least their biggest non-bonkers critic. There was this huge torrent of abuse, real screaming, screeching abuse: ‘I hope that your children are deformed, and when you’re sobbing holding your vaccine-damaged child, I hope you look up at the sky and ask, Why God me? Why did you punish me for the things I said?’ Really, really vicious, horrible stuff.

“I just wrote back a very polite, three line response, saying I guess it’s unfortunate that I have to put up with this kind of anger, but if it’s any help, I say what I say because of these references and I think the evidence is pretty clear. If you’re interested in more, I can send you the book chapter – don’t buy the book, I’ll jut email it to you. Something like that.”

Goldacre then digresses to talk about how, although it can be hard to deal with abuse, it is possible to set the tone of a conversation and that “If you scream and shout, people scream and shout. If you’re polite and sensible people generally tend to respond in a polite and sensible way.” Then he picks up.

“So I wrote back this really polite, straightforward email, and he immediately replied, saying ‘God, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what came over me. In my head, it was like you weren’t even a real person. It didn’t even occur to me that you would reply, let alone that you’d reply so straightforwardly and politely. I feel ashamed and humbled and please, all I ask is that you just accept that I wouldn’t normally speak like that and I will try to write you a much more sensible email about my worries and concerns. But I’m shocked at what I wrote to you.’

“And I replied, ‘F*** off.'”

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