May 27th, 2014 / 10:00 am
Web Hype

On Bullying: Isla Vista, Seth Abramson, and Social Media


How do you ethically navigate your media?

When I heard today about the shootings in southern California, my first thought was, “oh, again?”, and my second thought was, “Rachel is in southern California.” After running to the computer to confirm that the shootings took place far enough away from where my wife is, and after feeling huge relief none of the victims were my loved ones, and after feeling momentary guilt for that relief in the face of others’ grief, I felt the now-usual feelings of sadness for the victims and their loved ones, frustration at the cultural attitudes that enable and produce this now-usual violence, and renewed knowledge of my helplessness to protect those I love from “random” tragedy.

I then did my usual thing of scanning the web for information about what went on and what lead to it. I read a good deal of the killer’s memoir/manifesto. I noted his childhood joy of opening a Pokémon booster pack to find a Charizard, his journey of dyeing his hair partly and then full-blond, his use of the term “playdate” to talk about hanging out with people when he was 17, his emotional connection to his N64, and his reverence for brand names. I realized he had probably killed his roommates before I saw any media mention that he had killed his roommates. I read that he had planned to kill his younger brother and his stepmother. I saw an excruciatingly self-involved man who in many ways still thought as a boy, and who had never been able to understand other people are human, like him.

After thinking a lot today about empathy—the visceral recognition of yourself in other people, of other people in yourself—and reminiscing some about feeling unloved, unattractive, outcast, and misunderstood, I scrolled past a Facebook post about Seth Abramson’s remix of the killer’s YouTube confession. I thought, “too soon!” and scrolled on. And then later scrolled past it, and then, on seeing it for the third time, read it. In the piece, Abramson reorganizes the killer’s words into something life-affirming. Rather than railing against the dumb beast blond women and the thugs their animal minds force them to couple with, Abramson’s piece intends itself as a message of comfort, understanding, and love for “Every single girl. Every single man. (Even obnoxious men!)” Even Elliot, the killer.

I then read the comments on the Facebook post.

It turns out, Seth Abramson is almost certainly the most vile person to ever write a poem, or write about poetry, like basically ever. As I followed the links to friends’ and “44 mutual friends’” profiles, and as I dutifully investigated the Twitter “conversation,” I found over and over testimony that not only is Abramson a self-promoting, hate-filled “douche,” but he is the “douchey-est douche” to ever hijack a national tragedy not only for his own ends, but because—and this is almost certainly a clinical, untreatable evil—he can only understand the plight of white men. Worst of all—and really, I was thinking he couldn’t get worse!—Abramson is a fucking NERD.

Don’t get (us) wrong! Abramson’s problem isn’t that he reads lots of books—we’re that kind of nerd. And it’s not even that he obviously cares deeply about poetry—that’s okay too, mostly! Seth Abramson is the kind of nerd that thinks nerdiness is okay in the real world. He’s the kind of nerd who will try and explain his nerd-dweeb ideas to people who aren’t reading a Nerds-Only website. He’s that kind of nerd who will try and explain his nerd-dweeb ideas in the first place! And—again and again I saw this—he’s the kind of nerd who makes us look bad.

He’s the kind of nerd that could get mistaken for us.

But whatever the reasons, the consensus is in: remixing a killer’s words within a day of that killer becoming a killer is immoral.

This gets me wondering, though. Linking to the killer’s unadulterated words—in this case, the original YouTube clip, various news sites with the clip embedded, excerpted, and highlighted, sites with the 141-page memoir/manifesto “My Twisted World,” etc. etc.—seems fair game. In fact, doing that not only increases your Klout score temporarily, but gives you the chance to voice that you, yourself, do in no way support murder, misogyny, the NRA, and Republicans (and Seth Abramson) in general. Controversial and marginalized views, all, especially in artist communities.

I’ve mostly avoided using the Isla Vista killer’s name here because killers should not be celebrities. Rolling Stone has hopefully learned this by now, and it’s really something our society should have learned after the many Columbine-copycat school shootings. It has been made clear by manifesto after manifesto, what these killers want is what, in some way, we all want: our name in every mouth. What I want to know is, how do we contribute? Will the next killer be dissuaded by your link to Gawker’s take on the “Pick-Up Artist Community’s Take on the Cali Shootings”? Is it probable that some alienated loser, after you show him what an alienated loser he and the alienated losers he’s friends with are, will learn to value other people as real, live, worthwhile humans? Or is it ever-so-slightly more likely that even the most unsuccessful small creative act could offer a route through the soul-crushing terror that is for many, including my younger self, suburban young adulthood?

I was a sophomore in high school when the Columbine Massacre took place, and though time has allowed my thoughts and feelings to grow manifold since then, my thought and feeling at the time was, “Well, that makes sense.” Not that two guys should have killed twelve fellow students, a teacher, and themselves, but that two guys, who received mostly hate, and at best neglect, from the vast majority of people who made up their world, would do that.

It was a given, at that time, that I’d be told more than a dozen times each day that I was a fag. It was probable I’d be pushed into a locker, or tripped, or my bag would be pulled open. There was not a day that I wasn’t aware of people laughing at me. And most days, walking through the halls, waiting for any number of these things, or worse, I would imagine running from person to person, slicing them open, letting their blood splash all down the hallways. If I had been convinced I was unlovable, hate would have overtaken me.

My family and my friends and, soon, art, saved me from believing that I was worthless. I saw in them that the world has value, and that made me feel that I, too, might someday have real, solid value. Truly I tell you: criticism would not have convinced me. Certainly all the people telling me I shouldn’t look different, talk different, or be too enthusiastic about books and videogames did not convince me to be cool. And I was too young and too dumb to even recognize wisdom, and I needed so hard what little pride I could find, even a Caity Weaver-grade commentary on my mindset would not have changed it. I knew other people were mostly around to hurt me. What I needed was comfort, understanding, and love, and something to do.

Displaying outrage in the face of something outrageous is an easy moral act, but morality is not necessarily ethical. Yelling at kids—and many 22-year-olds, and many 44-year-olds, are still functionally children—has not in three millennia of recorded history produced a reliably non-murderous generation; why is it our default mode of educating them on the internet? Why not, for instance, show them how to repurpose hateful speech into messages of shared experience? Isn’t sharing experience exactly what social media is about?

And beyond this, I have to ask: Y’all who are piling on Seth: does it trouble you that there’s no dissenting voice in this discussion besides Seth himself? At best what you’ve created with this “discussion” is an echo chamber. At worst, you remind me of the people who always found time during their day to let me know what shit I was. If your goal is to teach, learn, and foster community, there are ways to deliver most of what y’all have said in the spirit of love. Wouldn’t this be more likely not only to change Seth’s perspective, but also encourage all sorts of people with all sorts of perspectives to engage in open conversation? But if your goal is to ridicule, alienate, and confirm your in-group status, most of you are doing a great job.


Donald Dunbar lives in Portland, Oregon, where he helps run If Not For Kidnap and edits poetry for draft: The Journal of Process. He is the author of Eyelid Lick (Fence, 2012) and Slow Motion German Adjectives (Mammoth Editions, 2013).

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  1. Quincy Rhoads

      When I saw the subject of thisthis, my stomach dropped ,but then when I read it I was pleasantly surprised. Great job lucidly tackling this issue.

  2. Mark Walters

      The thing that really bothers me about the poem isn’t so much the poem itself, but the fact that the writer seems to think that the poem requires a statement of purpose so a reader can understand what the poem is trying to do. Is that really necessary to understand the poem? And if so, doesn’t it follow that the poem itself is weak and gimmicky?

  3. kara

      I think it’s worth discussion, if only so we can talk about the line between trying to reclaim something (and for whom?) and opportunistic behavior. Where does intent enter into this? How does this match with the rest of Mr. Abramson’s project, which i was peripherally aware of before it was discussed in the original bio (removed now) and then looked at when it came up? How does this follow other remixes? How does the time of presentation enter into the discussion? Does a picture of Elliot Rodger front and center on Mr. Abramson’s new writer page on Facebook figure make this lean more toward opportunistic behavior? All questions I’ve seen or heard asked, but not all the questions. I’ve heard more. The angry voices are loudest, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others.

      And will anyone really learn from this any more than they might from a linked article or six? If people aren’t learning from an outpouring of women’s voices, why will they listen to a poetic remix? Real question, outside of whether or not this poetic effort has merit. Will this find the audience you reference here?

      There are people who supported and liked it, but they aren’t speaking up. I’m not sure then if the detractors are fully to blame. And I confess to speaking third hand here, but friends who are friends/following him on social media say he has deleted all the responses on his Facebook page and all posts on Twitter, and I’m told this is his usual response. That not only cuts off one line of conversation, but discourages others, I think. The one of this post, which seems to hinge mostly on “you are all assholes,” when people are reacting emotionally to an emotional thing in a time of high emotion, is also not likely to help.

      So what are we all to do?

  4. deadgod

      I don’t think empathy is ‘recognition of oneself in others and another in oneself’: I’d call that ‘rational narcissism‘. To me, “empathy” is ‘recognizing a different but equally real person in another person’ – virtuous, maybe essentially virtuous, but RARE.

      Is naming a killer necessarily a ‘celebration’? If one names Hitler in a non-Godwin, way, should one black those letters out, too? Or is blacking out also a kind of celebration?

      I don’t think (most of) the post-Columbine shooting sprees are “copycat” events, except in the sense that Columbine itself was a ‘copy’. Happy non-killers are all alike, but unhappy killers are discrete stories.

      I like Abramson’s interventions. (For example, paying a lot of $ for fine-arts grad school is foolish; charging it, malicious.) To me, he’s at worst mundane. I get why, say, Franzen and Tao Lin are rage magnets, though neither of them makes me angry, but I don’t get why Abramson is herd-supposed to be a douche-nozzle.

      This blogicle is an example of provocation that nourishes.

  5. Gene Morgan

      It was a good comment :(

  6. deadgod

      I agree with Gene and was thinking out a reply to part of what you said (agreeing but in a qualified way).

  7. Reed

      The experts on these things suggest that the killers crave the media attention so the media could reduce the number of such crimes by not reporting on them any more than they do “average murders,” i.e. just local, non-sensational, non-headline coverage.

      It’s the same logic that causes the TV cameras at sporting events not to show an idiot who has run out onto the field. They don’t want to encourage that.

      I don’t think there’s much chance of the media ever doing that, however.

  8. Shannon

      I enjoyed this for the most part. I will say that the last paragraph is playing respectability politics real hard. The cries of why can’t you be nicer, frankly given that I am a person who has been told this time and again it makes me tired.

      What troubles me (and you could probably say I also piled on, I wrote a pretty scathing full of expletives criticism of what Mr. Abramson did last week) is that for most of us who have been trying our entire lives to educate, or at least convince people not to be racist/sexist/homophobic (pick your thing) can tell you from experience that 90% of the time it does not work. Granted it is just my life I can talk about but I could give you pages and pages of ways that ideology has done me real actual harm.

      What bothers me is that when people like me are harmed by things like what Mr. Abramson (or pick whatever person who really fucked up and gets harshly criticized) the call to be nice completely ignores the harm that is inflicted on those who are doing the criticizing. Over the last ten years or so I have had a personal blog where I discuss fatness, racism etc and when I have been royally angry and not nice about it, it only serves to make me angrier and feel a depth of marginalization and frustration when someone responds to that by saying, why are you so mean?

      Why does the empathy and cries of stop bullying so often to go the people who caused the harm in the first place?

      Why do people like me have to be above or beyond their pain (ask me how many “allies” have told me they are just not going to be allies anymore because I’m just so angry, read I have feelings they don’t like) because, well if you’re not nicer nobody will listen?

      After so many years of having the onus of being polite and nice about what causes me real harm, not theoretical harm but actual harm in the form of anything from stress, to fear to feeling like I have to not participate or be involved with things I love because if I speak up in anything but a nice polite way, I’m put into the category of bully, when I read extortions to just be nicer and people will understand, I just wilt.

      I could go on but the basic truth is that the expectation that someone who is harmed or marginalized and who deals with the fallout from things like Mr. Abramson’s poem and need to do whatever he was doing, and then being told to tone down the anger feels dehumanizing. It feels like being denied the fullness of human emotion because the person who caused us the problem has feelings too.

      And lastly let me say that Mr. Abramson’s voice is not the only dissenting one. Read the congratulations to the killer, the men who are calling to kill all cunts, if I hadn’t emptied my spam box already I could show you some more of those dissenting voices that told me that I’m next, that I should be raped until I shut up, that I should be killed for talking about how Mr. Abramson’s poem made me feel etc etc. Maybe you yourself could think about how to in love talk about what is behind what comes across to you as bullying. My apologies if this is kind of muddled. I’m really tired.

  9. Gene Morgan

      I’m sorry that you had to experience that kind of inbox. I can’t even… What the fuck is wrong with people on the Internet?

  10. deadgod

      Well, “the media” is a huge, somewhat amorphous thing: for every outlet like Harris-Perry, who refused to name the guy in an effort to talk about misogynistic violence rather than to give him any platform (at least in the segment of her show that I was able to see), there’s a Murdoch organ that skirts actually taking the guy’s ‘side’ – and, OF COURSE, there’s the id-dump of internet comment threads.

      The argument is Plato’s, and it’s a very good one: communicative action changes people, and ugliness encourages ugliness as well as catalyzing kindness.

      I’d say two things to those experts: a) concealment has little success as a cathartic tactic, and b) I think “media” templates give form to passions that would, if not addressed amelioratively, be exercised anyway. (The VT guy, for example: I don’t think he wanted to be famous – and in the case of, say, Columbine, ‘fame’ seems to me not to have been 100% of the motivation.)

  11. Shannon

      Thank you Gene. Sadly it’s not just the internet. I get it in meatspace too. It can be really exhausting. But I’ve learned to see patterns, when I’m spitting truth or cutting too close for comfort is when the nonsense flows super fast and hard. Lately that’s been what’s going on so there’s a lot of extra bullshit in my inboxes.

      On the flip side I’ve gotten/met some really great people who have sent notes and stuff so that really helps me not feel so isolated and threatened.

  12. Gene Morgan

      I’ve been the subject of similar things through my various roles here, but nothing close to the kind of verbal assault you describe.

      Know that you have friends here, too.

  13. Rauan Klassnik
  14. Donald Dunbar

      Shannon, thank you for writing this! I’ve been thinking about what you said for the last couple hours, and I went and read your recent posts on your blog. I want to talk more with you about this, but I’ve got to think more before I do. Again, thanks!

  15. Donald Dunbar

      Thanks, deadgod.

      I like your definition of empathy, and I do think mine is hamstrung without “visceral” leading it off, but I also see now that my intended meanings for “self” and “others” are probably kinda hippy-dippy. I was thinking something along the lines of “the weaving together of humans through interdependently created senses of self” rather than the admittedly more-probably read “recognition that someone else has seen you or shares characteristics with you.” For me a visceral recognition is a full undeniable fact, not an observance. It’s the acknowledgment that we’re all taking each others’ lives in our hands every day. That not only is that other person real, but they are authoring you, and you them.

  16. mimi

      @donald dunbar – werd

      @shannon – i too spent several hours, much of yesterday evening, reflecting on your long comment
      thank you so much for your honesty (and rage? i want to say “rage”, but i’m not sure yet if that’s what i mean to say – you see, i too need to do do more thinking)
      ima trip on over to your blog now and read your recent posts, the ones referred to by dunbar

      important conversation

  17. T-Dubya

      Agree that any mob mentality, even (especially!) when one agrees with its cause, is creepy and scary and ought to be rejected. But to call this bullying grossly mischaracterizes the dynamic. This wasn’t a response to some drama-club kid’s youtube channel. Seth is a self-promoting adult public figure posting a deliberately controversial piece of topical writing on one of the web’s top-5 news sites within hours of an emotionally charged tragedy. When you go begging for attention you don’t get to choose its tenor.

      On the other hand again, the callous gleefulness of some of the twitter responses especially suggests that there was a backlog of resentment toward Seth–for his MFA ranking bullshit, for his successes, for whatever–driving up the level of bile.

  18. Shannon

      I would absolutely like to talk to you about it. Whenever you’re ready let me know.

  19. Shannon

      Mimi it is rage. I’m gonna nerd for a minute and quote the Hulk when I say my secret is I’m always angry. It just comes and goes depending on how I deal with it. Thank you for thinking about it and talking to me.

  20. Shannon

      Thank you Gene I really appreciate you saying that directly.

  21. deadgod

      Diamond’s quick and clickbaity always-“Too Soon”-to-exploit-a-tragedy piece isn’t really about his targets’ timing, though.

      He says of Moghadam that it’s never the right time for “crude, misogynistic, hurtful comments […] for fun or for hits”.

      He counts the minutes against Abramson, but his argument isn’t keyed to malice – Abramson successfully applied rhetorical prophylaxis against this angle of attack – ; Diamond’s brief is against the “really bad art” produced by Abramson’s “sad and failed attempt”.

      And no jokes ever about the Shoah or slavery? Mel Brooks? Foxx, Pryor, Rock?

      I don’t think it’s ever “too soon” to meet the NRA’s campaign of profit-fueled domestic terror with ridicule.

      The shooting-spree thing is tremendously upsetting, but to me, Diamond’s hammer-stroke misses the nail entirely.

  22. Dena Rash Guzman

      As far as bullying, multiple people responding negatively to the poem itself: not bullying. Even if those people display anger, that in itself is not bullying.

      Multiple people ganging up on someone and calling names or making threats: bullying. I hope very much that Seth was not actually bullied. I am very fond of some of his other work, if not the piece in question.

      I like your thoughtfulness, Donald.

  23. Dena Rash Guzman

      Shannon said everything I could have imagined saying about anger, and then some I never dreamed.

  24. mimi

      Shannon – go nerd all you want
      i mean, The Hulk, jeezus
      : )

      when mr.mimi & i are upset about something we go all Samuel L. Jackson :
      “I’m a mushroom cloud laying motherfucker, motherfucker. . . I’m SuperFly TNT. I’m The Guns of the Navarone.”

      keep up the good fight (um, cuz i think that’s what it is)

  25. deadgod
  26. mimi

      god damn martial law vigilante wtf ever happened to the “well regulated” of 2nd amend

  27. Jeremy Hopkins

      [omitted jokes and opinion/joke]

  28. deadgod

      John Paul Stevens’s new Six Amendments–haven’t read; saw long interview on booktv–goes in detail into the recent history of gunnuts hijacking the Second’s “militia”.

      Kincannon reminds of lunatics after Newtown INSTANTLY ‘arguing’ that “if the teachers–and students–had only been strapping…”.

      When I see the Abramson blood-in-the-water effect and think of real evil, I think, man, misdirected rage is like throwing food away.

  29. Jeremy Hopkins

      Not to mention: if it’s not too soon to reduce several fatalities to a wave of thoughtless “Me too”-twittivism, then how is it too soon for a stupid* poem?

      *haven’t viewed the poem

  30. Donald Dunbar

      Your post and a couple conversations with friends have made me realize today how much I take for granted, how many assumptions I make about most conversational spaces–about the validity of expressing my feelings, the validity of my feelings in general, the expectation of not being attacked unless I say something totally misguided, about how even if I am attacked verbally or in writing it won’t translate to actual physical violence–that many people can’t. It’s way easy for me to forget the times I felt otherwise, and even easier to forget so many people have had such more intense experiences of that. I’m grateful to you and my friends and my wife for taking the time, for the umpteenth time, to explain this to a dude who didn’t get it.

      I don’t think Abramson is, in this case, guilty of this at all commensurate to how he was criticized for it, and I think some of the reasons and ways he was criticized constitute bullying. An expression of hurt can be crafted so it does not copy a hurt or produce a new hurt–so that it does not become an eye for an eye–but so that people hearing it feel something of that full, original hurt themselves. And when an expression of anger is straight-up necessary, it should be precise, so not to let that anger dissipate into undeserving spaces. Your #yesallwomen post is so exactly those things. So painfully and precisely jarring. In your Abramson post, I can’t believe that the hurt his poem or explanation caused for you is even a speck of what the killer’s actions and mindset caused for you. I can’t believe that’d be the case for anyone. And I think the direction of a rage already overfilled by such terror and shit and–we wish–inhumanity towards someone who is conceivably trying to do exactly what he says he’s trying to do—help people heal—even if you think he’s doing it countereffectively, is inherently imprecise.

      There’s more I’d like to talk about right now, but I need to leave for the airport in 30 minutes and will be traveling for the weekend. I won’t be able to respond to anything you post until next week, but if you do write more I’ll be reading it and thinking about it until then. Thanks again!

  31. Shannon

      The difference between the two entries for me is that the notallwomen one is old anger. That is stuff I have been talking about for what feels like 75 years. So it’s more precise in general because that is the flavor of anger that made it happen. The impetus for the two things are entirely different so they came out differently.

      The Abramson post was something different. That was visceral and immediate. It was messy because my feelings were messy. Being that the writing blog is also my litterbox I peed in it until I felt better and moved on. I would (this is just how I am mostly) if I knew him, called him and said pretty much the same things.

      And thank you for seriously thinking about it and talking to and listening to myself and your wife. You’d be amazed how actually rare it is that people actually do that.

      I’m drowning in angry letters at the moment so you have a safe trip and we can talk more when you come back.

  32. Shannon

      Hee okay Mimi seriously I have that little quote printed on a piece of paper and tucked into a journal. A friend gave it to me and I treasure it because I am that kind of mother fucker.

  33. Madeleine François

      As technologies increasing rapidly so bullying does. All I can do as a parent is to encourage and shows my love for them. Good thing I’ve searched a safety service that is useful in preventing and protecting children away from home. I have tried and it works great! Check it here:

  34. mimi

      planning to find 56:11 this wkend for booktv, deaders, thanks

  35. Internet Literary News, May 2014 | Writeliving's Blog

      […] American Experiment Writing, and that they would not be publishing future volumes of the anthology. Others have supported Abramson’s intention to try to craft art out of senseless violence and have called on those piling on Abramson to look harder at his stated intention behind the […]