Monday, March 11, 2019

Unexpected Responses: How Can Anyone Hate This??




There you are – you have just summited Mount Katahdin, finishing your AT trek, or you have concluded your PCT on the Canadian border, or reached the Cathedral in Santiago – and you Instagram a picture of the end of your hike, or you post your achievement on Facebook, or like many of us you grab a pint of beer or a glass of wine and write your final blog! Who couldn’t love this, the daring of the undertaking and the successful completion of a lifelong goal? Yet the next morning, there in your email inbox or under your uploaded image are postings critiquing your trek – the time it took you to complete the trail, the type of clothes you wore, debates regarding your choice of tents, or just letting loose with a list of frustrations about you, your goals, the weather, the influence of trails on public morality, and the political environment. All of a sudden your trek has become the focus of debates and discussions that you never would have thought were related! If you are anything like me, you wonder – how can anyone possibly be this upset about me hiking or me completing this trail? How can me hiking a simple trail seem to represent – for some people – the end of social morality and the collapse of western civilization? Yet these days it increasingly seems that anything – no matter how low key, personal, or innocuous – riles the hatred of people who then feel compelled to rant and criticize you and your achievement. It didn’t take me long to regularly start getting the negative postings or hater emails … and I imagine I am not alone in this situation.

Last year – like many of you – I watched the Crawford Family (@fightfortogether) as they gloriously undertook and completed the Appalachian Trail all while being critiqued, judged, and harassed by online trolls. Inspired and constantly amazed by the resilience of this family’s achievement I was frustrated as countless people online took it upon themselves to make wild assumptions, post horrid commentary and outright harass them. Figuring that there was little I could do to shift these comments towards the positive end of the spectrum, I stayed out of it.

However, as I have prepared for my upcoming 3 year hike across Canada I have begun receiving a lot of responses ranging from those which are highly supportive and encouraging, to those who challenge my abilities or question my gear choices, to others who seem to critique my choice of trail systems. In addition to this I have received long emails questioning whether women should be allowed to hike, or whether I should hike alone. I have been attacked for what was presumed to be my sexual orientation and political affiliations, and judged to be a drain on the economy and a waste of tax payer’s money. While these general statements (and some more direct and graphic messages) came my way, I got frustrated but took it in stride by ignoring them. Two months ago, when I announced that I intended to hike for a cause (getting youth outside to experience hiking and birding) all hell broke loose – and what was just a trickle of negative comments turned into a torrent of attacks.


Advice and debate vs hater rants

At the outset I think I should be clear – there are different levels of commentary we all likely receive when preparing for our treks. On the relatively positive and helpful side of things I have been lectured by some people who view my decision to hike as giving up on a house and career “just to be in nature and go for a walk in the woods.” In addition to these type of discussions – which can be heated – I have also been in outfitter stores and in online forums where there are impassioned debates regarding trail routes, food preparations, resupply points, and gear choices. In both of these cases, I think that these types of conversations are helpful and supportive and – deep down – are meant to provide advice. In such forums even when the discourse gets heated, perhaps reflecting different camps of thought (ultralight vs comfort campers, blogging treks vs being in the moment, etc.), they are nonetheless clearly well meaning and really important talks which have improved me as a hiker and aided me in navigating my gear selections. Simply put, these types of talks need to be had and are great! We all need advice and constructive critique while preparing. So we have to be clear that there is a difference between helpful advice on one hand and messages of irrational hatred and frustration on the other hand. For me it is in this second category – the irrational commentary and frustration where the problems really are online.

Personality not Physicality

The second point I would like to be clear on is that I don’t think this is a woman’s issue or a female hiker’s issue…. rather it is a personal issue. I have known small statured women who can control entire high school’s of students with a look, and I have known men built like mountains who can be unnerved by the subtlest critiques. So neither biology nor physical stature has much to do with our reactions to these comments. Instead it seems to be personality rather than physicality that determines our reactions to these situations. 

The Issue
 
With all of that said, let’s continue on….

Recently following an article of ours on The Trek, our Facebook page, blog, and email started to get really negative messages being posted and sent to us. After we began to average in excess of 40 such posts and emails per day, and unsure of what to do since I am hiking for a cause, have sponsors, and want to keep my message positive – I turned to a Facebook forum for advice. In the end I received lots of great support and tons of advice on how to respond to such critiques – which as it turns out many of us who post, blog or vlog receive. Because of my posting I was soon approached by a great group called Hike Like a Woman (a wonderful forum for hiking advice, support, and encouragement – check it out!) suggesting that there was a need to talk about the issue of “haters” and critiques online.

The questions asked by the administrator of Hike Like A Woman, included – How have the undertakings of “keyboard warriors” changed my preparations or my views of hiking on the trail? How should we be dealing with these types of comments? What advice do I have for others going through this type of treatment? All great questions to which I had no immediate answers….so I sat and thought for a few days.

Thankfully, my experiences with this type of commentary have, so far, only been brief and rare. Despite this, the vitriol and frustration presented in some postings and many messages has been stunning in the scope of views expressed. One figure wrote questioning my sexual orientation, assumed my political affiliations based on my interest in nature, and then ranted about how (by selling my house to hike for three years) I was dropping out of the economy, not paying property taxes, and that such actions were irresponsible. By the end of the message I was pointedly told not to return to the region after the hike was completed.

Yet compared to this some of the online messages I have been sent have exceeded these comments in their range of frustration. Since announcing my intention to hike across Canada I have been told that the trail does not come through a certain region and therefore is not truly “a Canadian trail” and “not worth doing”, I have been critiqued for not hiking through the Arctic Circle amid the depths of winter, I have been messaged and told off “that I had changed the name of the trail” since it has recently been re-designated as The Great Trail rather than the Trans Canada Trail , I have been critiqued for my goal of getting youth back into nature, with emails maintaining “that I will be lecturing and indoctrinating people into loving the outdoors” (though I am still confused about how that would be a bad thing).  In addition to this I have been informed across 4 social media platforms and by email that for all of these reasons and others I am “a simpleton, twit, and heartbreakingly stupid who will waste tax payers money by needing to be rescued.” Thus, while on one end of the spectrum I am being offered sincere support, at the other I have been sent very graphic descriptions of how others know and hope I will die on the trail. Sadly the list of comments – many of which are too graphic to repost – goes on and on. So what are we as hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, aspiring photographers, trail bloggers, thru-hike vloggers, and the like supposed to do in the face of such unconstructive comments and negative criticism?
 

A Few Thoughts
 
First off, I never would have thought that simply hiking could evoke so much passion in people – it seems at times that the activities of others have increasingly become the locus for other individual’s frustrations and hatred with no rational connection. This fact alone stuns me. Second, while messages sent to me are ostensibly about my coming trek, much of the content of these attacks is irrational and ignores the realities of what my hike is about. Third, though it took awhile, I came to see that these comments have very little to do with me and instead have to do with the individual making them. Fourth, while these comments have been sent to me, I can’t believe they are actually directed at me or even my hike – they are just too generalized, too irrational, and just too frustrated at too many different things. Finally, I realized that these types of sentiments are always expressed online, never in person. It has become far too easy for “RB” or “TrueHiker69” or “WildernessMan007” to post anything with no consequence or sense of how it affects others. I know all of this sounds obvious, but I personally know how easy it is to get caught up in it all and I suspect many of us do get sidetracked on a daily basis by these types of frustrated postings.

I think it can also be a challenge because – from what I see – so many of these “keyboard warriors” are
only commenting to be the ones to get more comments, more responses, more likes, more reposts, etc…. and so on one hand you don’t want to bolster them by engaging with this type of commentary and on the other you have to avoid becoming like them. This is not as easy as it might seem. As a trail blogger and facebook user the results are stunning – statistically postings which have rants, are critical, or which receive “hater commentary” against them out perform discussions of gear, the newest bird I have seen, or reflections I have about that day’s hike – so if I am pushing to get more users, more responses, or higher engagement I can see how it becomes a temptation to design posts to get negative debates going or foster hatred. So the decision to remain positive amid trying to get a message out does influence how I design future posts and how I respond to others – making it an active challenge.

In addition, as I mentioned before, aside from how I personally felt about such criticisms I have the challenge of having to politely engage with such critics because we are hiking for a cause, because we have corporate sponsors and because we want to keep our message positive to inspire youth to get outdoors.  As a result, I have had to spend a great deal of time thinking my way through all of this and – oddly – the harsh critiques have helped me clarify why I am hiking, what my message is, and what I want to let other hikers and aspiring explorers know. Sorting through it all has also made me reach out to people and forums I might never have engaged, and they in turn have made me realize how much support there is out there for people who want to follow their dreams! No matter what your goal, you will find a group who will pull together, come forward and support you. As I have received many of these critiques I have watched old high school friends, university classmates, work colleagues, and hikers from around the world as they rally. To that end, I think these critiques have made me realize how much people want to ensure that other hikers succeed. Now if only we could convince the online community to demonstrate a modicum of self control and respect in their comments….. 

Some Advice

How has it changed how I have prepared for this hike?

(1) Well I am a fairly independent person and not normally unnerved by people’s views, but these types of comments have lead me to reach out more for advice and support to groups and forums I might not have.
(2) It has shifted my message in trying to talk to youth. As well as getting them outdoors, I want to let others know that if you try anything different, people will attack and critique, but that you need to keep going.
(3) I now intend to talk about some of the issues and comments I have received as I go, and I also now tend towards defending others online who are clearly being trolled and harshly criticized.
(4) When I write blogs – for The Trek, or postings on Facebook, I am much more aware than I was previously about what I am saying and how I am saying it. I am more self conscious about how I present things – which is crummy to feel that you have to consciously shift how you express yourself, and to change your voice and your message in an attempt to limit the types of attacks you will receive.

Advice to those undergoing similar commentary

(1) First, you are not alone in this, most people doing anything creative, adventurous, or unusual get tagged with such commentary. Take it as a reflection of how great you and your plans are! Keep doing what you are doing!
(2) Most of it is just talk and online ranting, not a personal threat – it is irrational frustration and has little basis in reality.
(3) Don’t take it personally, if you are hiking and know your achievements, know your abilities, know what you can do – then there is nothing these types of people can say to take away from that. Let them rant into the wind, and keep on keeping on.
(4) Don’t become a hater yourself – whether against others or to boost your own online footprint. The more negativity out there the more it keeps spreading.
(5) Realize how much support you have out there with friends, family, colleagues, through online forums, with other hikers.
(6) If you want to respond, do so once, politely, rationally, and then let it go….
(7) Finally, as I was wisely told by Mel Vogel, another hiker currently on Canada’s Great Trail (formerly the Trans Canada Trail) – Haters are going to hate, get on with YOUR thing and get on the trail – out there real is real.

In the end remember three things. First that Haters are going to hate, no matter your plans, your intentions, your goals, someone is going to create an arbitrary line to judge you by. You are going to be judged, and critiqued….and often, there is no end to the negativity at times. But there is also no end to the support, positivity, and amazing times you will have on the trail. Second, be respectful even when you disagree – hold yourself to a higher standard. Finally, Stay calm, this too will pass, in the mean time….get out there and hike.

“The world belongs to optimists. Pessimists are only spectators”
Francois Guizot

See you on the trail….

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