In my adult life, I have been vilified in the worst terms possible. Other times, I have been praised extravagantly and far beyond my worth. Yet I’ve only recently realized that, having endured the extremes, I find that the two tend to cancel each other out, making both of them impossible for me to take seriously.
On the one hand, I have been called just about every name you can imagine. Communist, pervert, paid shill, ignorant, clueless, gay (by people who obviously meant it as an insult) – I’ve not only heard them all, but heard them repeatedly, because the people who use such language often have a strong streak of obsession-compulsion and like to gossip as well. I don’t doubt that, even now, if I were to stray into certain company, I would be treated as an absolute pariah by people who have repeated these names so often that they believe them to be true – and never mind that most of them have never met me or barely knew me at best.
On the other hand, I have also been called humanitarian, intelligent, talented, thought-provoking,influential, a patron of the arts, and more. A few times, I’ve been treated as an honored guest in public, kept entertained and ferried around practically at my whim. Once or twice, people have declared themselves honored to meet me, often on just as limited grounds as I have been repeatedly insulted.
I suppose I could have listened to the abuse until I was unable to hear the compliments. Conversely, I could have left the compliments possess me until I was so conceited that the abuse no longer bothered me. Instead, I realize, something I didn’t expect has happened: The two extremes have canceled each other out, so I take neither very seriously. After all, both portraits of me can hardly be true.
That’s not to say that I can’t be irked by the extremes. I often find myself telling detractors that, while I don’t mind that they disagree with me, I would wish that they disagreed with something I actually said (that’s probably the former English instructor coming out, who has read too many papers in which the argument was based on misreading or taking statements out of context). I am surprised, too, by the venom of some of the abusers, who seem to be able to summon and maintain a level of hate that is entirely beyond my own capabilities.
Similarly, being praised or treated extravagantly does little except embarrass me. The reason isn’t that I lack a healthy ego – simply that I know that the actions of mine that are being praised weren’t particularly altruistic.
Anyway, I would rather have a lively discussion over a drink or two than be singled out. Fortunately, many people quickly sense that preference, yet, all the same, I understand now what I understood imperfectly in the days when I used to attend science fiction conventions: when guests of honor hang out together, they’re not being snobbish; I suspect that they’re simply hiding in the company of people who will treat them as equals. Most people have a very low tolerance for being lionized.
However, on a basic level, both extremes reach me less and less. The contradiction between them is so great that each of them disproves the other. Increasingly, I take the abuse as a sign of ill-will, and compliments or attempts at respect as a sign of well-wishing, and tell myself that a good deal of exaggeration is involved in both.
In the end, both reactions seem to little to do with me. Frequently, the abuse is based on hearsay or words taken out of context – on willful misunderstanding, I could almost believe – so it seems to be unconnected with my actions. The praise seems equally undeserved, because it assumes a nobility of motives when really I only acted or spoke out of interest or idleness.
Either way, how can I take the reactions seriously? I can never believe that either makes more than a passing reference to reality as I experience it.