Thursday, June 11, 2015

Don't Shut Me Up: Why We Need to Allow Respectful Dissent

I stepped into a bit of a hornet's nest today. The internet variety, I mean.

I belonged to a closed Facebook group devoted to the Firm, a 1980's workout video series that developed a cult following, of which I was a proud member.

The Firm was created by Anna Benson, who pioneered the integration of heavier weights in women's workouts in an era when weights were not the done thing. Women feared lifting anything heavier than a Campbell's soup can would make them 'bulky.' Anna said, 'pffft' to that and developed a series of truly wonderful, if not kinda 80's cheesy, workout videos that got me into fitness and truly changed my life. I will always be grateful to Anna for her creativity and vision. Anna ended up selling the Firm and they are still going, but in my opinion, the new Firm is nothing like it was in Anna's glory days.

However, Anna wrote a book sometime in the 1990's called Firm for Life.
It got generally pretty terrible reviews on Amazon, but I was such a Firm junkie that I bought it anyway. I ended up agreeing with terrible reviews. I did not find the book helpful, and I did not like Anna's attitude toward appearance or her treatment of other fitness professionals. I recall she even went so far as to call exercise pioneer Jack LaLanne's skin 'crepey.' She lectured us on the importance of politeness, then comes out with that? Mean girl, maybe?

The take-away image I got of Anna was that she was shallow, catty and entirely too image-conscious. Maybe she wasn't like that really, but that's how she came across to me, and a lot of other people. But hey, nobody's perfect and Anna put out a good workout back in her day so I can get over it. I just didn't need to know her views on grey hairs ('for heaven's sake--cover those greys!'), thong underwear ('so important because we wouldn't want panty lines!') or her book list that would help me develop my 'Firm spirit.' I didn't see what that had to do with workouts and healthy eating.

So, what does this have to do with hornets?

Someone on this Facebook group asked about the book. 'It got really bad reviews--what does everyone think? Should I buy it?'

Oh, the responses were glowing!

"The book is so wonderful!"

"I loved it!"

"I'm so glad I bought it!"

I'm thinking, really? So I chimed in with my thoughts. I didn't like the book. (I might have described it as 'terrible.') I didn't think it was useful, I thought Anna came across as mean-spirited and shallow. I said I would probably have felt uncomfortable around her because I don't get regular manicures. I emphasized that while I loved the workouts, I could have done without the book. I said if you find it for a bargain price, check it out. But I wouldn't pay $35 on eBay. Or something along those lines.

Whoa. Cue hornets. While the person who asked the question seemed to appreciate my comments, others decidedly did not. I was called a 'Debbie Downer' and basically accused of being a negative troll. The group used to be 'fun and inspirational,' and now here I had the temerity to criticize Anna. No one had ever said such awful things about Anna before.

I was, quite frankly, agog. Someone asked a question, and I gave my opinion. Someone was making a purchasing decision, so I gave her my honest appraisal of the book. I was told, "We don't say bad things about Anna. She changed our lives." Did I mention Anna died a few years ago? 'We don't say bad things about the dead. People who knew her read this.' But, I reasoned, "someone wanted to know if she should spend money on the book, would it be a worthwhile purchase? Are we not allowed to answer 'no' to that question? Are we supposed to be all sunshine and roses??"

"That would be nice," I was told.

One hornet told me I should go start my own group if I wanted to say negative things about Anna.

Oh. Ok.

The whole thing reminded me of a blog post I read recently entitled 'The Worst Advice My Mother Ever Gave Me." What might that be? Author Deb Rankin said it was that parenting classic, 'if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all.'

She writes:
Encouragement and positive words are great, but the advice is dangerous for several reasons. Breaking the connection between emotion and communication makes one lonely and isolated, because no one knows the real you. Suppressed thoughts will come out, not always in healthy ways. Finally, the world needs people brave enough to speak out against evil and bad behavior.

I'm willing to bet Deb's mother (and mothers across the globe) mean for us to avoid unkindness and gossip, and I'm all for that. But I think Deb makes some good points. Sadly, the internet has become a breeding ground for bad behavior. All you have to do is click on the comments link to any number of articles to read nasty, rude, obscene remarks people make. "You stupid [insert expletive]! You don't know your [expletive] from your [expletive]! I hope you rot in [expletive]!" There is no place for that in a civilized society, and I truly grieve when I see some of what is written.

However, my comments were not of that ilk. They were pointed, but rational. I provided examples to support my opinions. And in fairness, the hornets were not nasty. But to shut down reasoned discourse, to halt a sensible dialogue just because we don't like what someone is saying... that's sad, too.

When we write, we put ourselves 'out there.' We have to expect that people might not like what we say, they might not agree, but I for one welcome respectful dissent. Muscles don't change without resistance. People don't change without challenge.

After some reflection, I decided to 'unjoin' the Facebook group. It was clear the members didn't want me there, and I don't want to be part of any group where I get a smackdown for thinking critically and expressing a dissenting opinion. It's just too... well... cultish.

What do you think? By all means, share. Respectful dissent is welcome!


  1. Controversy in a Firm group? Never! :D I completely agree about that book. I love me some classic Firms, but the book was not terribly well done and carried a bit of a Cosmo/Mean Girl vibe that didn't appeal to me at all. Which doesn't make me feel differently about the pioneering work Anna did in workout videos, it's just my opinion on her book. You're not spewing hate about Anna just to rile things up, like a real troll would. How sad the other group members can't accept not buying into "groupthink!"

    Geez, they'd probably have an aneurysm over some of the stuff that's been said about Anna at VF over the years!

    1. Yes, it was quite bizarre. The attitude was, 'this group is for people who love the Classic Firms.' To which I responded, 'yes, I do, too! But the question was about the book, and I didn't like the book. Can we not just dislike the book?' No, apparently we cannot. I suppose it would have been slightly different if I had posted, 'hey, anyone else think the book is utter crap?' But I was just responding to a question! So strange. I'm kind of curious about any further comments, but I unjoined the group, so I can't see. It's for the best. I have other things to do!