Why Personal Attacks are Inexcusable and What to Do Instead: The Sarah Steegar Debacle

We all have our moments of frustration or committing silly mistakes. Instead of launching personal attacks or blaming others, let’s make the most of the situation by helping each other and learning from each other. By the way, this is NOT a photograph of Sarah Steegar. Photograph ©istockphoto.com by nao.

Sarah Steegar — author of the Crewed Talk weblog featured every Tuesday here on FlyerTalk — posted an article on August 27, 2013 asking “Is It Me, or Has British Airways Learned a Dirty New Trick?

Of the 77 comments posted at the time this article was written, virtually all of them — with at least one exception — was extraordinarily critical because Sarah Steegar admitted mistaking the departure time of 01:30 on a British Airways flight as 1:30 in the afternoon, when it was really 1:30 in the morning.

FlyerTalk members were outraged at the implication that British Airways was accused of pulling a “dirty trick” — especially when the airline did nothing wrong — and deservedly so, in my opinion, as I have to admit that was disappointed after I read the article. In fact, the outrage was intense enough to warrant its own discussion on FlyerTalk, which has since been locked.

I will bet that Sarah — whom I have never met or had any contact whatsoever — learned a valuable lesson about posting content responsibly to a weblog as a result of this article and will probably take considerably greater care in posting future articles to avoid a debacle similar to this one…

…and FlyerTalk members have every right to complain about that article and criticize it to their hearts’ content — and should even be encouraged to do so as vehemently as possible — but they have no right to attack Sarah Steegar personally.

In reference to personal attacks, as found in the Guidelines & Rules on FlyerTalk:

“We encourage a healthy exchange of opinions. If you disagree with another member, challenge the opinion or idea — not the person. You may challenge others’ points of view and opinions, but do so respectfully and thoughtfully.

“Do not retaliate or respond to a personal attack. Too often, when an initial attack is made, others join the fray and, instead of becoming part of the solution, become part of the problem.”

I have omitted the parts of that rule which do not apply here and left the pertinent parts intact while highlighting the key message in bold type.

While FlyerTalk moderators have no purview over the weblogs posted on FlyerTalk, this rule — at least in terms of its intended meaning — should be applied to the weblogs as well by FlyerTalk members who wish to comment on what they read. As I said, criticizing her article is absolutely encouraged. Personally attacking her — for example, by accusing her of not being able to tell time, to avoid flying with her while she is performing her duties as a flight attendant of 16 years, and suggesting she does not have the basic skills of a child who is seven years old does not resolve the issue — is, in fact, inexcusable.

There is a distinct difference between attacking the person himself or herself, instead of challenging the opinions and ideas of that person. The latter is constructive and offers the potential for improvement; the former is little more than a possible catharsis at best which otherwise serves no purpose.

An excellent alternative to how Sarah Steegar could have written the title to her article was suggested by FlyerTalk member Globaliser: “Even Sarah Steeger could have written a useful article along the lines of ‘I was so stupid – please learn from my mistake and not the hard way.’”

We all make mistakes. No one is exempt. Come on — tell me that you have never committed what could be considered a “stupid” mistake. I have — some of which seem to be so ridiculous that I wonder how in the world I committed those mistakes in the first place.

FlyerTalk member OverThereTooMuch quite succinctly posted “Ok, you don’t like the article. Fine. Bash that to pieces. But the personal attacks displayed in this thread really go above and beyond a reasonable discussion.”

Exactly. Thank you, OverThereTooMuch.

Sarah Steegar committed some errors — arguably the biggest one as to having posted that particular article in question in the first place. Despite the barrage of personal attacks and searing criticism, she graciously acknowledged them in those comments posted to her article — she is FlyerTalk member SSteegar, in case you did not know.

FlyerTalk is the Internet web site of the largest travel community in the world at greater than 500,000 members — quite a number of whom are experts. Many people from around the world look to FlyerTalk for valuable advice. However, there are many examples of content posted — yes, including in weblogs — where we need to be more professional and constructive in terms of criticizing and challenging the opinions and ideas of others. Without that professionalism comes the potential for a negative reputation for FlyerTalk and the community of frequent fliers in general, fostering superfluous discussion which can dilute the core purpose: to assist each other on attempting to earn and use frequent traveler miles and points while traveling as efficiently — and enjoying that travel — as best as possible.

Bringing this to the broader issue of “bloggers” in general, I have read personal attacks in the comments sections of virtually every weblog out there — at least, the ones which the comments posted by readers are not censored. Rather, I believe that we should offer constructive suggestions on how those “bloggers” can simultaneously be more responsible and improve on the content they post — such as what I posted here about how sometimes it is not always best to “scoop” a story as pertaining to the debacle of American Airlines officially imposing fuel surcharges on award tickets with no advance notice.

Whether I assume the role of “blogger” or “fellow FlyerTalk member”, I have never personally attacked anyone — even if a personal attack had already been launched on me. Rather, I always attempt to offer some constructive suggestions.

Look — I have committed more than my fair share of mistakes. I certainly have been called out on them by fellow FlyerTalk members — deservedly so at times. However, I learn from the constructive comments and suggestions — and hopefully as a result, I have improved upon the content I post here at The Gate, to which I have been contributing for greater than seven years.

Gerry Wingenbach — author of The Tarmac weblog here on FlyerTalk and alumnus of The Gate — writes in his rebuttal to the “bullies” that “Management did nothing but lock themselves behind the cockpit door and peer through the peephole” and that he “also contacted FT management, who refused to stop the insults and left the flight attendant hanging by her rope. They said they fully ‘stand by her.’ (But not close enough to stop the comments.)”…

…and many of those FlyerTalk members who commented on the Sarah Steegar article called for Internet Brands to remove the story — either from the front “page” or from FlyerTalk altogether.

I would suggest that if management at Internet Brands did just that, then they would be accused of censorship. Is that really the preferred alternative?

If you happen to be a “blogger”, do not sweat the small stuff. Develop that thick skin. No matter how well you write or how valuable or useful is the content you post, you will always have a “heckler” who is determined to cut you down…

…but I look at it this way — and this is especially directed at you, Gerry Wingenbach, after what you posted as FlyerTalk member mountainpost in the comments of an article you wrote here about how an airplane operated by Lion Air crashed into a cow:

Feedback is a gift. If someone is willing to use their valuable time and effort to give you feedback, accept it and use it to further improve what you do — even if the feedback is little more than a personal attack…

…as I would rather have negative feedback than no feedback at all. Go ahead — call me anything you want. Personally attack me, if you feel the need. I may not enjoy it — but I can certainly take it and I will not censor it or delete it. At least I know someone is reading what I write…

…but I will certainly be more likely to respond to genuine feedback with suggestions for improvement over personal attacks any day of the week — and if you are hoping for me to launch a personal attack in response, save your typing fingers, as it ain’t gonna happen.

Keep your spirits high, Sarah and Gerry. Do not take those personal attacks — well — personally. Continue to strive to improve the content that you post…

…and as for readers: if you want to comment on what a “blogger” or fellow FlyerTalk member posted in a critical manner, please do so in a civilized and constructive way…

…and if you dislike a particular “blog” so much that you do not believe that it is worth your time and effort to offer constructive feedback, then do not read it. Avoid it. Save your time and energy. It is that simple.

Let us concentrate on learning from each other and helping each other improve our experiences with frequent traveler loyalty program miles and points — as well as with travel in general. Our community will thrive substantially better if we did — and it really does not require much effort on our parts. Sometimes a “please” and a “thank you” or a simple compliment are all that is needed — and the willingness to improve civility and be constructive can be infectious.

So what do we want: a bunch of people who feel free and empowered to skewer others with personal attacks in what could be construed as a “mob-rule free-for-all” — or a welcoming environment where we help each other with valuable and useful input?

I made my choice years ago. What is your choice?

Are you willing to do your part in improving civility and offering constructive feedback on FlyerTalk and in the community of frequent fliers in general? What will you do to help brighten the day of a “blogger” or a fellow FlyerTalk member?

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Comments (Showing 6 of 6)

  • writerguyfl at 12:54am August 30, 2013

    Without question, it’s not appropriate to personally attack someone via the comments section of a blog piece. But, is it appropriate for an author to accuse a company of using dirty tricks to “gleefully gobble passenger tickets”?

    Based on the evidence, BA has done nothing wrong. That’s important. Yet, unless someone reads the comments attached to that article, she or he will come away with a bad opinion of the airline. Of course, not everyone will do take the time to read comments. So, the article and the false assumptions made are now out in cyberspace forever.

    Just as nasty commenters should be held accountable for personal attacks, I firmly believe that bloggers should be held accountable for their words. The false information should be rescinded.

  • DaxOmni at 10:28am August 30, 2013

    Sarah Steegar’s headline accusation was patently absurd, entirely unsubstantiated by the actual article, and worded as an open question. We’re talking perfect storm material here. The original mistake was extremely minor but the article that resulted from her mistake was the height of frivolous reporting. Just more proof that blogs are no replacement for actual journalism.

    • Brian Cohen at 2:16pm August 30, 2013

      Interestingly, DaxOmni and writerguyfl — what both of you have written are examples of what should be in the comments of that article, as you both articulated your points rather well and in a civil manner without attacking Sarah Steegar herself.
      I absolutely agree with you, writerguyfl — “bloggers” should be held accountable for their words as well as those who comment on them.
      Thank you both for setting an example.

  • seanthepilot at 12:25am September 01, 2013

    This columnists incident this week is a symptom of what we have allowed FT to turn into. That is the tragedy, if you ask me. . . .

    The blame lies directly on FlyerTalk allowing bullying members to rule the forums. It has become commonplace, instead of the exception. . . . .

    The members are just doing what FT has gradually allowed for years and what they’ve seen others get away with. . . . Unfortunately, SS took the brunt of it.

  • londonbus at 5:15pm September 02, 2013

    I was one of the critics.

    The original article was just plain wrong, blaming BA for something which didn’t happen.

    It alleges conspiracy “Dirty New Trick” where there wasn’t one.

    The author alleges that the ticket was designed for her to miss the flight – when it wasn’t.

    So we have a misleading article, with a sensational headline which is just plain wrong.

    Isn’t there a flaw in the process here?

    • Brian Cohen at 6:09pm September 02, 2013

      My point is about personal attacks — not about any flaws in the process.

      As with everyone else who has posted here up to this point, londonbus, you have clearly and plainly expressed your thoughts here without resorting to personal attacks against Sarah Steegar directly — which is the way it should be done.

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