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The Drunk Octopus Effect: Perception, Bias, and Prudent Writing

There’s an old Internet Meme that goes a little something like this:


Pretty much everyone has seen this same coat hanger at some point or another. It’s a pretty ubiquitous piece of hardware. Most of us never think anything of it. But from the moment you’ve seen this captioned image, you can never look at one the same way again. It will always be a drunk octopus, eyes out of focus, fists wagging in the air as it taunts you to take a swing. Now that you’ve seen it, you will most likely find yourself chuckling in a public restroom at some point like an idiot.

It’s silly, but this is how the human mind works.

When I sat down last Friday to write my response to the Hipster Dad’s Letter about his annoying kids, I was reacting to an irritant. The letter essentially said this:

“My kids always act up and I admit it. I know you can’t hear the homily because of them. I know that you can’t tell we care — but secretly we do! Only we don’t do anything outward about it, because isn’t feeling embarrassed enough? In any event, the real issue is that my feelings are deeply hurt by your comments on the matter. Fortunately for you, I’ve reached the conclusion that since clearly, my misbehaving children can’t be the problem (and in fact are probably the cross God wants YOU to bear!), there must be something else at work. I’ve done some hard speculating, and I now believe the only reason you said something to me is because you have some serious hidden tragedy in your life that makes you a horrible person on the outside. I have decided I need to feel compassion towards you, horrible person. I will pray for you. Right after I’m done vilifying you in this open letter. I’m still not going to do anything about these noisy, disruptive kids though.” 

Go ahead. Read it again. See if that’s not the gist of it. And in my own annoyance, I felt moved to create some pithy satire — with a deeper message — in response. I wanted to not only comment on what he was saying, but how he was saying it. When I decided to re-write his own letter back to him, it was my attempt to hold up a mirror and say, “You sounded like a jerk when you wrote this. See how it feels?”

I should not have been surprised when others read my response and said, “You sounded like a jerk when you wrote this.” It was kind of what I was going for, and if people didn’t see that this was the point of imitating the original, well, I should have seen that coming.

The reactions to what I wrote were very subjective. Some thought I had sunk to the same level as the original author’s whiny complaining. Others thought it was pitch-perfect and exactly what needed to be said. Some thought it was mean and judgmental whereas the original was humble and contrite. Still more felt indicted when I wasn’t even talking about them. What I failed to anticipate — but should have — is that everyone who read it would do so through the lens of their own bias. A topic as sensitive as how we raise and discipline children is fraught with memories of our own personal struggles, triumphs, failings, and baggage.

In other words: some people saw the coat hanger. Others saw the octopus. Some, I think, even thought they saw Cthulhu. (I don’t know if he was drunk or not, but he sure was menacing, as tentacled elder space gods tend to be.)

Now, varying opinions (and angry hate mail) on a piece of innately-controversial satire are to be expected. As the saying goes, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” But the thing is, I’m not sure an omelette is what I should have ordered. If I had wanted, I could have had eggs benedict, with some smoked salmon and a nice hollandaise sauce. (Now I’m getting hungry…)

Put more plainly: shooting from the hip scratched the itch, but it was short sighted. I had an opportunity to provide a more careful analysis of what was in that letter, and to offer a more cogent and helpful response. I reached for the easy win, and I think that was a mistake.

One of the more unfortunate things to emerge in the ensuing discussion were certain time-honored, virulently bigoted assumptions about traditionalist Catholics. Some commenters immediately latched on to my mention of attendance at the TLM (which I brought up for the specific reason of the unique challenges and benefits that liturgy presents to parents of small children) and then leaped to the conclusion that it all makes so much sense now! Because of course, I’m some horrible archaic beast who chases children and their parents out of Church, hates the disabled, and has a massive superiority complex.

Let’s call this what it is: an ugly and ignorant bias, unbefitting of anyone who claims to be a Catholic. But I’ve done PR long enough to know that it doesn’t matter that it isn’t fair; the perception exists, and it’s our job to fix it.

Along those lines, some folks even went so far as to coyly begin sharing a five-year-old article of mine wherein I reminded my fellow trads that being grumpy all the time does our cause no favors. “Hey, look at this terrific article by that Steve Skojec guy! He sure knew what he was talking about when he wrote this! Didn’t he just write another thing?”


The bottom line is this: I stand by the substance of my piece — that parents have an obligation to remove children who are obviously distracting others from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to do so in a reasonable fashion. Further, it’s not up to us as parents to decide that others in our parish are meant by God to bear the crosses of our children’s bad behavior. This is a standard I hold myself to, and it’s not an unreasonably high one, though it does take effort.

But I could have presented my case better. Snarky can be fun, but only when you’re not on the receiving end. Or even when you perceive that you’re on the receiving end.

The points I was trying to make about what should be done with children at Mass were lost on those who felt offended, chastised, or indicted by what I was saying. That bothers me, because it’s a missed opportunity to talk about something that I think is very important. And I actually meant what I said here:

I understand that this is a form of fraternal correction that can come across as harsh, but I honestly would welcome you into my home or the Masses I attend and offer any help I could to work with you on getting this right. I understand that we all need to learn and grow and support each other in the living of our faith. I understand that many of us have never been given an example of how we should behave or what we should do, and this makes finding the right thing at times incredibly difficult. I understand that good Catholic friends who understand our struggles can sometimes be hard to find.

I should have tried to be that friend first.

I make a lot of effort to keep our tone and rhetorical style above the belt here, even when dealing with delicate or controversial topics. I am not a fan of needless polemics or excessive snark. As I reflect on it, I believe I failed to meet my own standard this time, and for no better reason than that it felt good to score some rhetorical style points.

This is a part of my nature that I struggle with. I sometimes pick fights when a simple discussion will do. Not because I go to the Latin Mass, not because I’m a child-hating monster, but because I’m a sinful man in need of God’s grace and redemption.

I’ll continue to make an effort to do better going forward. And if a more substantive piece on what sort of behavior we should expect and encourage in Mass would be of benefit to our readers, I’m open to working on that.

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