A note to our readers

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By Friday, Aug 4 Viewpoints  22 Comments

Earlier this week we published a theater review in which the reviewer used rape as a metaphor for his distress with the way the playwright had, in his view, mangled Chekhov. There followed a firestorm of protest in the form of emails, comments on our site, comments on Facebook and phone calls that made us realize that this reference had touched a raw nerve the depth and breadth of which causes pain for many readers, and for that we are truly sorry. We immediately removed the offending metaphor. At the same time, comments from readers accusing us of promoting and condoning a “rape culture” made us want to explore the issue that this controversy had raised. As a result, we have asked one of our readers who was offended to write about this issue for us, in hopes that this can be the beginning of further discussion and enlightenment.

Readers of The Edge know that our content is neither sexist nor misogynist, that we are committed to social justice and that we provide an outlet for progressive people, ideas and causes. Nevertheless, we do not back away from controversy. Among our goals in starting The Edge was to truly represent the life, interests and aspirations of this unusually vibrant Berkshires community and to provide a vigorous and open forum for the expression and exchange of ideas and opinions. We do not intend to stop posting controversial views, nor will this experience inhibit us from presenting perspectives that might offend some portion of our readership. A lively marketplace of ideas depends on differences. As we did this week, we will also continue to learn from our readers and depend on readers’ comments to identify issues worthy of further exploration.

Speaking of readers’ comments, many were extremely helpful in elucidating the reasons for taking offense. Many others, however, were rude, intolerant and even vindictive, making the assumption that an offense was purposely committed, leaving no path for mutual understanding, personally attacking both the reviewer and other Edge staff and, in some cases, using language more crude than the original offending statement. Because we are committed to the exchange of ideas and opinions, we have left all these comments on our site. Nevertheless, as eager as we are for reader feedback, we cannot help but feel some dismay at this level of discourse. We think it is not too much to ask readers who expect support and sensitivity on our part to exhibit those same qualities when they write to correct or enlighten us.

To read the revised review, click HERE.

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22 Comments   Add Comment

  1. dennis irvine says:

    I appreciate the efforts you have begun and your commitment to learn from this experience. One aspect that I think could be helpful would be a candid disclosure of the process by which the article got published. Was it published without an editor reading it first or was it read beforehand by an editor? Was the inappropriate metaphor noticed? Did you discuss the issue and decide to run it, and what was the rationale? Or did this ‘firestorm’ take you completely by surprise? I think answers to these sort of questions could serve as guideposts in the future and restore your reader’s trust.

  2. M.M. says:

    Okay. Well done on owning that a mistake was made, and taking some steps to redress the wounds done.

    However, I feel many will agree that this apology spirals downhill after the first paragraph.

    I don’t believe a total and obsequious rolling-over was necessary, but is it so hard to simply offer an unvarnished apology, without attacking back? Who, indeed, do you think you are speaking of with “many others”? While I cannot remotely speak for each individual comment, I dare to guess that many who spewed the most vitriol, the most “rude, intolerant and even vindictive” jabs, were among the ranks of those most hurt by the lede line’s casual and provocative deployment of rape-as-critical-badinage.

    To me, your final paragraph in part seems to say: “It’s rude for these people – who might have felt their personal struggles marginalized and made into a joke for a zingy intro – to be angry in response, and say angry things” They should have been sensitive when the reviewer wasn’t? Even when his intent was, by your own implication, to provoke?

    The Internet is a scary place, Berkshire Edge. When women post painful stories of sexual harassment, they risk being personally attacked from all sides with lewd, violent comments that, in many cases, involve a pronounced threat to their lives. You say, clearly, you wish to “present[..] perspectives that might offend some portion of our readership.” Well, that’s great! In order to do that, to be provocative, you open the floodgates to the kind of rabid discourse the Internet is now known for. Your request for “politeness” is an absurd chicken-egg gambit — your readers must promise to be less damaging so that you can feel empowered to post potentially damaging things?

    At this point, it would be silly to say you should revise your apology, and indeed I have no good advise about what it should say. I think a simple “We’re sorry, we were wrong, and we’ve learned something” would’ve healed the wounds in a lot more people than this one died. Elements of this response make it seem you have only allowed yourself to learn the bare minimum from this tragedy of errors, and I heartily and earnestly hope those involved start examining themselves more deeply than they seem to want to examine others.

  3. CRP says:

    Hi there–me again–this “apology” reeks of tone policing, respectability politics, and straight up rape apologist logic. If you didn’t want people to react in such a “rude” or “vindictive” manner, maybe you shouldn’t have published the original line in the first place or then followed it up with a pathetic note and then again with this drivel of an editors’ note. Not only does this “apology” make your publication seem embedded in misogyny and sexist rhetoric, but it also clearly shows how little of a damn you gave about the firestorm response. Lastly, if you think the word “fuck” or “shit” is as offensive as your complacency in this rape joke culture–then you need to take a long hard look at what you (and your publication) value. The Good Ol’ Boy age is over; we will hold you accountable. <3 The Millennials #stayblessed

  4. Ali Benjamin says:

    “made us realize that this reference had touched a raw nerve the depth and breadth of which causes pain for many readers, and for that we are truly sorry. ”
    Good. This part is good.

    “Readers of The Edge know that our content is neither sexist nor misogynist.”
    But, see, the original content of that review *was* sexist and misogynist. That’s what your readers have been trying to explain. So this part, right here? Less good.

    ” to provide a vigorous and open forum for the expression and exchange of ideas and opinions”
    Reminder at this point that the reviewer called the first group of commenters “lesser minds” and their critiques “inane.”

    “Nevertheless, we do not back away from controversy.”
    So, I start scratching my head at this point. What, precisely, is this “controversy” of which you speak? Are you arguing that the content was, in fact, okay? Kind of unclear what you’re trying to say, and — I gotta’ be honest — this apology is starting to feel like it’s going downhill fast.

    “We do not intend to stop posting controversial views, nor will this experience inhibit us from presenting perspectives that might offend some portion of our readership.”
    Again: not sure about what you mean by controversy. It feels like perhaps you’re spending valuable time and editorial space defending the first amendment? Not clear why; the conversation was about accountability and editorial standards, never 1A. (also: maybe kinda’ victim-y here?)

    “Many others, however, were rude, intolerant…”
    Fair point. I’m intolerant of rape jokes in my community news sources.

    “… and even vindictive, making the assumption that an offense was purposely committed.”
    See: “lesser minds.” “Inane critiques.” (ibid.)

    “…using language more crude than the original offending statement.”
    Well, see, this here is subjective. Personally, I’d rather hear a thousand F-bombs than one rape joke. I suppose we differ on that.

    “We think it is not too much to ask readers who expect support and sensitivity on our part to exhibit those same qualities when they write to correct or enlighten us.”
    So you’re ending your apology to your readers by…scolding your readers? Bold choice.

    FYI, if you ever find yourself in the situation where you’re issuing an apology, maybe take some time to check out SorryWatch. I recommend starting with this post: https://www.sorrywatch.com/2012/12/11/the-parts-of-a-good-apology/

    I look forward to reading the piece by one of your readers who was offended. Won’t be reading any more of Bergman’s reviews.

    1. Wendy Penner says:

      In agreement with Ali’s comments. What you have posted is not a full throated apology that I think readers are owed for a review you published that contained unacceptable use of a misogynistic metaphor that does not have a role in public discourse of any kind. Rather you are apologizing that your readers were offended. See the difference? Your mistake was not that you did not anticipate your readers would be offended, your mistake was in using your paper as a forum for a metaphor that by standards of social discourse should not be used. I’m not interested in reading further commentary on civility to be honest, though that in itself is a separate issue that may have merits. I’m interested in you developing a level of self awareness about the responsibility you have as a publication that claims to have a commitment to social justice (as posted in your “about us”).

      1. Karen says:

        He also is tone policing the offended, and scolding them for using naughty words in response to a casual mention of rape as metaphor along with other questionable passages. He uses this incident as an opportunity to assert the paper’s right to publish controversial content. Huh? It’s a theatre review that contained an unpleasant metaphor. The topic is not at all controversial; the paper and writer’s standards and choices are. I think apologies from the paper and author fall rather flat.

  5. JB says:

    Mr. Bergmann’s apology is insufficient and disingenuousness.

    If Mr. Bergmann was truly remorseful – he would remove the offensive language from his own website Berkshire Bright Focus where the original article remains in tact.

    If you are truly committed to publishing work that is not sexist or misogynistic, removing this man from your publication is the only acceptable solution. Shame on you for publishing it in the first place and shame on you for thinking his apology is acceptable.

    I’m reposting comments from Howard Sherman, Director of the Arts Intergrity Initiative because he does a wonderful job of summarizing why Mr. Bergmann’s review and subsequent responses to those he offended is so problematic.

    “To be clear from the start: critics have every right to write as they see fit, within the defined parameters of their publication. They’re guaranteed that right by the first amendment.

    But that said, we all have the right, when we feel the need, to ask “why” about what they have written. That’s case with J. Peter Bergman’s The Berkshire Edge review of Halley Feiffer’s play MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW. He disliked the play, he found it an insult to Chekhov and insufficiently transformative. But why did he need to start his review of a play by a female playwright and about literature’s most famous three sisters, as follows: “If you are going to rape a classic, you should commit to getting it pregnant.”

    After people began to question Bergman in the comments section of the original review, as well as in various places on Facebook, for language that seems violent and misogynistic, he responded with selected dictionary definitions of the words “rape” and “pregnant,” avoiding the most common uses of the words and the effect of joining them in a single sentence. “I would suggest to these negative and limited minds that they examine the possibilities of words,” wrote Bergman, as if the crime of rape and the biological definition “pregnant” never entered his mind. He decried “harsh and inane critiques.”

    His readers who take umbrage with the construction are wrong, it seems, and therefore only Bergman is right, because we do not pull out the dictionary when confronted with an apparently obvious and to many distasteful statement. Perhaps either of those words alone might be interpreted for one of their alternate meanings; taken together, they are hard to construe in any other way than the most common usage, which in this case suggests sexual violence leading to childbirth from that crime.

    It’s worth noting that only four days earlier, in a review of Alan Ayckbourn’s TAKING STEPS, Bergman wrote, “The photos of the production on the main stage at Barrington Stage Company by Daniel Rader seemed to paint a picture of something less than farce, something closer to rape and disappointment …” How did he mean “rape” in that case? Or are we narrow-minded readers again at fault, because we fail to discern which meaning of a loaded word he, a writer who as he proudly notes in his bio, “has been a paid theater critic since he was 15 years old,” has chosen to employ.

    And what are we to make of the phrase, “Irina’s lover, Tuzenbach, played with a genuine depth by Micah Stock, is the best character in spite of the assertion that he may be homosexual.” Is Bergman taking issue with the portrayal of Tuzenbach as possibly gay, contrary to the standard interpretation, or is he troubled that he likes the character so even though said character may be gay? Does his question emanate from the text, or the production? This is not a case of misconstruing the words, but the construction. Either way I read it, it’s very problematic.

    Again, Bergman has every right to his opinion and his words, but if he is widely misinterpreted, as he claims, is it the fault of readers or of how he expresses himself? In the meantime, if he is so dedicated to protecting classics, I hope he is spared to the indignity of being forced to review any new versions of Chekhov, though they are legion, whether (to name but a few) Andrew Upton’s THE PRESENT, Michael Frayn’s WILD HONEY, Ayckbourn’s DEAR UNCLE, or Aaron Posner’s STUPID FUCKING BIRD.

    1. JB says:

      Forgive the autocorrected typo in the first sentence.

  6. Karen says:

    So now you’re tone policing and acting like this was covering a controversial topic, not a gross error in editorial judgment that should never be repeated? There was zero editorial value in the rape metaphor. It was apparent to everyone but your editors and the author. You should not be using the controversy to defend your right to publish the news. You should apologize for the author’s unnecessary antagonism toward the offended readers. When you censor those who have been sexually violated, asking them to talk about it in SAT words, not the expletives used by their attackers, you’re tone policing rape and child molestation victims. Hadn’t heard of your paper until today. Sorry I did. My comments were refused and called for the firing of the abrasive author. I did not use profanity, though would defend my right to do so. I would accept his mistake if he apologized. Neither of you did. He repeatedly defended it and tone policed the people outraged by his language and pathetic defense of it. This fish seems to stink from the head.

  7. Nate says:

    Thank you for writing this, editors. I hope we can rediscover the true meaning of tolerance. We need to be more tolerant of poor writing, more tolerant of offensive metaphors. More forgiving, and more ready to accept an apology.

    It is not the worst sin to be offensive, or to write offensive things. Watch some of the films of John Waters! In this case, a metaphor offended a group of people, victims of rape, but the vitriol of the comments was directed at a specific person. Reading the 100+ comments on the original piece felt like watching the Two Minutes Hate in the novel 1984; they prove the internet’s damage to our mental health and civic values.

  8. A reader who can't believe this storm in a teacup says:

    I hesitate to write, and won’t post my name because I don’t want to open up another thread of indignant name-calling and worse. But: people, where is your sense of PROPORTION? Have you stopped believing in the First Amendment, free speech and all that? Are we really ready to fire people over this? Are we ready to start burning books? Words are metaphors, not actions! Save your anger for the real-live perpetrators of rape, not for the theater reviewer who gives his personal opinion on a play he disliked!

    1. M.M. says:

      Without any intent to offend or belittle you or your comment — “proportion” is much more complex than you seem to give it berth. Victims of sexual assault or those whose lives have been hurt by it, and women who are living daily under extreme duress of sexism (not saying it’s a universal laminate that effects them equally, of course) are inevitably going to have an uncontrollable, involuntary psychological or even physical reaction to even a small metaphor. Many, of course, accuse these people of being too sensitive and while I disagree, that’s within people’s rights to claim — but I’ve seen someone go into near-seizures because someone hummed a song that was attached to a bad experience. It can crop up in all kinds of ways and woe be it for me or you to tell someone having that reaction that they should be thinking about “proportion,” in my opinion.

      And of course, we’re just talking about the opening metaphor here — worse still was the generally sexist and occasionally homophobic tone of the subsequent article. A critic is allowed to be a critic, but should we not hold them to a standard of humanistic compassion? A plumber risks getting fired for fixing a pipe poorly. A lawyer who loses a lot of cases jeopardizes their chances of being brought onto more cases. Why should not a reviewer who has failed to show cultural awareness in his post as cultural tastemaker be held accountable?

      I agree that words are not actions, and agree too that book-burning and widespread censorship would knock away the foundations of our art and society — but I also think people can be hurt by words, and that’s the beauty of them. So when you let someone who doesn’t realize how much his words could hurt have an outlet that is poorly edited, a seeming endorsement from his publication to hurt people with words, and an inability to apologize for that hurt — you also knock away those artistic foundations. People calling for Bergman to be fired were often speaking out of deep pain, and those asking him to apologize were simply calling for a more compassionate approach to criticism.

  9. EKD says:

    In addition to the other, smart comments above about tone policing and rape culture, which hit the nail right on the head, I would like to point out that your so-called ‘apology,’ which seems to be directed at women directly affected by rape, and subsequent remarks about ‘offending rape survivors’, completely miss the point. ANY person- regardless of gender or sexual abuse history should be offended by the reviewer’s original writing (like others I want to be clear that I have no problems with a negative review and haven’t seen the play). Rape, sexual violence, misogyny and homophobia affect us all.

    The assertion that casual references to rape, and also the other casually homophobic and mysoginistic comments throughout the piece only apply to women rape victims, cultivates the clueless white privileged liberal so-called progressive environment that unfortunately makes up much of Southern Berkshire society these days. I say this as a straight, white, female, liberal, upper-middle class professional who is fighting hard to understand my own role in changing the paradigm in our community. As a “publication” that allegedly champions progressive values, it is your responsibility to do better.

    Your apology is childish and defensive at best. Any adult with any degree of communication skills knows that saying ‘I’m sorry you were offended’ is a complete cop-out: placing the responsibility for the offense on its victim. A more appropriate response would be ‘We are so sorry we made this disgusting error in judgement and allowed a poorly written and extraordinarily offensive review to be published.’ And I agree this reviewer should be fired. I, personally, will be boycotting his website and urging other theatre people to do the same.

    PS. This has nothing to do with the first amendment. It’s about common decency, editorial standards, and journalistic integrity.

  10. the power of language says:

    For myself, there are some interesting takeaways from the extensive dialogue. First, with words, context is everything. Query whether readers would be hurt by an article that deplored the rape of Otis State Forest by Kinder Morgan? Second, metaphors can hurt if they are clumsy and insensitive, e.g. what about, “Although General Electric raped the Housatonic for years, it is now committing to a fruitful pregnancy…following extensive PCB dredging, the company will replant and restock, nurturing the river back to health.” That metaphor,, like the “Moscow” review, implies that something good can arise from the violence of rape. So strike the metaphor? I think “yes.” Third, it seems to me from reading the comments that Millennials are far more sensitive to issues relating to sexual assault and violence than Boomers. Boomers can learn to be more sensitive; but Millennials can cut them a little slack as they learn. And finally, in my experience, the Berkshire Edge cares deeply about issues involving social justice and the environment. If it stumbled, it did so in the context of several years of consistently progressive and informative reporting for the Berkshires.

  11. Stephen Cohen says:

    I think everyone agrees that the review in question, and its offensive first sentence and negative comment on the possible homosexuality of a character in the play, was wrong in that those sentiments were upsetting to many readers. That said, it is the judgement of each Edge reader whether to continue to read the paper or not which is important. If you believe the paper made an unforgivable mistake, then you should cease reading. If you believe that a lesson was learned by the paper which would encourage it to not publish an article which is so offensive to so many, then you may decide to continue to read it.

    It seems that some of the writers on this topic seem to believe that the untoward comments in the review were so upsetting to them and to others that they find that their lives were unalterably effected by this one review. While sympathetic to their feelings, unfortunately, life will most likely provide a lot more disconcerting incidents to all of us than from a poorly written article. These well-intentioned individuals seem to echo the arguments for “safe spaces” and speech codes which have been imposed on some college campuses. Such attempts to limit speech are abhorrent in a free society, and normally violative of the first amendment. As in life, if you are offended by someone’s comments you have the alternative to rebut them, or to ignore them. Here, it is easy to do the latter, don’t read the Edge any longer; however, as many readers have done, it seems far healthier for the paper and for a more civil society to let your opinions be known. We can’t be afraid of hateful speech, we must forcefully rebut it.

    1. Stephen Cohen says:

      Typo correction: I caught one, it should read that lives are “affected”, rather than “effective”. Sorry

  12. Ali Benjamin says:

    Hmmm. If you can’t see the difference between (a) a government burning books and (b) community members asking (even vehemently, even impolitely) whether a writer who offends-then-insults his readers should continue to be paid to write for those same readers, maybe…you should re-read the first amendment? If you think that people asking (again, even vehemently! Even impolitely! Even in large enough numbers that it makes people uncomfortable!) about editorial standards and processes in their own community news source is somehow violative of the first amendment, perhaps…you should re-read the first amendment?

    From the start, this has been a discussion by community members about what editorial standards and processes guide our community news source. And let’s be very clear: the editors specifically chose not to answer questions about their editorial standards or processes. Instead, they pushed back against an argument that literally no one was making: that somehow they don’t have the right to publish news as they see fit. (of course they do; that was never at issue. At issue was the question that they still haven’t answered: what are their standards?).

    It’s true that the editors — who somehow weren’t able to see the absurdity of declaring “our content is neither sexist nor misogynist” smack-dab in the middle of their apology for having published sexist/misogynist content — do have a long history of publishing progressive views. That’s why it’s especially disappointing to see them respond so late, so ineffectually, so defensively, and with so little self-reflection.

    Obviously actions are different from words. If anyone’s called Bergman a literal rapist, I missed it. That doesn’t mean that words are neutral; the language we use shapes and reinforces how we think about an issue. It’s fair to ask our editors and writers to understand this, and to be accountable to it. Words, after all, are what they do.

    As for proportion and context, I agree: we need to keep both in mind. So here’s the context in which I write: our “progressive” county has the highest rate of rape per capita in Massachusetts— a state where roughly 340,000 women have been the victim of forcible rape, and nearly 1 in 2 women has experienced sexual violence other than rape. Ours is a state where numerous convicted rapists, including repetitive sexual offenders, have served zero time whatsoever; are there any other felonies for which we can say that?, and a state that just last year (post-Brock Turner!) allowed a man convicted of sexual assault of two women to serve only probation, and an out-of-state one at that, so he could attend college without inconvenience (he was a three-season athlete, see, and he just wanted to “have a normal college experience”). Yes, I’d say something definitely is out of proportion.

    For the record, I’m not a millennial, nor was I “unalterably affected by this one review” (that’s…umm…mighty condescending, Stephen, and it deliberately ignores many cogent points that have been made in the wider discussion). Here’s what I am: a community member who’s asked a self-declared “progressive” community news source to do a little deeper reflection about (a) whether their standards for language related to sexual violence have been sufficient for the world they claim to want, and (b) whether and how well they’ve take accountability for any mistakes they might have made.

    One can hope that perhaps, as Stephen suggests, “a lesson was learned by the paper which would encourage it to not publish an article which is so offensive to so many…” As it happens, the editors themselves have given us little to indicate that this might be the case.

    1. Stephen Cohen says:

      I’m not sure why you found my comment about someone being unalterably affected by the article to be condescending, especially since it was clearly not meant that way, nor is there anything in my note which would indicate such. There were people who wrote to the paper stating that such a comment about rape could affect someone in this way, and I merely addressed that concern. My point is simple in this regard, if you don’t like what is written, don’t read it. If you feel that the paper has not complied with your view of life and society, you can read it and write in and complain, as you properly did, or just ignore the paper. Life can be unpleasant, and be unsettling at times. Someone can try to avoid the unpleasantness as best they can, or, if they wish, try to change things by confronting them.

      1. Ali Benjamin says:

        Hi, Stephen. I experienced two things as condescending: (1) the idea that what’s unalterably life-affecting for readers is “this one review”, rather than the wider context into which that review fits (i.e. a society in which sexual violence is both common and routinely minimized/trivialized, even among progressives), and (2) the assumption that your adult neighbors needed it explained to them that life gets a lot harder than one badly written review; I’d be genuinely surprised if any commenters didn’t know this already. Glad you didn’t intend to be condescending. Be well.

  13. Anna Rogovoy says:

    This is a real sham of an apology, and from a vague “Editorial Board” at that. The implication that your readers’ reactions to a gross rape joke has been disproportionate is loathsome. The “dismay” you feel at these strong reactions conveys just how oblivious your decision was to publish such a statement. I cannot emphasize enough how discouraging it is to see so little care taken to present cultural reportage that maintains a standard of integrity worthy of its subject. I mean, seriously, how is it that an editor in 2017 can be so clueless? Arts journalism is on such tremulous ground; is the way to securing its longevity really to publish mediocre work that stirs up so much controversy as to call into question the ethics of writer and editor alike? And how, how, HOW can anybody, at this point in time, claim blissful unawareness that a casual mention of rape will be deeply upsetting to a huge percentage of the population? I’m addressing Mr. Scribner directly now: sir, no doubt you know many people who have been raped. It’s just statistics. For example, you’ve known me since I was a child, and you know that I was raped in Great Barrington, though this publication never did manage to follow through on the article I was told would be written about what happened to me. It’s hard not to hold you personally accountable for that oversight, just as I hold you accountable for this one. Please do better.

  14. Stephen L. Cohen says:

    Dear Mr Benjamin, if you read all the comments posted you will notice that there were comments about how certain individuals were so struck by one act that it had a life-altering affect. People affected in that way was what I was addressing. Secondly, I would hope that most individuals know life is more difficult that one review, unfortunately many of the contributors seem fixated on the details of this matter, rather than the solutions to racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. Sure we should rale against any manifestation of such thoughts, but to obsess over a play review ( there were more commentators by far for this article that any I have seen in the Edge), rather than more pressing problems i.e. healthcare, sexual assault, the Trump agenda, etc. seems a bit excessive.

    1. Ali Benjamin says:

      Okay, thanks for clarifying. That’s what I thought you meant all along, so…here we are. At this point, I’d encourage you to consider the possibility that your surprise at the volume and intensity of comments is a sign that there’s something about this world, and about other people’s experiences in it, that you don’t completely understand. Alternatively, you can move straight to the assumption that it’s absolutley everyone else who misunderstands the world, and so they need you to teach them. The choice is yours, neighbor. Be well.

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