Why I Stopped Reading “Dilbert”

These days I have to pick and choose what I read. I still read newspapers, but mostly through the web. I still read comic strips, though mostly through subscription emails. One strip I used to read, and even subscribed to, was Scott Adams’s “Dilbert.” But I’ve given it up, and I thought I would tell you why.

I discovered “Dilbert” a few years after it started. I read it each day with astonishment. Like many high-tech workers, I thought Adams must have worked in my company, so accurately did he capture the zeitgeist of the industry. Of course I identified with Dilbert and despised the imbecilic Pointy-Haired Boss (disclaimer: I have worked as a manager). Later I learned that Adams had worked not at my company but at Pacific Bell, where his strip irritated his bosses. Eventually he was laid off; I won’t assign causality, but I’m sure he’d agree it was the best thing that ever happened to him, because he could devote his attention to something he did better. I subscribed to his daily emailed strip. I bought his anthologies. I bought his audiobook The Dilbert Principle. I was a loyal reader.

A 1995 strip debuted Tina the Brittle Technical Writer, who demands respect but does nothing to earn it. The Tina character provoked a long discussion on TECHWR-L, which someone forwarded directly to Adams. He quietly subscribed to the list, lurked for a while, then wrote to listowner Eric Ray:

This was the most negative response I’ve ever gotten from a strip. And probably the most entertaining. Consequently, I plan to introduce a tech writer character in the next few months who is a composite of some of the more interesting personalities I picked up from the list.

God, I love my job.

Hmm…

When a cartoonist’s work becomes popular, people want to know about them. In the spotlight of publicity, some emerge as beloved figures (Charles Schulz); some remain enigmas (Bill Watterson); and some don’t do themselves any favors (Al Capp). In the fullness of time we began to learn about Scott Adams, and he was … disappointing. In March 2011, for example, he penned a notorious piece on men’s rights, which drew considerable ire, that included this passage:

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone. You don’t argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn’t eat candy for dinner. You don’t punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don’t argue when a women tells you she’s only making 80 cents to your dollar. It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

He deleted his post (which as you can see doesn’t work on the Internet) and claimed it was all a joke that we weren’t clever enough to see. But later he was caught defending his views on Internet message boards using an assumed identity (aka “sockpuppetry”), which some consider plagiarism.

Now, I’d like to think I don’t care about the personalities and political views of artists. If you avoid the work of Barbra Streisand and Sean Penn because they’re liberal, or John Wayne and Charlton Heston because they’re conservative, you’re missing out on some really good stuff. (The acid test is Wagner.) I hope there was no leakage of my opinion of Scott Adams, the person, into my opinion of Dilbert, his creation. But an odd thing happened. As my opinion of Adams was plummeting, Dilbert seemed, to my eyes anyway, to evolve from an oppressed worker through depression and defeatism, and then to lashing out verbally at everyone he encountered. Somewhere along the way I stopped finding him amusing. If Dilbert were a coworker, I could totally understand and sympathize with his frustrations. God knows he bore up to his situation better and longer than I would. But he snapped. A couple of years ago I started to think of Dilbert not as a long-suffering white-collar worker who commented wittily on his situation but as an asshole who brought on and deserved his mistreatment. If he were a coworker I wouldn’t want anything to do with him. It wasn’t just Dilbert; the whole office became like that. Their manager, while no less an imbecile, began actually to draw my sympathy. If Dilbert worked for me I would probably grow to despise him too. In a twisted way “Dilbert” began to resemble a comic strip about a dimwitted manager saddled with a despicable employee who led his coworkers in open revolt. Viewed through that prism, I stopped being entertained by the strip. And I have too much to do to waste my time on entertainment I don’t enjoy. So I unsubscribed.

Losing me as a paying customer and loyal reader makes no difference whatsoever to Scott Adams, who still has plenty of readers. He made a fortune doing exactly what he wanted, and I salute him for it and wish him continued success. But he won’t get any more of my money. I wonder: did Adams change? Did Dilbert? Or have I made the mistake of letting my feelings about a creative artist cloud my views about his creation?

I haven’t given up on the medium. I still subscribe to daily emails of the brilliant, evergreen “Doonesbury;” “Foxtrot,” which is smart and reliably good for a laugh; and “Calvin and Hobbes,” Bill Watterson’s masterpiece, which he ended 17 years ago but which I still find entertaining and insightful. (By the way, the cartoonists Dan and Tom Heyerman have drawn four individual strips imagining Calvin as a grown-up and father himself, called “Hobbes and Bacon.” You can check them out starting here.) I’ve just given up on “Dilbert.”

How about you? Do you still read and enjoy “Dilbert”? Is it unchanged and still witty? Is this a case of “lighten up, Francis”?

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

3 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Reading “Dilbert”

  1. I unsubscribed for the same reasons. It’s a shame; in its early years, it was a delight, fresh and original. Dilbert and crew were the people we wanted to hang out with at the watercooler. At some point the humor veered off into simple assholery, which any of us can experience in our daily lives for free and find equally welcome.

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  2. It does seem that there was a clear and fundamental change in Adams’ alter ego Dilbert in the mid-2000s, and as I read your blog entry, I wondered if it was connected to his (self-diagnosed) bout with Spasmodic Dysphonia (or more broadly, Focal Dystonia). There are a number of neural afflictions that can result in substantial personality changes, and the shift we saw around that time, coincident with his medical condition, makes me wonder. His own diagnosis of SD may have been an incorrect interpretation of the symptoms of something more profound. I know it’s a reach, but the idea that a person can change so radically in a short period of time seems to me an even greater reach. Anyway, it made we wonder…

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