A fellow threatened to kill me the other day. To be more precise, it was a slightly oblique threat, a declaration that I should be made to die for holding certain political beliefs rather than a direct threat that he himself would come do the deed. I took note of it only because my colleague Kat Timpf recently had been subjected to the emotional incontinence of a large number of Star Wars fans, who averred that she should be put to death, or violated in myriad gruesome ways, for mocking their dedication to a children’s film franchise.
This sort of thing happens a lot. Oddly enough, I got a lot more of it — much more in the way of direct threats of violence — as a newspaper editor. But then, I was a newspaper editor in Philadelphia (and in its suburbs before that), where the resort to casual violence is a colorful local custom. Not much ever came of it; once or twice, my secretary was obliged to tell some angry man demanding to see the editor so that justice could be enacted upon him that the man he sought was the big bald guy with the pistol sitting on his desk. Alas, my colleagues based in New York City and in Washington have little chance to avail themselves of that option. I suppose that Philadelphia, being the home of the Constitution Center, feels obliged to honor the entirety of the Bill of Rights, more or less.
Nobody really ever does anything, of course, but it’s a great strategy for a slow news day: How many times have you seen, in Salon or the like, the column, “I wrote about X two weeks ago, and people on social media were really, really mean to me”? Bunches, if you’re paying any attention at all.
I have, for Trump-related reasons, caught the attention of the white-power edge of the web lately, and they’re a dreary bunch. They come in two flavors: The neo-pagan types have names such as Wotansvolk or The Last Norman Knight, and they have profile pictures boosted from old Dungeons & Dragons games; the other type tends more toward Confederate flags or Sambo-style racial caricatures. They make their dopey threats — sometimes right here in the NRO comments section — but everybody knows that they probably aren’t going to do anything. They couldn’t organize the bus fare, for one thing.
It’s a handy rhetorical strategy for a lazy kind of thinker: You need not establish the credibility of your own argument if you can simply show that everybody who disagrees with you is a monster. Never mind that that’s not true: Social-media conversations about NFL rivalries are at least as nasty as those about politics. This is because some percentage (it is non-trivial) of any group — Democrats, Republicans, Steelers fans, Star Wars aficionados — is composed of emotionally stunted people who are in the main not especially bright, and whose main mode of communication is lashing out at . . . everybody. Forty years ago, they were confined mainly to scribbling on bathroom walls; the more ambitious and literate among them sometimes wrote letters to the editor. (I once was involved with a lovely young lady who sometimes sent angry letters about my column to the editor of my local newspaper, who was me. That didn’t end well.) Before the Internet (ask your parents, kids), there was a whole weird little world of angry, political mass faxes; the first genuine racist literature I ever encountered was transmitted that way. It was a coward’s medium then, and it is a coward’s medium now.
#share#But the fact is that everybody who is in any degree in the public eye today gets threats, or at the very least ugly abuse from anonymous cowards. We ought not make too much of it. But of course some of us do, when doing so is useful.
People who receive threats that they feel to be genuine should of course act accordingly, and I do not blame my colleague for taking the time to expose her Star Wars tormenters to ridicule for their ugly, illiterate shenanigans. But in the long run, how people behave on social media probably doesn’t tell us much about how Republicans, Democrats, Trumpkins, progressives, pro-lifers, animal-rights nuts, Appalachian Trail hikers, Star Wars fans, or jai alai enthusiasts see the world. It tells us a great deal about how people choose to behave when operating anonymously in environments that are, for them, consequence-free. Consider, if you can bear the horror of it, that the conditions inside a voting booth are approximately those enjoyed by an anonymous Twitter user. Two cheers for democracy, and all that. People are awful, and a sizable minority of them are super-double-ultra awful. We must temper our expectations.
A very small percentage of any given population is insane, too, and the temptation to use such figures as the recent Colorado Springs shooter as political weapons is at least as intellectually indefensible as creating dishonest metonyms out of anonymous social-media ranters who represent, at most, a part of a particular social inclination. It is deeply dishonorable, too, not that that ever would occur to the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose exposure to honorable men has been limited. (Given her imperious style, it is doubtful that she speaks much to the honorable men in her orbit — the armed ones who protect her.) Madmen may develop political attachments. (Gore Vidal, in his senility, developed some odd ideas about the relationship between the FBI, the Catholic Church, and the man who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.) That doesn’t tell us very much about the underlying political ideas, either.
But if you make the mistake of believing that it does — or if you simply are intellectually dishonest enough to pretend that it does — that indeed tells us something about you, and it’s nothing to be proud of.
— Kevin Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.