Twitter is full of good people who are bullying jerks like me.
“My dad was an addict his entire life.” The political writer Bethany Mandel told the story in a Twitter string, responding to a cruel tweet about addicts deserving to die. He had probably kicked his addiction, she explained, but then a doctor prescribed opioids for the severe back pain he suffered from his job delivering heating oil.
“Getting those pills put him back on the path of addiction. It bankrupted him. He ended up committing suicide.” Then she explained her reaction to the cruel tweet. I’ll use the word “jerk” for her ruder and more accurate one.
“When folks say ‘addicts deserve to die’ — even [jerks] running their mouths on twitter — it stings. A lot.” She doesn’t write about her father, she says, and the jerk couldn’t know his wish for the death of addicts would hit her personally. He was just saying what people like him say on Twitter. In a later tweet, she said, “But when you say [rude things] like that, keep in mind you have no idea the back story of the person you’re saying it to.”
They speak like jerks
Even good, religiously serious people, say things like “addicts deserve to die.” They just pick on a group it’s safe to pick on in an age that combines hyper-sensitivity (think “micro-aggressions”) and social darwinism.
Every ideological side has its own list of approved targets: addicts, the chronically poor, smokers, the overweight, the rural white Trump voters, social justice warriors, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, snowflakes, the micro-aggressors and the ones who complain about micro-aggressions, fundamentalists, secularists, the Alt Right, the hard left, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and, and, and …
Pretty much everyone hates internet bullies, even the bullies (though everyone makes fun of Anthony Weiner, the one man who unites Americans like no other), but otherwise, you shall know the sides by the people they feel free to generalize about and insult. Ideological comrades gather and at some point they’ll begin their own genteel version of 1984’s Two Minutes Hate.
In the totalitarian world of the novel, everyone watches a daily movie about the country’s enemies and breaks into abuse. As Orwell describes it, “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”
Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
You see a milder form of this in some public demonstrations. You can see it in a much milder form at a cookout, say, when the conversation limps along until someone brings up a shared enemy, one of the groups on the approved target list. Smaller conversations stop, people turn to the speaker, lean forward. The energy level rises. People nod their heads, roll their eyes, laugh, throw in their own insults. A good time is suddenly being had by all.
Good people and jerks
They may be good people, but they speak like jerks, at cookouts or on Twitter and Facebook. I can, as I’ve written before, look back at my past writing and find articles in which I said something almost as stupid and cruel as “addicts deserve to die.” I put it more indirectly and kindly, because I know how things sound, but the sweeping unkindness has been the same.
I also know the feeling when a dull conversation takes flight because you and the other guy settle on a shared enemy to put down. Years ago, when I was an Episcopalian activist, an elderly minister noted at the beginning of a board meeting how excited everyone got when they went from “How was your flight?” to the latest liberal outrage. He had done this himself and it bothered him now, and he wanted us to stop it. I felt ashamed, as he clearly felt ashamed, but I took years to really see what he meant.
All our saintliness must feel tempted to this Two Minutes Hate, at least when we’re with others. The answer is party to set a guard upon our mouths and a watch over the door of our lips, as the psalmist says (141:3). Or rather to ask God to do this for us, as the psalmist did, because in almost nothing is our fallenness made so clear as in our speech.
Another part of the answer is to examine our consciences and our lives and get to confession. “Men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others,” says St. Augustine (my thanks to Frank Weathers for the quote). He describes us in dark terms:
They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: “I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.” He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts upon himself.
Even the internet bully doesn’t look so horrible when you confront your own anger and cruelty. Even poor Anthony Weiner doesn’t look so laughable when you confront your own lusts and compulsions.
One more thing. In a later tweet Mandel adds a twist: “You can probably go back in my Twitter history and find nasty things I’ve said about addiction and addicts. I’m not perfect.”
In other words, we don’t know even the jerk’s back story. The cruel words may express pain, not cruelty. It may be a response to suffering, a way of dealing with suffering, not a way to make others suffer.
The practical reasons for “judge not” reach very far. Annoyingly far, when judging is so much fun.