This is the World in Which We Live
on harassment, being nice, & trying to get me to kill myself
Recently the Brookings Institution took time out of their busy schedule pretending pre-K works to present irrefutable proof that Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson are harassers.
Or, well, not really. Instead, they found that after Tucker Carlson or Greenwald “targeted” Taylor Lorenz - which is to say, criticized her - there was a great deal of abuse sent her way. And, you know, I don’t doubt that there’s a lot of that, and I am sorry. It’s an ugly world out there. But the research is a mess, with zero controls - isn’t it very likely than anyone with a large audience calling attention to specific figures increases abuse? - and, I’m sure, very tendentious and unconvincing categorizing. What is “toxicity”? What is an “identity attack”? What is a “full-blown gendered disinformation campaign”? Easy question: those things are whatever the authors want them to be, baby. There is, of course, no such thing as “online violence,” because the online world is disembodied and violence can only occur to bodies. Was there ever any chance whatsoever that these three ideologues doing this research would fail to find the effect they were looking for? How much do you want to bet that a vast portion of what they’re defining as violence is in fact perfectly fair criticism?
Incredibly, the paper does not give the most essential qualifier, which is that Carlson and Greenwald cannot possibly control these online mobs. Nor is there any attempt to articulate how they could criticize Lorenz or others in a way that would not provoke “gender-based online violence.” They go so far to tip the scales that they interview Lorenz but not Carlson or Greenwald. All of this should be damning, but the report played very well, because our media class really doesn’t like Greenwald or Carlson.
Yes, the online world is full of abuse. That’s true for anyone. Certainly it’s been true for me. I’ve had people email my professors to try and get my kicked out of my grad programs because they didn’t like something I wrote; an editor from The New Republic sent me a weird and vaguely threatening email because I criticized then-TNR writer Jeet Heer; some asshole gave an ex-girlfriend of mine a hard time at a bar as a way to get to me; someone posted a screencap of the Google Streetview image of the house I was renting to some scuzzy forum in response to a post I wrote. Many people talk about death threats as if the world should stop when people receive them. Do you know how many death threats I’ve received? I’ve gotten them time and again since I started writing online. Consistently and repeatedly over the past fourteen years. At this point I just block their emails and move on. Because the internet is what it is, and while I recognize the harm such threats can do, there’s no plausible world where we will have a technological solution to what is ultimately a social problem. The online world is abusive because humans are an abusive species. I hope that changes, but it won’t be changed by cherry-picking, ideologically convenient “research.”
Now a story.
When I got back to civilization, so to speak, after my last trip to the hospital and subsequent quest for outpatient treatment, I returned to a mountain of email. The vast majority of it was supportive and concerned, with many sharing their own stories of mental illness. A significant minority attacked me for what I had done, with a lively subset of them claiming that my present crisis specifically and my larger mental illness generally were fake, that I had made it all up for motives I still find hard to imagine. This being the internet, there was a small number that were harder to categorize; for example, after a general expression of well-wishes, one offered me a free bocce set. Mostly though the messages were supportive and there were far fewer negative emails than ones expressing support.
But there were two that were special.
Though expressed in very different idioms, these messages were both written in a sympathetic style, expressing solidarity with me and speaking as if in confidence. They emphasized that it was a shame that everyone hated me and that they were all out to get me. They took different approaches, but both referenced my broader history of mental illness, about which I hadn’t said much publicly at that point. They thought things looked hopeless for me now, one making the point that my careers in media and academia were certainly over. Both eventually got to their point: they thought that this was the moment when I should kill myself. One specifically called it an “opportunity.” Both said that, given I was still psychotic at the time of their writing, now was the moment when I was best positioned to end it, and that I should. I want to stress this point: these were not people saying “kill yourself,” which is a message that I receive dozens of times a year. These were people who knew me to be experiencing a uniquely vulnerable psychological crisis and tried to take advantage of that knowledge by convincing me to actually kill myself.
Reading these emails was, to put it lightly, an unpleasant experience, especially during a period of transition back to medication, sanity, and responsibility. As others can tell you getting back into treatment is a trying time in general. The only person I shared this story with told me that, in the unlikely event that I could track down their real identities, this might be legally actionable. Certainly it seemed that, with almost a decade of writing for the internet behind me and having received every type of abuse I thought I could, a Rubicon had been crossed here, that this was something qualitatively different from the people who had merely wished death on me. This did feel different.
So you know what I did? I deleted the emails and let it go.
Because fuck them. That’s why. Because the internet is a festival of cruelty and I’m an adult enough to know that that will never change. Because I refuse to be terrorized. That’s why. Because I know that there’s no special pleading that I can do to stop that kind of thing, because the immediacy and anonymity that still dominate the internet makes despicable engagement inevitable. Because you can’t live in fear. I can’t imagine making it through my life with the same level of sensitivity and vulnerability that so many in the professional media seem to, where every bad word is an act of unspeakable abuse and any criticism is harassment that will cause irreparable psychic harm. I have had to contend with the actual psychotic impulse to kill myself, in my life. I choose not to pretend that strangers telling me to kill myself lies in the same emotional universe.
I don’t tell you this story in a way designed to invite sympathy. None would be forthcoming even if I did. I tell you this story to make you understand: the world will not have sympathy for you either. Not really. I am truly, deeply sorry for the way people treat other people on the internet, and if you tell me a particular story about someone being an asshole to you I will surely have sympathy for you. But no matter what you’re receiving, it’s not unique, and the world and the internet can’t stop because of what you’re experiencing. It doesn’t work that way.
Now. Let’s suppose I had, instead, gone very public with death threats against me, or about the emails telling me to kill myself. Let’s say I had shared these messages with the self-same media professionals who claim that all criticism is abuse and all disagreement is harassment. Would these sensitive souls have said a word in my defense? Would they even have popped up and said “this is fucked up?” Would the Brookings Institution put out any reports in my regard? Would blue check Twitter light up to support me? Hmm?
No. I can tell you from experience that they would not have. Because I’m me, and I have long since been consigned to the realm of those who the internet feels deserve any abuse they receive. I share this status with Glenn Greenwald himself - BlueMAGA says vile shit about his kids constantly - and Bari Weiss, and Elizabeth Bruenig, and Lee Fang, and Katie Halper…. Check their Twitter replies sometime if you doubt that they receive vitriol of unusual intensity. The standard-bearers against harassment and abuse are almost universally silent regarding the treatment they receive. Because those standard-bearers don’t like the people I listed and for no other reason. Just like they don’t like me. The people who wrote that Brookings report and those that shared it breathlessly and loudly will not spend one spare second to worry over me and all the people who wish me harm.
And I just wish there would be honesty about this: you don’t actually give a fuck about harassment or abuse, in any objective sense. You just care about how people treat your friends. That’s it, that’s all. There’s nothing else. Your perception of who has been abused is purely and simply a function of whether you like them. So drop the fucking piety and sanctimony, please, and acknowledge that you’re not a crusader for fairness or humane treatment of others. You’re just another soldier in an endless, pointless, toxic war.