Rotten minds, human souls

A freelance writer considers the hate comments that piled on after his last story. Do they represent a dehumanization of the culture?

Abusive hate mail and vicious online comments poured forth in response to this freelance writer’s recent SN&R cover story on the climate crisis. The experience made him wonder: What happens to societies when people objectify each other this way?

Abusive hate mail and vicious online comments poured forth in response to this freelance writer’s recent SN&R cover story on the climate crisis. The experience made him wonder: What happens to societies when people objectify each other this way?

Fred Branfman is the author of SN&R’s pre-Copenhagen climate-crisis feature story, “Do our children deserve to live?” from December 3, 2009

Some two-thirds of the comments, all anonymous, on my recent call in SN&R for a new human movement to avert the climate crisis (“Do our children deserve to live?”; December 3, 2009) informed me that “bought off” climate scientists and those of us who believe them are “scumbags,” “cockroaches,” “assholes,” “leeches,” “lunatics,” “fanatics,” “stupid,” “liars,” “dorks,” “treasonous,” “the enemy,” “socialistic,” “elitist scared wimps,” “foolish,” “hacks,” “jokers,” “frauds,” “criminal frauds,” “zealots” and “mindless followers” who “despise America (sic),” “want to steal U.S. wealth” and “we really do not need ya.” Al Gore, I learned, is an “ignorant moron” who deserves to die, and I am “a propagandist of the worst kind” whose “mind is rotted from the inside out,” and that “deep down, you know that you are a small man … with a shriveled heart.” “No, there is NO GLOBAL WARMING,” I was instructed, and the real issue is “does this author [me] deserve to live.”

My first response was a mix of wonder, sadness and anger. How could people who have not studied the complexities of climate science work themselves into such a frenzy against those who have? Why were they uninterested in communicating, or even swaying the undecided, but only in degrading and dehumanizing? Were they seeking relief from self-hatred and unhappy lives by projecting their despair outwards? Could people with loving relationships and meaningful work behave like this? I also felt the same rush of righteous anger as I suppose they did, and found myself thinking of how I could respond in kind.

And then my adult, rational, human brain took over from my reptile one.

While America has always experienced angry debate, today’s intellectual violence—featuring people anonymously spewing vicious personal Internet attacks rather than debating ideas—feels different. It is part of a general coarsening and dehumanization of the culture, as previously responsible media members seek to boost profits by provoking anger and bile, humiliating the well-known and setting talking heads screaming at each other. Facts, evidence and reason are irrelevant. Billionaire media moguls shamelessly and cynically provide a platform to broadcasters claiming without any evidence whatsoever that a U.S. president favors killing seniors or is creating his own private police force. Many folks, it seems, experience their deepest feelings in front of a TV set or computer screen rather than interacting with actual human beings.

Those dehumanizing political opponents are the moral equivalents of those in 1920s Germany who broke up meetings rather than engage in debate. They are primarily a danger to themselves at this point. But if, as I believe, we face years of joblessness and falling incomes, political unrest, class warfare and a growing threat of domestic terrorism due to our failed international policies, this kind of dehumanization could destroy what remains of our democracy. The rise of authoritarianism has always been preceded by this kind of objectifying of “the other.”

I am particularly disturbed when I see people with whom I agree politically demean their opponents as “wing nuts,” “crazies,” etc. I believe it’s especially important for those of us advocating peace, social justice and saving the biosphere to live our ideals. Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent civil-rights movement faced far more verbal and physical violence than do we. They triumphed because they remembered their humanity and did not stoop to demeaning others. Progressives and liberals need to embody the compassion and empathy they claim to seek for society as a whole if they are to prevail.

In addition to such political conclusions, I had a more personal reason for not indulging my anger. I most hurt myself, not others, when I dehumanize my opponents. The enjoyable rush of self-righteous anger is followed by an unpleasant letdown, producing the need for another anger rush. I believe that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Had I grown up with these folks’ genes, parents and environment, I would behave as they do. I am at my best when I can remember that my political opponents are also human beings. It is healthy to first feel my anger. But I seek to then release it and try to engage my critics as human beings—for my own soul, no matter how they respond.

I responded to two folks who had e-mailed me directly.

To the first, who had written that I had a “rotten mind” and “shriveled heart,” I wrote: “I appreciate your taking the time and effort to send me this message … I think it’s great when anyone takes the trouble to care about a public policy issue, even if they disagree with me.”

I also wrote “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of what can happen to societies when people so dehumanize and objectify each other. If climatologists are ‘leeches’ and ‘criminals,’ why allow them to practice this profession? Shouldn’t they be fired, perhaps even jailed, perhaps even eliminated? How can our society remain healthy if ‘cockroaches’ like this continue to attack the body politic? It all began with words like this in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, my friend. It all began with words like this.” I added, “If you would like to establish human-to-human communication, I am open to that.”

The writer responded with even greater vitriol and, after fruitlessly reaching out to him once more, I regretfully had to spam him out of my life.

I wrote a similar message to a second correspondent, who had written that I was part of the “radical environmental left” which “lie and scare the hell out of people with their liberal media lies.” He responded: “I sincerely apologize to you for coming across that way. I will refrain from that type of behavior in the future. I would still like to communicate on the issues that are important to us, such as what we need to do to avert climate change. Again, please accept my apologies.”

These differing responses strengthened my conviction that those of us who object to intellectual violence need to stand up to it. It’s far easier to ignore it or respond in kind. But I doubt that the democracy and freedom, in which those dehumanizing their opponents claim to believe, can survive unless there is a backlash to their behavior. My bottom line: Attack ideas as vigorously as desired, but not the character, motivation or humanity of one’s opponents. Challenge the attacks, but not the humanity of the attacker.

America will clearly face unprecedented economic, international and climate challenges in the coming years. Whether we meet them will largely depend upon our ability to remember our common humanity and communicate with each other as the suffering human beings we all are.