Pistol Courage on the Information Superhighway

The Week just carried a story on internet trolls — people who wander the message boards, spewing attacks, rants and steaming vitriol.  They fire it off with the “pistol courage” that is anonymity, guarded by the thought that no reader will ever encounter them, know them, or seek to marry their son or daughter.  What they get off their chests makes for heavy lifting for anyone on a populist site in search of even a roller derby’s code of … civility.

I write this on the heels of Memorial Day in the inescapable thought that troll attacks amount to verbal barbed wire, dragged through the arteries of American life. It’s a hate-speak, bleeding some of the best of the American ideal straight out of the national discourse.

Valorous men and women gave their lives fighting for many a lovely American ideal, not the least of which is freedom to have our say. They did it for America, yes, but also to save the human race from the arrogance of tyranny.  Now, I wonder — how much are we threatened by a tyranny of rage?  Would most of those message board trolls load the keyboard Howitzer and fire off a white-hot fit of often racist, xenophobic Cain raising if their children or grandchildren had wear it on a T shirt for life?  I doubt it.  I surely hope not!  Perhaps I’m naive.

Faith comforts me with the idea that on this beautiful little wilderness of a planet on which we’re spinning through the rocky heavens, some Divine workings actually get done.  They get done no matter the broken fitfulness of humanity.  Our very silence can be Divine at times, can it not?  Yes, great works of world-changing compassion and progress have come through men and women of courage speaking up against foul behavior.  But not always.  Sometimes we best unburden ourselves and change the world by quietly walking away, failing to pick up that hot little verbal rock someone just heaved at us from behind the scrim.  

So, let’s test that.  When you encounter a troll on the internet, someone whose words send your very eyes into a rolling boil, watch as your refusal to react to that person elevates the national discourse.  Your silence will raise the dignity of the American conversation, and the American experience. 

May each of us measure our words as if the wires of the web could trace them — not merely to our mouths and our names, but straight into our hearts. May we speak and behave as people who need no cover. 

It occurs to me that perhaps one of the greatest measures of our character comes in what we’re willing say, or write, if no one would ever trace it to us. I’m not talking about a few spits of profanity when the lawn mower won’t start.  Some of the most lacerating hate-speak contains not even the Huck Finn sandbox cuss words.  A common little word like “stupid” — when written sincerely about another and said anonymously — profanely says much about who we are. It reflects its own profanity on us. It mirrors our souls.  

As I salute the memory of fallen vets, and as I love their families out loud on this little board, I ask a favor. Speak, and write, as if what you say would appear on the collective public tomb of those who died fighting for your right to say it. Speak, and act, with courage and care not to sully the American ideal. With words, let us live up to what a vet did in courageous deed.

Now, no, I don’t oppose — let’s see what euphemism I can find — “verbal catharsis.”  God knows mine’s a flawed human tongue, living way out loud.  Anyone who ever saw me with a rototiller knows this — and me — very well.  But rototillers have no feelings, unlike cyber bullied kids or a mom or dad looking for shared parenting experience or a little stock research on a message board.  On the information superhighway, to disagree is inevitable.  But to shoot off a mouth — or a keyboard — from behind dark windows? 

Well, time to walk away now.  Where’s that … dadjimmed rototiller?   



3 Responses to “Pistol Courage on the Information Superhighway”

  1. One word came to mind while reading this fabulous post: AMEN!

    Internet trolls & cyber bullies as like out-of-control arsonists and our acknowledging them is the fuel that feeds the flames. It’s amazing how fast a fire will die when no one is willing to feed it.

    • Mark Hildebrandt Says:

      This is a great blog post as all of your writing is great but I could not agree more on Internet “Trolls.” They believe they are very bold behind their computer with complete anonymonty, and actually their behavior is the ultimate form of cowardice, to spew hateful comments often aimed at an individual, with no fear of repraisal.

      I think people should have the right to say what they want, but have the courage of their convictions, and I am a complete supporter of Free Speech, with consequence. I’m not sure the First Ammendment intended otherwise on a certain level.

      Great article, Michael!

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