In the way we all categorize these things, nowadays, I have a (social media) friend.
Let’s call him Adam. (Not his real name) Adam is a minor celebrity in a certain segment of public life and a name you would probably know if you’re really into government. He sent me a friend request about three years ago, having stumbled upon The Pour Fool and read it. And then read it some more.
As a public figure, Adam engenders a LOT of negative comment. Where my own inbox may have 20 or so crank messages a week, Adam’s has about 300…often more. He appears on TV and is outspoken, so he pisses people off. Frequently. A Lot. This is really the only major similarity between me and even in this, he and I differ widely. He believes fervently that he is obligated to hang in there, answer his critics, and at least try to persuade them to his view or, failing that, bring them to agreeing to disagree. He is very hesitant to block crazies and flamers. I have block lists on Facebook and Twitter that runs, not kidding, into several thousand each. We both write facts, leavened with heavy doses of opinion, and he is also on television quite a bit, lately being interviewed, and draws additional flack from that. We are of similar political and social persuasion, both really into music, and both love us some craft beer, the more adventurous the better. We have some similarities.
That place where we diverge is a huge difference. I’m considerably older than Adam and have been writing for public consumption about two decades longer. I had it brow-beaten into me by a series of editors at various newspapers for which I wrote that a thick skin was going to be required if I planned to continue writing anything other than the minutes of city council meetings or event calendars. I was first told that by the managing editor of the Washington Post, during a short summer internship there, in 1974. Later, I got the same message from the world’s most prominent beer writer and the planet’s most recognized and most vilified wine critic. As the wine guy put it, “When enough people start calling you an asshole, that’s when you know you’re doing this right.”
Adam suffers. I mean genuinely agonizes. He feels every barb and insult and minor disparagement the way you and I feel a kick in the face. He labors to hide it and keep doing his job and he does, admirably. But it takes a toll on him, daily, and that manifests itself in occasional little quick tweets that say things like, “Some people fling words like they’re poison darts, without any care for the damage they inflict. I wonder how they can live with themselves.“
I usually PM him when I see more than two or three of those in any week and remind him that he has friends, urge him to use the block buttons, and try to divert his attention onto some happier topic, usually beer.
It only works haltingly and sometimes not at all.
It worked for me. That early indoctrination from people I respected and admired sunk in. I don’t get wounded, I get combative. I swing back, as anyone who has ever popped off to me in a comment here or via email probably knows. I welcome legit criticism but maybe 85% of what I get is incoherent or worse, often just a tsunami of insults and childish invective. I stopped genuinely caring about name-calling and criticism about two decades ago and fight back, when I bother, mostly because it’s fun.
Adam has none of that. Adam carries all of the venom in his soul and, I imagine, cries himself to sleep, some nights.
I find Adam sorta shockingly, irrationally admirable, probably the main reason we’ve remained friends. He is savaged like this, feels it, cannot ever seem to dodge it, takes direct hit after direct hit to his heart, brain, and psyche…and still Keeps Coming. It’s what rescues him from a truly pathetic victimhood. He may be wounded, he may be nearly incapacitated but he gets up the next day and gets back to work because that’s who and what he is: a writer of Truths and facts and opinions that infuriate his inferiors, of which there are millions. And they all seem to own computers and have unlimited time to flame people.
Here’s the thing: You CANNOT take what’s said to and about you on the internet to heart. It WILL wound you. It will make you doubt your own intelligence and wisdom and motives and change the fundamental way you interact with other humans.
Here’s an analogy that I’ve used a hundred times; probably over-used, if anything, but it is precisely the applicable comparison:
The flamers and trolls and jerks on the internet are the modern-day exact equivalent, with even less courage and character, of an old drunk in a tavern, sitting at the end of bar and pontificating loudly and far too often about shit he doesn’t even understand. That drunk, at least, is face to face with those whose patience and self-control he’s testing. The drunk’s situation is a self-limiting proposition: when he finally crosses that line, which drunks always finally do, either the bartender or another patron is going to grab him by the seat of his pants and deposit him on the sidewalk, with a stern admonition to stay the hell away. On the ‘net? No such remedy. A particularly persistent troll can just go right on trolling, flaming, picking fights and making an obnoxious jackass of himself (or herself, I guess, although I like to think women have better sense) until he gets tired of it or some site admin banishes him…after which he just signs up with a new screen name and gets right back to his rampant stupidity.
Unless you are one of these people, make no mistake about it, you are better than the jerks and flamers who are trying to bedevil you. You are decent and fair-minded and they are imbeciles and, as they say, stupid people never know they’re stupid. I finally met, in a bar in Tacoma, about two years ago, one of the primary yahoos who regularly hits my email box with some diatribe, in which he calls me names that I haven’t heard since middle school and offers rebuttals of my reviews or opinions with such razor witticisms as, “You suck! You’re too old to know anything about beer!” I was wearing a t-shirt given to me by the website which carries my designs. One of those is a Pour Fool shirt and I was wearing it at the time. He saw it and asked if I was the Fool. I said yes. And we were off to the races…except, I could see him thinking. He’s about 5’5″, overweight, and balding. Definitely not in good shape. I’m 6′ and solidly built. I also reflexively scowl quite a bit and can do a mean vocal impression of Smaug. I saw him sizing this up and refiguring the odds. He stammered a bit, told me he didn’t agree with me…
“You should quit writing about beer,” he said, flinching a bit.
“Why?” I replied, “Because you don’t like what I write?“
“Who does?” he exclaimed, “EVERYBODY hates you! You just don’t get that!“
“Define everybody,” I smiled, “I don’t think you know everybody on earth or in Washington or in Tacoma or even your own block. I think what you mean is ‘me and six or eight of my friends’, isn’t it? I mean that’s what you’re talking about. People you know, guys like you, don’t like me, right? Think, now, because if you say ‘everybody’ that’s not even possible.“
“You just don’t get it,” he sputtered, “Nobody likes you!“
“Well,” I laughed, “You did manage to avoid ‘everybody’. But I think I’m just gonna keep on writing The Pour Fool and you can just keep on hating me. That work for you?“
“You just don’t get it,” he sighed. And walked away, checking to see if I was going to pound him.
Twenty five years ago, that encounter would have run through my head 300 times in the next few days. Then, I disposed of it within an hour.
I still have people belittle and insult me daily. But that’s a part of being a writer. I have gotten thousands of such messages and emails and, back before the tech age, snail mail letters, questioning my writing skills, my sexual preference, my upbringing, the size of my dick (LOTS of those), and my parentage. Adam gets even more.
I am not, by nature, someone who dispenses advice. I don’t think I’m all that wise that I should be telling anyone what they should do in a given situation. But I consider Adam a real friend because what do we mean when we say “friend”, after all? We really do NOT form and grow friendships based on a person’s body or face or voice. Not even a lasting romance, with a powerful physical attraction, survives a heinous personality. It’s like Dan Jenkins said in his book, “Semi-Tough”: “For every beautiful woman, there’s somebody, somewhere, who’s tired of her.” Double that axiom for men. We become and remain friends based on the person’s character and smarts and kindness and openness and empathy. And none of that is impossible between internet friends. So, when I say Adam is a friend, I mean just that and the fact that I have never met him face-to-face changes nothing. I want to help friends. I care about them. And I can’t fix Adam’s pain and it’s illegal to execute internet trolls. (If it was, the population of the United States would be less than 100 million) All I really can do is to remind him that people who do not KNOW you, haven’t invested the time to learn your character and smarts and kindness and openness and empathy, are capable of offering ONLY empty insults and mistaken conclusions. Their criticism really has no meaning. It is best forgotten and filed under “Irrational Bullshit”. That is wickedly difficult to do, as most of us are indoctrinated at a very early age that we should try to get everybody to like us. NO, we should NOT and here is why: those very same parents and teachers and ministers and counselors and best friends, if we propose to undertake some clearly impossible task, like single-handedly building a space shuttle, would gently but firmly admonish us that it would be crazy, we’d go broke, we’d get our hearts broken, we’d be ridiculed to our graves.
Trying to make everyone like us is just such an impossible task. It CANNOT be done. And it is at least arguable that the essence of “wisdom” is ceasing to try that which we know cannot succeed.
So, don’t try. Yes, I am offering you advice. No, I generally do not do that. But I see and know and read SO many people who are suffering, like Adam, because some empty-headed fathead called then a name or insulted their beliefs or tried – and succeeded! – in belittling them and causing them pain, for no other reason than that they can and they enjoy it.
I’ve written before about what I called The Internet Disease. Simply put, it’s like the macrocosmic version of those pathetic souls who used to – and still do! – become absolutely addicted to seeing their Letters to The Editors printed in their local newspaper. You’ve seen them: the same names attached to long diatribes, over and over and over again. And now, that glandular stimulation that used to take maybe a week or more – write the letter, find an envelope, apply stamp(s), fold, lick, seal, mail, and Wait – now takes seconds. And the author doesn’t even have to be semi-literate, now. Someone adopts a “clever” screen name, posts a provocative comment where the whole world could see it – on any computer screen on earth, theoretically – and gets that same sensation…and becomes addicted.
For all its miracles, the internet has mainly given imbeciles and cranks and The Clueless a forum in which they can catch The Internet Disease: the false feeling of validation and Significance that comes from your name, there on a screen, for everybody to see. They confuse this addictive sensation of totally false “power” with real authority, merited gravitas, and recognized wisdom. They get drunk on it and ALL, eventually, overstep their influence. This is from a 2012 email I received…
“I demand that you immediately cease publication of The Pour Fool. Your opinions are shit and you act like you know a lot, which you don’t. I will not tolerate any more posts in this blog (NOTE: at the time, in the Seattle P-I) and will take steps to halt it if I see anymore.“
The folks at the P-I told me that they did get a couple of emails from someone demanding that The Pour Fool be removed and erased from their database and that they all got a good laugh out if it. Which is all it deserved. My response was a quote from my grandfather…
“Why don’t you demand in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first?“
Your rebuttals, your umbrage, your wounded feelings, your anger are Mother’s Milk to these freaks. They CRAVE the abuse and rage they create. In otherwise empty lives, abuse and scorn feel like significance. It’s a feeling of power for the powerless. Most of all, take NONE of it to heart. No internet flamer is worth even a spiritual hangnail for you. If you can’t ignore them and feel that you MUST swing back, DO NOT do it with the expectation that you’ll change anything about their minds or their behavior. Just vent and give what you get and leave. They’re eating up your empathy and using it as fuel for even more of these pathetic atrocities.
I googled this: the animal with the toughest, most impenetrable hide is, no surprise, the rhinoceros. It will repel arrows and many bullets while the rhino wears it and is even tougher dried.
Be The Rhinoceros. Work at that thick skin. Work at NOT thinking that it is your job to make the entire world like you. See those empty, baseless criticisms for the meaningless provocation they are. The effort NOT spent in trying to become universally popular is FAR better used to treat your family and friends and MAYBE co-workers with the esteem and caring they have earned and deserve. I’ve frequently asked, online and even on Adam’s own posts and tweets, “Is there NOBODY, these days, who is too stupid to ignore? MUST we lock horns with every intellectual zero who has a laptop?”
There are thousands and they deserve no better than to fire those darts at a Rhinocerus and watch ’em just bounce off…