Much of this abuse occurs at a subterranean level, on blogs or Twitter streams that I might have no knowledge of. When I do become aware of it, which is usually when someone tips me off, there’s always the question: do I respond?Mostly I don’t. Life is too short, and I have a living to earn. I marvel at people whose names (or more often pseudonyms) crop up constantly in the blogosphere or on Twitter. I can only assume they have nothing to do, which may explain why they seem perpetually peevish.
In any case, I have to accept that criticism goes with the territory. I dish it out, and I have to expect some back in return. As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”.But every now and again, I come across something that seems to call for a response. It happened today, when my attention was drawn to a recent exchange on Twitter.
Someone called Dan (Why so timid, Dan? Tell us who you are) tweeted: “Karl du Fresne looks like he wears his 2001 Alcatel cellular telephone in a holster attached to his belt”.To which New Zealand Herald journalist Matt Nippert responded: “And no low-slung holster either. That belt’s hitched high.”
Another Herald journalist, Juha Saarinen, joined the fun: “Right below the moobies”.At this point, anonymous Dan weighed in again: “Visible, obviously, because his shirt is proper tucked in.”
Now if you were naïve, you’d laugh this off as a bit of harmless fun. But of course it’s nothing of the sort. It’s malice masquerading as humour.I have no idea what prompted this particular exchange, but I’m guessing these guys don’t much like what I write. So they resort to sneering and ridicule. They create a caricature of me as a sad old dinosaur who’s been left floundering helplessly in the wake of the digital revolution, wears his pants around his chest and doesn’t realise that it’s uncool to tuck his shirt in.
I’ve been subjected to far more vicious online attacks, so won’t lose any sleep over this one. But it’s worth commenting on for several reasons.The first is that it’s a classic ad hominem attack, mounted via a medium perfectly suited to ad hominem attacks. Since Twitter imposes a limit of 140 characters, participants are conveniently excused from developing a coherent argument. Far easier to discredit someone by constructing a man of straw (based on what? The mug shot on my column?) and then tearing it down. Job done.
And let’s examine this crude caricature further. A newspaper column, or even something as expansive as a blog, often reveals only a small part of the writer and his or her private life (unless, of course, we’re talking about Deborah Hill Cone). Columns often tell you nothing about who the columnist’s friends are, what’s most important to them personally, what they wear, the books they read, the films they watch or the music they listen to.The Three Mouseketeers of the Twittersphere mentioned above wouldn’t have a clue about the sort of person I am, but this doesn’t stop them from making assumptions on which to base puerile personal attacks. (There’s nothing new here. In the past I’ve been described as an ardent National Party supporter and a devout Catholic, both comically wrong.)
My second point is that in these situations, people typically hunt in packs. They post their comments in friendly forums where they are confident of attracting support. They operate in the smug certainty that in the groupthink of the echo-chamber, their Twitter followers or blog commenters can be relied on to back them up.In short, it’s the dynamics of the gang, where people seek reassurance and security in numbers. Not everyone in a gang is necessarily gutless, but by their very nature gangs attract cowards and curs.
My third and perhaps most important point is that if I really were the pathetic figure these people make me out to be, they would ignore me. I wouldn’t be worth the time of day. So I regard their attempted ridicule as a perverse compliment, and should probably thank them for the attention.