There is something viscerally satisfying about the story of British boxer Curtis Woodhouse. In case you missed it, Woodhouse is the fighter who, after being constantly harassed by some guy on Twitter, ended up looking up the guy's address and showing up at his apartment complex. (You can track the whole story, tweets and all, at Buzzfeed.) The guy, some sad bloke named James O'Brien, publically apologized the next day, groveling and whimpering, and the London papers found the names of other celebrities and athletes O'Brien had, in their words, "bullied." O'Brien, all hooded and shamed, is today's personification of the angry dark voices of the Web.
This is the type of story that gets passed around the Internet. It gives us a sense of karmic justice, of primal righteousness. That jerk who hides behind his computer can't hide anymore. Buzzfeed called Woodhouse a "troll-slaying hero." And anyone who has ever had virtual tomatoes and rotten fruit tossed at them online -- that is to say: anyone who has ever been online -- can feel that sense of vindication: We can strike back at those jerks.
But here's the thing: You can't. And you shouldn't try.
I never understand why people, particularly people who work in a public realm, get angry when other people say mean things about them online. I mean, I guess I understand why they might have that initial flush of red in their cheeks, that uptick in adrenaline. Most humans walk around the earth thinking that they are the protagonists of their own private movie, incapable of being wrong or of anything other than being the hero, so when someone interrupts that internal narrative with "you're a jerk!" it can be jarring. But I don't understand why it means anything.
Sixty percent of this country believes in demonic possession. Thirty percent of this country doesn't know who the vice president is. Half the country can't find New York on a map. (This is not necessarily a negative.) Most of the people who are theoretically in the audience aren't paying all that close attention. And those who are, you can't get them to agree on anything. If you ran a poll that asked people whether or not they like water -- you know, the vital, fundamental element of human existence -- you won't hit 100 percent agreement. It doesn't matter what you do or say, someone will find a reason to hate you for it. This isn't how just how the Internet works; this is how people work. Whenever people complain about how "mean" people are on the Internet, they're missing the point. People have always been like this; you can just hear them now.
I have never understood why anyone would say something in any sort of public space -- whether it's going on Twitter, or writing a book, or running for city council -- and be shocked that someone would go after them for it. You put it out there! If you really didn't want anyone to know who you are or disagree with you, you should have become an anonymous banker with no Facebook or Twitter account. My grandmother is 91 years old, and she doesn't own a computer. You know what happens? Nothing. Nothing happens. No one ever calls her a jerk or a phony or a loser, because they have no reason to. She leaves everyone alone, so they leave her alone. I have been called so many things online, in so many venues, using so many creative phrases. If I got angry and offended by it every time, I would be walking around angry and offended every minute of every day. There is literally nothing I can do about it. I'm cool with it. Comes with the whole package. Hell, oftentimes they're probably right.
This is to say: This is what we have all signed up for. Celebrities and athletes and sports personalities, they all seem to want to have the good that comes from their wealth and renown and none of the bad. If you praise something they do, you're just one of their loyal fans. Criticize, well, YOUZ A HATER. But that's not the way public discourse works. Once you put yourself out there, this is part of the deal; you are fair game. I am not saying that this is right, or that it is wrong. It is just a fact. Woody Allen once said he didn't read reviews of his films, not because he didn't care or because he wasn't curious, but because he naturally self-protects. When someone says something nice about us, we assume they're right; after all, we're awesome! But when they say something not nice, we assume they're just jealous, or they have some sort of alternate agenda, or they're just an idiot or a troll. Allen said that you can't read reviews because if you start believing the raves, you can't just ignore the pans and still be intellectually honest. So you have to ignore both.
Sure, the Woodhouse thing went great, I guess, though it's worth noting that had he found O'Brien's house and started beating him up, uh, he would justifiably be thrown in jail. (We can all agree that randomly pummeling people who disagree with us on something is not the best course of action for society as a whole, yes? At least 90 percent of us can agree?) But often when we lash back at our tormentors, we reveal a little bit more of ourselves than we realize.
Over the weekend, a reader criticized a piece by The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson. Rather than defend his piece, or ignore the guy all together, Anderson called him a "twerp" and implied that because the guy didn't have enough Twitter followers, no one should listen to him anyway. Now, that might have been just Anderson venting online without thinking … but of course that's what the guy criticizing him was probably doing too. Anderson is a terrific journalist, but he sure didn't look like one there. He just looked like another Twitter jerk. Gawker's Tom Scocca put it well: "The trouble here is that though Twitter can be a great medium for getting into fights with people, Jon Lee Anderson went in with a common and damaging misapprehension of the rules. He was the guy who asks, Don't you know who I am? And the answer to that question, on Twitter, is: You're one more dips--- with a Twitter account. Nothing more, nothing less."
When you enter the online world, you open yourself up to criticism, whether or not you criticize yourself. (Though don't pretend you don't: You do, all the time.) If you are offended by some random anonymous stranger on the Internet, it is probably wise for you to stay off the Internet as much as possible. The problem is not that some guy said something mean to a boxer. The problem is that it made a boxer so angry that he went looking for the guy. That's no way to live, Curtis. You can't hunt down everybody. There will always be another. The best you can do is just keep boxing, keep controlling the things you can control and let everything else go. There will always be haters, and there will always be lovers. The universe contains multitudes. Isn't that what makes it fun?
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I will be reading every comment below this column with clenched fists, grinding my teeth, trying to figure out your home address. Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.