A decade ago, I resigned my position as an adjunct professor at Boston College to protest the selection of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the school’s commencement speaker. I did so in an open letter to the Boston Globe, which I dashed off in disgust, on an airplane.
I never expected the Globe to publish this epistle, which excoriated Rice for issuing misleading statements in the run-up to the Iraq War. Nor did I anticipate that the letter, once published, would go viral. But within the next 48 hours more than 500 emails arrived in my inbox.
“Hey [Expletive],” one began, “You are a [expletive] idiot!!! And your daughter in the picture on your website looks like a maggot! You are a disgraceful american [sic] and it would have been so nice if you had been a passenger on one of the planes that crashed into one of the [World Trade Center] towers on 9/11/01.”
This note, I’m afraid, was typical of my harshest critics, both in tone and content.
A few months later, I wrote a second Op-Ed, this one questioning the moral and administrative oversight applied to our troops. It, too, provoked a backlash.
“GET OUT OF AMERICA!!!” one man shouted at me, digitally. “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT LIVING HERE UNDER THE PROTECTION OF MEN AND WOMEN OF HONOR AND RESPECTABILITY WHILE YOU ARE NOTHING BUT A LOWLY, COWARDLY, INSECT!!” In a slightly calmer postscript, he added, “A special spot in hell has been reserved for you, right next to Stalin and Hitler. I hope you get there soon!!!”
As a journalist and author, I’d received my share of poison pen letters over the years. I knew the psychologically healthy response was to delete them. Instead, I found myself poring over the angriest ones.
These letters, as I came to see it, represented an unedited transcript of America’s seething id. Not the airbrushed insinuation retailed by Fox News, but the monstrous grievance roiling within its viewers.
Before long, I began composing responses. I had no interest in actually sending these, which I knew would result in a flame war. I wanted to dig beneath the dogma, to explore the volatile passions that animated my correspondents.
Sometimes, I did this through absurdism—to the man who insulted my daughter, I confessed in mock anguish that she does in fact look like a maggot.
More often, I plumbed the embedded meanings of their violent fantasies. I pointed out, for instance, that reducing your ideological adversaries to insects was a form of eliminationist rhetoric often used by fascist regimes, most notably the Nazis.
I responded to physical threats by citing the gospel of nonviolence preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. I suggested that the wrath directed at me was the logical byproduct of media devoted to monetizing the defensive rage of culturally dislocated citizens.
Before long, I’d written enough responses to gather them into a small volume, which I titled “Letters From People Who Hate Me.”
In short, my enemies had become my muse.
This pattern has prevailed ever since. Rather than resenting my hate mail, or dismissing it, I regard every note as a potential source of inspiration, one that might help me understand the psychological motives of my antagonists.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine questioning whether it was immoral to watch the Super Bowl, given the emerging evidence that football can cause brain damage.
My inbox was soon overflowing with ire. And as so often happens when people let themselves go, things turned weird in a hurry.
“I couldn’t help but think of a slutty girl I knew growing up,” one reader wrote. “I thought she had the biggest vagina I’d ever seen before until now … congrats dude, you have a bigger one.” Another anti-fan advised me to “change your tampon you woman.” Nearly all my haters accused me of harboring female genitalia, often characterized as large.
When I decided to write a book about my ethical struggle with football, I included these notes, along with an analysis of what such a pattern might mean: “On one level my correspondents simply wish to convey the exaggerated nature of my femininity. Still, it’s hard to ignore that a large vagina suggests an unconscious fear of male inadequacy. Is it possible that merely asking these guys to examine their motives for watching football made them feel small?
“We can say for sure that these men feel accused. That someone might make them feel guilty for watching football represents the ultimate gender betrayal. The standard punishment appears to be the revocation of one’s male genitalia.”
I realize that such engagement runs against conventional wisdom when it comes to trolls, especially in the Internet age, which has seen a rapid erosion of the barrier between private animus and public expression.
But I continue to find the hate mail I elicit—along with the jeremiads that reside in the comments sections of online pieces—deeply compelling. They are one of the few spaces in our ideologically self-segregated culture where echo chambers collide.
These outbursts, as repugnant as they can seem, often feel more authentic than the reasoned arguments we recite to those who already agree with us.
After all, we are never more honest than when we rant, never sloppier in revealing our rank and terrified underbellies, never more ourselves.
Pundits have expressed shock at the recent outpouring of xenophobic and proto-fascist sentiments from Donald Trump, and the support they have garnered. Neither came as any surprise to me. I’ve been on the receiving end of such rhetoric for years. “The next reporter that ISIS wants to behead,” one recent message read, “I hope we can give them you in his or her stead.”
Even more striking are the notes in which genuine despair reveals itself beneath the fury.
I think here of the screed I received from an older gentleman, which concluded with this oddly tender confession: “With your comments I wish not to have a happy retirement.”
Whether or not this was a typo, the message was painfully clear: I choose to remain embittered rather than face the disappointment of a happiness that I know is out of reach.
I get the same feeling when I listen to Tea Party activists talk about their lives, or the legions who have thrown in their lot with Trump. There is always a sense of hopelessness lurking beneath the triumphant bluster. The diatribes about taxation or immigrants, the livid sanctification of troops and football players, are really just a way of keeping deeper anxieties at bay.
But the reason these notes haunt me, ultimately, is because they echo my own sense of rage and dread, a creeping suspicion that we no longer have the political, journalistic or religious structures in place to solve our collective crises.
In the absence of these traditional moral authorities, we are left to squabble bitterly among ourselves, clinging to moral surety as a hedge against existential doubt.
Another way of saying all this, a more forgiving way perhaps, is to note that all of us carry within us our own satchel of hate mail, whether we choose to send it or not.
We can either face that darkness and seek to understand where it comes from, or be swallowed by it.