Who doesn’t remember the cruelty of little children? In my grade school there was a boy with a single discolored front tooth. At our bathroom break, if he got to the water fountain first, none of the other children would drink there. Nobody spoke to him about it, but Sister Paulette must have noticed many of her fourth graders heading back to the study of Saudi Arabia unquenched.
In junior high, boys tried out the cool slang of the day. Sometimes it wasn’t venomous enough to call somebody “stupid,” but luckily our pre-teen synonym chart had considerable depth in that area. There was always “moron” or, to my ear, the harsher-sounding version, “retard.” With practice, a seventh or eighth grader could load the little word with disdain. We would say, “You retard!”
I associate that nasty two-word sentence with a bygone era, a time when Neil Armstrong kicked up moon dust and John, Paul, George, and Ringo worked up joyous vocal harmonies. I haven’t heard that abusive little sentence spoken aloud for many years.
So imagine my surprise to see it pop up in writing on my Facebook feed the other day. I had ventured a not-so-daring opinion. I said that our local news outlets should give us more local news and fewer demoralizing wire service stories about mass murders committed on the other side of the country. Somebody I didn’t know wrote back a single dismissive sentence—at least I think it was a sentence. It didn’t have any punctuation or capital letters, and it went on for a few lines. Anyway, his epistle began, “Ken, you re—“ No, I won’t repeat the whole awful thing so you don’t get the impression I enjoy saying it.
I paused a moment, letting myself steep in his comment’s ugly nostalgia, and I wondered who had worked up all that venom. I assume the writer was a guy—don’t you? I looked over at his Facebook name and saw that he was hiding his real identity. That’s the gutlessness of the internet troll as we have come to know him. This particular troll calls himself by the following sentence: “Let’s Make the Comments Section Mad (Because It’s So Easy to Do).” So he likes chaos and meanness and he believes that people online are suckers who are easily tricked into playing a wicked game. On a bad day, maybe he’s right.
But it takes too much energy to pass time in Hateville with him, so I ignored his desire to pick a fight and I moved on. It’s not hard to find the pockets of the World Wide Web where people are busy doing much more interesting things. On Twitter, folks who care about a particular issue share links to informative news stories. On crowd-sourcing websites inventors and artists invite us to share and support their creative ventures. Wikipedia’s writers and editors are building a massive reference work together not for money but because they believe in it. When you ask politely for advice online, chances are that friendly people will take some time to be of service to you. It’s good to remember at the start of a new year, in the gray of winter, with our few years on this planet ticking away, how good it feels to find something worth doing and to launch into doing it. I should go practice the ukulele.