I was reading Mark Kleiman’s entry on getting a threatening email
in response to his political blogging. I was reading along approvingly, as I do for most of his posts; I share his worldview and very often respect his thought. So I was interested to see how he was handling the aggressive letter.
I had two sort of side thoughts as I was going along. “Oh, how nice it must be,” I thought “to get menacing letters that go straight to the death threat without first describing your sexual torment.” “Oh and look! The letter writer tangentially addressed the content of your posts without commenting on your looks! Male bloggers get such better death threats.”
And then I was so glad that Professor Kleiman referred to the letter writer by honorific and last name. I am a huge believer in treating names respectfully. My Dad scolded me very sharply one time as a kid. “Never
make fun of anyone’s name,” he said. “First, it is disrespectful. Second, you can not come up with a joke about someone’s name in thirty seconds that the person has not heard in a lifetime of having that name.” I believe that mocking someone’s name is mocking their very self. I also believe that it is shoddy thought. It causes disproportionate hurt and anger for a cheap and unfunny joke; that’s a terrible bargain. Mocking names is one of my earliest clues of a discussion I don’t want to be part of; it shows a willingness to be uncivil combined with shallow thought and I have better places to be.
So I was pleased with Professor Kleiman’s response to the letter; I liked that he published it and called out the author for bad behavior. So far, so good. And then we got to his reply after an exchange with the letter writer.
Since, according to the Holy Bible, the Inerrant Word of God, "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger" (Prov. 15:1), I kept my reply gentle:
VERY Christian? And you consider fellow human beings -- each one, according to Genesis, the Image of God -- "animals" fit to be tortured? No, Ms. Currier, I very much doubt that you are VERY Christian yet. Keep trying.
Here's a suggestion: take a deep breath, read the Sermon on the Mount, and stop writing threatening emails to strangers.
P.s. "Infer" is not properly a synonym for "imply."
I wouldn’t critique this, except that Professor Kleiman says that he was trying to write a gentle reply. I do not think that reply is gentle. I think Professor Kleiman used his considerable smarts to zero in on and attack the letter writer’s core identity, and I think Professor Kleiman fell victim to his anger, which made him condescending and mean.
I am only projecting, of course. I’m guessing that Professor Kleiman responded the way I would, so if you read condemnation into this, please also apply it to all of us who mean to be reasonable people discussing contentious things and dealing with difficult people on the internet. And, of course, I could be off base on any of these guesses; they’re based on what I
Professor Kleiman is bright, well-trained and verbal, and had two paragraph-long samples of unpleasant text aimed at him. He did what you do after a lifetime of extracting meaning from texts, and found the information he wanted. The writer capitalized a Christian self, more than a political identity, and when Kleiman wrote back, it was ad hominem. He didn’t state that he disagreed with the characterization of Muslims or the letter writer’s predictions for the future of our country, which was the bulk of what both letters were about. Nope, he found the four sentences that described the letter writer:… I LOVE my safety, and my freedom. …
… I lean MORE AND MORE right …
… and am VERY Christian …
… I will not tolerate being minimized by you and your associates. …
And Professor Kleiman, perhaps entirely subconsciously, prioritized then attacked the point that was most important to the letter writer. He bluntly contradicted the writer’s identity as Christian and implied that the writer should keep trying to achieve a better Christian identity, one that Kleiman understands but the writer doesn’t.
That wasn’t gentle, but I think the overall tone of his response is worse. I think Professor Kleiman wrote from anger. I think it was anger from two things. First, Professor Kleiman was scared, slightly or briefly or a lot, by the convergence of the nasty emails and the phone call. You can dismiss it rationally, and he does. But no matter what you tell yourself about the fear, the residue of fear is anger. From what I’ve read at his site, I’d believe that Professor Kleiman is much angrier over what he views as a misappropriation of Christian beliefs. Professor Kleiman participates in a Tanakh study group
, so I have every reason to believe he has a good deal of reverence for holy books. In addition to personal anger, I’d guess he feels protective of them and gets real mad when people use them as a source for vicious ideologies.
Understandably, Professor Kleiman is angry as he responds to his letter writer. His response is remarkably condescending for six short lines; the rest of his post is worse. That pissy “Keep trying”, “Here’s a suggestion” and correcting the writer’s grammar? That wasn’t written from openminded engagement with the writer. He wasn’t trying to guide the reader to a better Biblical interpretation or to improved grammar. He wouldn’t answer me that way if I’d emailed him with a genuine but poorly written question. Kleiman wanted to reassert his superiority in both fields, to make the writer know he was less than Kleiman. He wanted the writer to feel
that, to punish the writer for making Kleiman scared and hurt. I get that impulse; I know how it feels and I’ve done it. I don’t think it is the best of us, though. And if our long-term goal is re-engagement with our nutcase fellow citizens, it isn’t helpful. They already feel that acutely; they feel it all the time. It was one of the four things the writer said
about him or herself, that he or she can’t stand “being minimized by you and your associates.” That
hurt and anger is always there for that letter writer, and Professor Kleiman gave him another small dose.
It is so hard not to answer like that. I use Professor Kleiman because I think he is an example of a fine person and thinker who fell into this trap. If he did it, we are all at risk of doing the same. For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a way to avoid it. Here’s the best I’ve come up with so far. I don’t think we can judge our own writings when we’re angry; I think that is for the enlightened, not people like us. So I don’t trust a decision rule based on thinking. But I’ve noticed there is a feeling you get when you fire off an angry post or email. The feeling is a rush, with complete focus, combined with a flushed face and faster breath. Pulse is accelerated and the words just flow. They sound incredibly, inarguably right. If you feel this feeling, you should stop. You have stopped being considered and respectful. If you are going back to make the zing even a little sharper, really show that person how fine your words are? If you are getting a real flourish and even more of a thrill when you hit send? You must especially stop, because you are being an asshole. This is hard self-awareness; in the angry moment, the feeling of rightness is all-consuming. Stopping feels like a splash of cold water. But it prevents escalation, and that horrible feeling later that you were partially at fault. Much as it sucks, this is the only way I can think of to self-police; Professor Kleiman's uncharacteristic post shows us we all need to self-police.