I’ve rarely witnessed a fist fight between neighbors.
Yet some days I feel like we fight constantly. Instead of using our fists, we battle with the words typed into that little email square we send off to the listserv. Sticks and stones seem somehow quaint in comparison to the vitriol that seeps though my Digest.
Some weeks, the listserv is a jumble of “for sale” notices, food truck schedules and curb alerts. Then something – something that seems at first innocent – is a match to tinder. Recently, an alert regarding proposed traffic changes morphed into a biker vs. driver smackdown. Then one scribe inadvertently – as least I’m hoping this was inadvertent – mentioned the widow of a neighbor killed while biking, and not in a helpful way.
Again, I’m being kind here, listserv subscribers, lest the anger rekindle. Suffice to say the post was unwise. I’ve never met and wouldn’t be able to pick the writer from a Monuts lunch line.
But a number of people thought the worst they possibly could about this person. Then they pulled out the keyboards to say so, in rich, pointed and quickly escalating prose.
Perhaps the post was intentionally mean. But rather than a firm and personal email, or a gentle and in-person expression of concern, “REPLY ALL” and invective flooded my inbox. I’d say the infestation was as horrible as the worms now crawling down my back door, but the sad truth is that those soft, squishy bodies don’t bite or sting. The listserv is sometimes more poisonous than anything in my garden.
I’ve told some friends I’m going to write a listserv opera. The curtain will open with gentle exhortations about lost pets. Tension rises with the announcement of political fund raisers. Then – explosions, cymbals, atonal shrieks – a screed appears about too many uncostumed Halloween trick-or-treaters or the best pesticides for June bugs.
Once, a gentle soul inquired about the opening hours of a Roses store. Clearly a bit lost and unacquainted with Google, the writer was barraged (Art Pope, the damned Republicans, how-could-you-even-think of going there). Finally, one correspondent invited us all (think of it, hundreds of people and their kids!) to perform a loving act on a nether-region when he returned from shopping.
To be fair, that correspondent later apologized. But I’m certainly not the first to wonder why we so often use language against each other in print that we never would in person.
It’s certainly not the fault of “the youth of today.” They’re berating each other on Snapchat and Yikyak, not fuddy-duddy technology like email. My utterly unscientific sense is that the worst offenders are on the far side of 40. They trend male and white. That’s not to say that women don’t partake. But for my opera, I’d cast many more gray-haired baritones on my stage than middle-aged sopranos.
Once, I was rash enough to tease men who were fighting over god-knows what. The height of traffic humps? When to remove tree bands? Rather than subject us all to their attacks on each other, I suggested, they should grab their Super Soakers and see whose was biggest.
No, gentle reader. This did not help matters at all.
There’s a particular cussedness that comes with men of a certain age (full disclosure, my edit function is slipping as I increasingly say exactly what I mean, without the requisite shrugs and “So-sorry-buts”). The privilege and know-it-all-ness that comes with whiteness doesn’t help.
But for the most part, these are good, kind, helpful, loving spouses and parents – in person. I always wonder what disappointment lies behind the flame. Is a child struggling? Was a job or spouse lost? Was there some indignity in the doctor’s office or the Costco line? One local sage tries to check on the habitual flamers, who tend to be a little lonely and bored (and every so often off their meds).
It’s rarely the right move to lash out at another a person, in person or on a screen. Sometimes, the listserv, like the Internet itself, is the gelatinous stew of our society, where intolerance and racism bubble on in all their ickyness.
I’ve vowed to take the flamers in stride. My hero is Otis, a large black man who used to live down the street. Regularly, our listserv flares over what I call BMW posts: black man walking. BMW with lawn mover, BMW with weed whacker. One sunny Saturday, Otis introduced himself on the listserv. He explained that since he wanted to wash his windows, but didn’t have a ladder tall enough. He was going to borrow one from a neighbor.
“So if you see a black man walking with a ladder down the street in about an hour, it’s probably me, your neighbour, Otis,” he wrote. “Stop by and say hello!”
So here’s to us all stepping ever so nimbly away from the screen to say hello.
Super Soakers optional.
Robin Kirk is a writer and human rights advocate and teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at email@example.com.