When I started Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, my expectations were high. And they were not disappointed.
I learnt about the utility and the drawbacks of extravagant wealth, the power of silence and absence, the value of submitting to the expertise of those better informed, the fickleness of public opinion, and most interestingly of all, the nature of hate.
Particularly, the criticism that was aimed John D. Rockefeller Junior.
A search for H.L. Mencken indicates he was a literary somebody. He rubbed shoulders with the literati. He was known as a notorious critic. And as a racist. He was a champion of the art he deemed influential. He was nicknamed “The Sage of Balitmore.”
This very same man had this to say about Rockefeller Junior:
“He is attended to simply because he happens to be the son of old John, and hence heir to a large fortune. So far as the records show, he has never said anything in his life that was beyond the talents of a Rotary Club orator or a newspaper editorial writer, or done anything that would have strained an intelligent bookkeeper.”
Now, take a tour through the cesspool of human contribution; YouTube comments. Or trawl through some controversial Instagram accounts.
It’s hard to imagine that the people writing this spiel are, you know, real people. You wouldn’t guess it from the ignorance and stupidity on display.
It’s a side-effect of technology. The increase in our ability to comment and remark from afar has allowed such responses to proliferate. Technology after all is neutral. It amplifies what is already present. And as Mencken’s comments about Rockefeller Junior illustrate, our capacity for hate and personal attack existed long before Facebook and YouTube.
The thing that makes these bigoted YouTube comments possible is what made H.L. Mencken’s criticism possible: distance.
The keyboard warrior doesn’t have to face the target of their outburst. Most critics don’t meet with the objects of their inspection.
But with distance, criticism, attack and hatred become easier. There’s less risk.
Technology gives us more opportunities to create and contribute. But it has also gives us more chances to hate and detract from what others do.
Mencken was an intellectual. His comments were more literary, more artful, more aesthetically pleasing than the average. But the intention was the same: to criticise, to sting, to inflame, to hurt.
What Mencken forgot, what DeathSpectro702 on YouTube forgets, what we all forget sometimes, is that the recipients of our comments are people too. They feel pain just like you and I.
Perhaps a good heuristic for future comments and criticism is this:
If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it online.