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Spewing Hate on the Internet, Anonymous, With No Accountability

Most mornings, my assistant goes through my e-mail before I do, culling out the ones that are simply vicious, vindictive and mean, so I don’t have to see them.

Our rule is that threats get reported to the police, while mere ugliness just gets deleted. But once in a while, I get up early or she gets in late, and I make the mistake of clicking on messages I just shouldn’t see. It ruins the morning, and then some.

I’m not always right. I make mistakes, take positions people disagree with, opine on controversial topics. Sometimes, when I’m worked up, I can go too far. I welcome hearing the other side, being corrected, learning something I didn’t know, and being reminded of the limits that deserve respect. I always try to answer those letters politely and respectfully. Given the volume, I don’t always succeed, but I do my best.

It’s the unbridled ugliness that gets to me, the people who don’t disagree but hate, don’t criticize but attack with a sledgehammer, use language I wouldn’t use with my worst enemy. Often, very often actually, the subject of their ire isn’t even anything I say, but the mere fact that I say it or write it on Fox News.

To tell the truth, I don’t even have to read my own mail to be exposed to such garbage. It’s on plenty of websites as well. Some of it is supposed to be funny, at least if you consider uncensored attacks on those with whom you disagree; semi-cleverly expressed hatred and contempt piled on others of a different race or religion or gender-- augmented by ugly and distorted images-- “funny.”

There is no print medium in which such trash could appear. No newspaper or magazine would publish it, fearing, rightly, that they would be sued and destroyed. There’s no television or radio show that would allow it, knowing, rightly, that the FCC would be on their case faster than you can say “license renewal.”

But it is the great strength and the Achilles heel of the Internet that there is no such thing as effective regulation, usually no way to identify who says what, no effective way to source the haters and hold them accountable for the viral infections that can ruin days and lives.

People who would never say such things in public write them online, free to expose and explore their darkest side, at the expense of whoever is unfortunate enough to find themselves on the wrong web page. And what’s almost as stunning as the ugliness is how few people dare to stand up and condemn it, to say that it’s wrong, to put their money where their mouths are.

If you don’t like FOX News, you don’t have to watch it. If you’d rather hear from people with different points of view, they are out there. Watch them. Listen to them. Write invective-free letters to FOX telling them what you’ll watch and what you won’t. But boycotts and countervailing boycotts? Threatening advertisers? Harrassing those of us who believe it’s important that the other side be heard?

We may have a disagreement on whether it’s the right strategy to go on a network whose hosts you often disagree with (as conservatives do with MSNBC) or not, but that shouldn’t turn allies into enemies, or those you disagree with into traitors.

Traitors are people who turn on our country, not who appear on a news network you don’t like. Enemies are people who would kill our children, not those who agree to debate those you don’t want to watch. Both sides are guilty of destroying public discourse in the guise of engaging in it, but hearing that the Left is as bad as the Right, or vice versa, doesn’t excuse either side.

Our ability to learn from those with whom we disagree, much less live together in peace, is at risk when the undercurrent of disagreement becomes a river of hate and ugliness.

Some years ago, I was in a ladies room, straightening out my skirt, when a famous celebrity I had long admired began berating me mercilessly for working for FOX News. How can you do such a thing, she asked, rhetorically, because of course she had no interest in my answer.

It was clear that she didn’t want to hear my arguments about reaching an audience that could prove decisive, as opposed to the pleasure of singing for the choir-- much less the fact that some of the people I work with at FOX are actually decent people who value dialogue and reward personal loyalty. She was right because she was sufficiently famous that clearly no one had ever told her otherwise.

As she slammed the door in my face, though, I got in the last word: If you don’t like FOX, start your own network. Put your money where your mouth is. Now, whenever I see her, I smile, and she looks away.

In real life, you at least have some chance of answering back. On the Internet, you don’t even know who you’re talking to. So cruel cowards, I have news for you: the delete key has your name on it. But I fear for the future of public discourse, and I don’t know what the answer to that is.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless. "

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.