Steve Blake of the Los Angeles Lakers missed what would have been the winning shot in a critical game. His wife got death threats.
Singer John Legend’s fiancée, Chrissy Teigen, criticized singer Chris Brown’s performance on an awards show. She got death threats.
Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca publicly destroyed a $100,000 purse as a piece of performance art. She got death threats.
A conservative teenage activist from North Carolina posted a video supporting her state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. She reported death threats.
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All these threats came within the last two weeks. All were delivered online.
Welcome to the seamy underbelly of the communications revolution.
Professional athletes have this expression. When the doughy guy in the stands, fortified by the overconsumption of hops and barley, yells abuse to some chiseled giant down on the field, he is said to possess “beer muscles.” The aforementioned revolution has produced its equivalent. Call it “Internet courage.”
It does not always manifest itself in death threats. Sample the message boards attending your average opinion column, blog or controversial news story and you will find Internet courage by the bucket — people flaming the writer and one another with gleeful abandon you know they’d never dare display in the flesh-and-mortar world.
Perhaps you remember when new technology was supposed to make us better, bind our families, strengthen our communities, bring our world together. At least, that is what was promised in all those gauzy TV commercials and futurist essays that practically glowed with the warmth of human potential.
The reality, unfortunately, has proven a more mixed bag. Yes, it is now possible to video chat with Nana who lives three states over or share notes with a colleague who works on the other side of the planet. But it is also possible to be bullied even after you’ve come home from Hell High and retired to the sanctity of your room. It is possible to be relentlessly stalked and viciously threatened by people you’ve never even met.
One imagines the twisted sorts who do that kind of thing regard it as fun. The communications revolution empowers them to commit acts of emotional terrorism on the cheap, a species of abuse whose cruelty is exceeded only by its cowardice, which is in turn exceeded only by its laziness. You can now frighten and alarm someone without leaving the comfort of your bed.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about Internet courage. People have been abusing one another under pseudonyms since Benjamin Franklin. But what is new is the sudden ubiquity and reach. And ease.
If one is a student of history and/or human nature, one has no right to be surprised that the technology has been turned toward these ends. Yet somehow, one always is. It calls to mind Wile E. Coyote in the old Warner Bros. cartoons — not only perpetually unable to catch the Road Runner, but also perpetually shocked when he fails.
You always think the new technology is going to liberate something shining and profound in humankind. And sometimes, it does. But it also, invariably, becomes a medium by which we release the malignant droppings of our lizard brains. Instead of liberating our best, it liberates our worst.
Gauzy TV commercials and futurist essays, you see, tell lies of omission. Every year, there’s an upgrade. Every year, there’s a shiny new doodad. Every year, the hardware changes. Every year, it is supposed to make us better.
But the only piece of hardware with the power to do that lies between the ears and its upgrades are the work of a lifetime.
Technology will not make us better. There is no app for that.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.