Even though I should know better, I periodically check the comments on the AOL message boards when I’m curious about how the public reacts to a news story that I might be interested in. I know what you’re thinking: “are you crazy, Jim? Those people are lunatics and do not represent the well-informed and educated public!”
When Shirley Jackson published the famous short-story “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in 1948, thousands of people wrote the magazine to vent their spleens about Jackson’s supposed anti-populist views. After reading much of the correspondence, here is what Jackson said: “I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public of The New Yorker, or even the reading public of one issue of The New Yorker, I would stop writing now.” Not only was she accused of witchcraft, she was accused of something infinitely worse– anti-Americanism! (And one darkly humorous inquiry from a Southern woman: “Why couldn’t they have made Mrs. Hutchinson Queen for a Day or something nice like that before they stoned the poor frightened creature to death?”)
The AOL boards are quite a snapshot of the American public, and I have to say: these people scare me. They are parading on Michael Jackson’s grave, trampling the sod before it even has a chance to take root. Not only are many of them rejoicing at this “pervert’s” death, but they are wishing upon his head the punishments and tortures of a vengeful and hateful God. (Yes, many of the posters are self-professed Christians.) I try to rationalize this population, manufacturing excuses as to why there are so many of them: They are middle schoolers with access to Daddy’s computer and too much free time; or they are fringe people, sociopathic termagants with computer access who either transmit their views from home of from the local library; or they are the terminally unemployed and bitter, raging against the world; or they are perhaps even quite standard-looking, just like the people living next door to you. And none of them can spell, let alone tell the difference between there and their and your and you’re.
Who are these people to judge? Granted, they no doubt lack the rational ability to rein themselves in, and in that respect they are like untreated infections. Appallingly, these same voices also rise to the surface like pond scum in order to spew their bile about the President, gay people, Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, African-Americans… I wonder– should this be considered hate speech? Is this allowed? Should these people be censored, their computers taken away and their mouths washed out with lye? And does considering such measures make me as bad as they are? I’m all for free speech; I’m just against free hate.
Shirley Jackson’s central character was stoned to death by the regular folks living in a small village, apparently a sacrifice in hopes of a good corn crop. She describes the horror the poor woman experiences as her neighbors– and family– move toward her, their hands filled with stones. “And then they were upon her,” Shirley Jackson writes.
Are so many of us really villagers?