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Cruel ‘posters’ lack the virtue of empathy

The scene: A murky room somewhere in the housing tracts of San Luis Obispo County.

A sweaty, slovenly man sits in front of a computer in a dim corner of the tiny room. The computer sheds the only light.

The man is wearing only boxer shorts and an armless “wife-beater” undershirt. He has changed neither for weeks, and the shirt reeks with remnants of his fast-food meals, while his stained boxers bunch up as he slithers his oversized rear end around his tiny chair.

Empty pizza and Chinese food take-out boxes litter his tiny corner of the universe.

The man belches as he reaches for his half-empty beer.

Nobody hears him; his wife left long ago. She took the kids.

He leans forward and furiously types a stinging insult aimed at someone who has just left a comment on a story.

He does not sign his name, instead using his moniker:


The door creaks open, and an older woman peeks her head in. “What did they say about that job, Kenny?”

“Not now, Ma!” Kenny snarls. He returns to his computer and begins typing violently.

Am I being unkind here?

Vicious discourse

OK, maybe I wielded my poetic license a tad too aggressively in presenting this portraiture. But given the vicious level of electronic discourse these days, I have to imagine that at least some of the people who go online to share their every virulent feeling and thought — I call them “posters” — are not far from this description.

First, the caveat: Yes, there is intelligent, coherent discussion on websites. And chat boards often serve a useful function. Clearly, I read them, as do most journalists, and I find information there that I can’t find elsewhere.

I’m not talking about those posters here. I’m talking about the misanthropes, and what makes them the way they are.

I know I haven’t discovered anything new. I am sure an army of shrinks and sociologists is poring over Internet comments wondering what they reveal about human nature.

Nor am I naïve. I have been writing for publications for nearly half a century. Ten of those years were spent as an editorial writer for Knight Ridder and Media News Group; I have written thousands of editorials and hundreds of columns.

So my name and thoughts have been out there for public consumption for many a year, and I have had my share of nasty reactions, up to and including death threats.

I have known for a long time that folks can and do get agitated over the things they read.

But something different is going on now, something I have never seen before, something ineffably cruel and savage.

Something missing

Here is what I think it is: I think some of these “posters” are born missing something. They are lacking some moral quality that makes people human, the way an amputee is short an arm or a leg.

What they need but don’t have, in my view, is the ability to empathize. They can’t put themselves in another person’s shoes and look at the world through that other person’s eyes. They simply are not able to do it.Online reactions to one recent local story in particular have focused me — again — on this question.

I refer to the venom and rancor aimed at the parents of Andrew Wesley Downs, the schizophrenic young man charged with committing a double murder.

The malevolent remarks aimed at Downs’ parents go beyond what might be considered reasonable criticism, such as pointing out that they should have locked up the family firearm.

Many posters couldn’t leave it at that. They had to trash the parents as being terrible people in many ways. Some want the parents to go to jail. They have accused the parents of being negligent in raising their mentally ill son.

And they’ve done so using mean, nasty, hateful language.

I think these posters understand, with the rest of us, the pain the victims’ families are going through.

But they are not capable of taking the next step — understanding what it means to have a schizophrenic child. Downs’ parents have been through hell, are still there, and may never leave.

They keep on coming

The Downs story is just one recent local example among probably hundreds of thousands across the country.

The poisonous online assaults keep coming: Bill Morem’s Tribune column last week about a homeless family is already drawing virulent attacks on the homeless.

These comments are barbarous and bloodthirsty, aimed at well-meaning people by others who don’t know them at all and have no clue about what they have gone through.

What can be done about it? I don’t know that anything can or should be done. These sullen and abhorrent posters are a part of the landscape now. They are with us for keeps, and nothing is going to stop them from expressing who and what they are.

If you don’t believe that, be sure to monitor the posts at the end of this column, when it goes on the website.

As for the rest of us, we’ll just have to adapt. But, man, is that hard.