I was insulting people way before the Internet

Wouldn’t this be a great world if we named our children the way we name ourselves in Internet chat rooms? First grade would be full of kids named Mountainclimber, EggyParms, JerBear, Misscreant, radiogirl, D.AngeloSnutz, Bigguy, Cowboybill, Ladysman, ToastraDamus, SchwarmaDuke, NicCageFan4life and SmoochEPants, instead of Madisons, Ashleys, Jacobs and Ethans. I don’t think I’ve ever chatted with anyone named Joe, Betty, Tom or Sue in a chat room. TyphoidMerry and Cathysclown maybe, but not just plain old Mary or Cathy.

Danceswithwolves, I’d like to introduce you to Westcoastsurfer. He’s married to makespancakesonsaturday. Their real names are Pete and Beverly, but those would make horrible screen names. It’s important that your screen name say what your hobby is, or what you do for a living, or what your politics are, or what kind of sex you like. It’s unlikely that your given name does any of that.

Some screen names are all attitude. There’s nothing like reading a heated argument on health-care reform in a forum consisting of such luminaries as biteme and sosyourmama. They’re both so credible that you don’t know whom to believe. Let me just say that “You lie!” would be the mildest thing bigbadjohn would say in a heated Internet exchange.

The ability to hide behind screen names while throwing mud has given the most mild-mannered people the ability to spit vitriol without fear of physical retaliation. And once you feel comfortable doing it anonymously, it’s not a big jump to doing it in public. But it’s risky. Just think how many times over the last few years a famous person has been caught sending an embarrassing e-mail or an inappropriate tweet. Luckily, we hold celebrities to a much higher standard than we hold ourselves. I have a friend, Roger (that’s not his real name, his real name is Dan), who has a potty mouth and a potty finger. He flips obscene gestures almost continually at other drivers when he’s in his car. But if a congressperson or movie star gets caught on tape swearing, he is livid.

“Think of the children!”

“You don’t have any children.”

“%^&* you, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a bad &^&$&* example!”

Is this name-calling really new? Not at all, people have been insulting each other long before e-mail and the Internet. What’s changed is numbers. You couldn’t phone a billion people at once and call them names. It used to be that only certain people, highly trained professionals, could get away with calling people unpleasant names in public. Those people were called newspaper columnists. My colleagues and I have spent years honing our craft, learning the little tricks of getting under people’s skin, knowing just which buttons to push to get an over-the-top reaction. Only a select few had the ability to take a tiny gaffe and turn it into a career-wrecking calamity and not feel bad about it. That’s what really frightens me now that everyone can insult everyone else. They’ve cut out the middleman. Me.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at jim_mullen@myway.com

Copyright 2009, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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