Lessons From the Inbox on Divisiveness and Unity

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I collect my hate mail. Not because it makes me angry or because I want to obsess over it. It’s just so interesting and I want to understand it.

I receive a lot of emails in response to columns, and most are generally positive. But the negative ones are really negative. This fascinates me.

For example, in a recent piece on how the media will miss President Trump when he’s gone, and vice versa, a reader unleashed a stream of conscious under the subject “Absurd!” He went on to call me “demented” and then took a shot at Kentucky, where I currently live. Mind you, he sent this email to me on Thanksgiving.

The funny thing is the piece wasn’t really partisan in any way, and I still can’t figure out how it could enrage someone to the point where he would still be thinking about it a week after it was published.

There’s a lot of anger out there, folks, though that’s not exactly breaking news.

Here’s another.

“Your column, ‘Lessons learned from the 2020 election,’ validates the axiom ‘to assume makes an ass of you and me.’”

That was it, the entire email. I’m not sure how the axiom applies in this case, but these things don’t have to make sense.

I sometimes read my hate mail to my students, who find it entertaining and often sit slack-jawed and incredulous that people can be so mean.

In response to a column about California Gov. Gavin’s Newsom’s draconian rules for holiday celebrations, a reader responded with a question.

“What overdramatic nonsense did I just read?” It got worse. She called me “dim” and “childish.” She ended with “keep your uninformed views in your own disastrous state.”

Again, a swipe at Kentucky? I never realized there was so much latent Kentucky hate among the populace.

Prior to the election, several readers responded with dire prophecies. Interestingly, predictions of the “end times” came from both sides of the political aisle. My favorite was from a man who began his email with, “I’ve got news for you pal….” The poor guy was so worked up he wrote some 500 words on the pending disintegration of our economic and political systems.

I respond to every email I receive, even the mean ones. It seems to me that those of us who do this kind of writing have a responsibility to at least attempt to understand why someone who disagrees with me believes what he believes. This is not always easy, of course, especially when the one who disagrees begins his email, “Dear boil on journalism’s rear…” That’s me, if you didn’t put it together.

The reader was responding to a column about the conduct of reporters and the president at White House press briefings. I was critical of both but the reader didn’t see it that way. We had a back-and-forth during which he seemed to gradually soften. Then, after about the sixth email exchange, he wrote, “Thank you for your conversation. I wish more people would talk or argue viewpoints…”

It struck me that maybe the man just wanted someone to listen to him, about anything. We never came to an agreement on the issue at hand but, by the end of the conversation, that didn’t seem to matter.

Not all of these exchanges have happy endings. One concluded with a simple suggestion: “Shut up!” Not necessarily bad advice.

In the New Testament, James writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” James 1:19. I’m challenged by this because, apart from my dependence on the grace of God, I can’t do it.

I’d much rather do exactly the opposite – react, quickly and angrily, and get my adversary in checkmate. Twitter and other social media outlets understand this better than anyone. They’ve turned this basic, human inclination into a multi-billion dollar phenomenon.

I don’t claim any unique insight into the human condition but I have realized that if we are willing to listen and keep our mouths shut for a while, we’ll take a significant step toward understanding one another.

That doesn’t mean everyone is going to like us. But as I tell my students, if everyone likes us, we’re probably doing something wrong.

Copyright 2020 Rich Manieri, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at [email protected]