One Friday last June, Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., learned that Sarah Sanders was in the restaurant and concluded that the White House press secretary’s service to an “inhumane and unethical” administration made her presence painful for the restaurant’s staff. “I took Ms. Sanders aside and politely suggested she leave,” Wilkinson recalled in a commentary for the Washington Post. “She agreed, equally politely.” But it didn’t stay quiet — a staffer took it to social media — and there followed a year of random hate correspondence, including a threat from “a Minneapolis area code” to set fire to the Red Hen. Still, Wilkinson wrote, there was also an abundance of support — her resistance wasn’t futile.
What she doesn’t grasp is that her actions and those of her trolls are not wholly different. Though hers showed compassionate courage and the others’ cowardice, both transferred political disagreement to an inappropriate setting.
Such coarsening of conviction is made easier by technology, even to the point of criminality. On Sunday, the Star Tribune reported a case in which a woman’s abortion records were posted on Facebook without her consent. One post included her picture and called her a “baby killer.” The privacy implications are terrifying and suggest an insufficiency in existing laws.
It’s easy to lose perspective about the prevalence of such behavior. In one survey of 1,125 adults five years ago, 28% admitted participating in “malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know,” which is — small? Though one might expect the proportion to have grown since.
It’s also easy to perpetuate volatility. In a recent New York Times commentary, political scientist Greg Weiner writes that if “the era in which we live is always grave, earth-shattering, consequential,” the result is “messianic politicians, especially presidents, to whom we give additional power to rescue us.” But how to break such a cycle, when “cable news stations attract more viewers with the breathless chyron ‘breaking news’ than they would with one reading ‘keep this in perspective’ ”?
By “chyron,” Weiner meant the overlay of text at the bottom of TV screens that used to be known colloquially as a crawl. The industry-speak that’s since risen in popular use comes from Chyron Corp., a provider of the technology. The company’s name alludes to Chiron, a figure in Greek mythology who overcame the animalistic passions of his kind — the part-horse, part-human centaurs — and was renowned instead for wisdom and the art of healing.