Nothing jolts you awake early in the morning like an email informing you that you’re completely useless. So when I received a note from William E. Reed, Jr., of Fairview, Texas, declaring that one of my recent articles “wasted” his time, I wondered what I’d done to offend him.
The story in question was an examination of this summer’s frustratingly long lines and the agonizingly short list of solutions. The article, which first appeared in the Washington Post, did not offer any new remedies because there were no new remedies to offer. At best, it was a reminder to not overlook any of the tried-and-true solutions.
“Get an agent, pack less, use common sense,” snapped Reed. “Really?”
Reed’s exchange, and the one that followed, offer a few hard truths about the world we travel and live in. Fixing them goes way beyond enacting thoughtful regulation or funding more Transportation Security Administration agents.
Way, way beyond that.
Reed’s reading of my article was sloppy. Although I’d covered some obvious solutions, I also offered a few ideas that aren’t so well known, such as directly contacting the agency heads responsible for the problems. I even published their email addresses. I included a survey with the economic impact of wait times. In other words, I didn’t just phone in this column. I did the best with the information I had.
No, something else was going on.
Then I heard from Stuart Pompian.
“Did you really get paid to write this?” he demanded. “You wasted your time writing it. It’s smarmy and uninformative. The Washington Post wasted its time publishing it. I wasted my time reading it and writing this email to you.”
Then, to underscore his point, he added, “If you have a day job, don’t quit it. Writing is not your best thing. Try flipping hamburgers.”
I pondered his remark for a moment. Smarmy is defined as “ingratiating and wheedling in a way that is perceived as insincere or excessive.” Nothing in the story was insincere, excessive or ingratiating. Did Pompian even know what that word meant?
Also, I assumed Pompian meant “flipping burgers” as an insult. As someone whose first paying job was in the food services industry, I can tell you that it’s an honorable profession. Pompian ought to know better.
Both readers received my standard hate-mail reply, thanking them for taking the time to respond and promising that I would take their comments to heart.
Reed didn’t answer, but Pompian did.
“Very good reply,” he says. “I can only assume that this is not the first time you’ve written it. ”
What a charmer.
Who are these people, and why are they wasting my time by telling me my stories are a waste of time?
My first thought: they’re what some of our moderators call “Liartalk” trolls, upset that I’ve blocked their little site. But a few online searches later, I concluded that they were just two readers with way too much time on their hands.
But their emails point to an even bigger question: Is the advocacy we do a “waste” of time?
A few vocal readers who comment on this site are unashamed laissez-faire capitalists and believe in a kind of social Darwinism, where the fittest consumers get what they deserve and the rest get taken advantage of, because that’s what they deserve. These misguided consumers want us to pack up and go home, because we advocate not only for consumers but for better regulation, and regulation is the enemy; therefore, we are the enemy.
If you’re one of those readers, I would urge you to watch this recent speech by Elizabeth Warren, which exposes the flaws of anything-goes capitalism and zero regulation.
Go on, I dare you.
But I have to admit, I was taken aback by the total lack of etiquette both of these readers showed. It’s troubling to me because I was raised to believe that you always mind your manners, especially when you disagree with someone.
Could I have written that column better? Maybe. But calling it a “waste of time” and telling me to get a job flipping burgers — well, that’s the kind of rhetoric we’re used to hearing on the loyalty program apologists’ sites, from credit card shills posing as thought leaders and from this summer’s presidential campaign. And I think it’s beneath us.
I’ve been around and around with my critics on this issue. I believe that if you point a finger directly at a person — what’s known as an ad hominem attack — using straw-man arguments and other logical fallacies, inviting your commenters to tear into someone, then you are responsible for the toxicity. My critics just view this as more of an amusing exercise in free speech.
Well, this is not fun.
There must be a better way to discuss our differences than like this. But I think as long as the other side is enjoying the rhetorical mudslinging, and as long as we tolerate it, the destructive discourse will continue, and it will probably get worse.
I think we deserve better.