fighting words, jehovah’s witnesses, and trolls on the new york times website

An essay about bullying called The Terror was published in the New York Times Magazine. It’s well-written in itself, and the comments are as disturbing as comments tend to be. It definitely describes the experience very well.

6th and 7th grade were bad for me, in a similar way. Bullied at school, fighting with mom, dad away with cancer, siblings on another continent.  Single worst thing had to getting my head pushed into a wall and sitting in the office with a concussion and the gym teacher coming by and joking “that oughta knock some sense into ya!”

This is the passage reader comments focused on:

And then came the beat-down. Not at school, as I would have expected, but on the other side of the neighborhood. At the hands and feet of these three brothers I dimly knew. The youngest was my age, and on the day in question we had a spat over something — I can’t remember what. I do remember pushing him down hard onto the sidewalk and laughing about it, and the kid running off in tears, swearing he was going to kill me. Then the scene in my head jumps, and the next thing I know, the kid comes back with his two older brothers, and I’m getting my face punched in. The older brothers held me down and let the younger brother punch me all he wanted. I cried out for my brother, but he was in Beth Israel Hospital, saving no one. I remember one of the older ones saying, ‘‘Hit him in the teeth.’’

Dealing with mean-spirited, willfully blind adults is a lot harder when you’re a child, and it’s part of the isolation and trauma of the bullying. Bullies know adults are on their team.

There were a lot of negative reader comments the essay. I think they’re illustrative.

Sounds like the brothers three were merely exacting justice. Diaz started it and brothers three finished it. Growing pains.

Most people accept that justice is proportional. Supposing Diaz was completely in the wrong, here we have a grown man saying that 3 people punching someone in the face is a proportional response to getting shoved. It’s a significant escalation of force, clearly greater than the crime that’s supposedly punished.

This commenter doesn’t understand the distinction between justice and satisfying the rage that’s aroused by humiliation.

Bullying is a terrible thing. I appreciate the difficult home situation you described, and the additional pain that was being heaped upon you. It is hard, and I understand that you were victimized. This said, I am nevertheless confused. I don’t understand the utter absence of guilt about having committed an act of bullying yourself — the absence of any thought of how the other kid felt after you hurt him and laughed at him. Was this acceptable behavior? We hear about your terror, your beat down, you confronting your fears. I would like to have heard you empathize with the young man that you hurt, to generalize about violence, etc.

This person can empathize with emotions, but they’ve been taught that All Violence Is Always Bad. This is like someone who doesn’t see the difference between a drug cartel and a medical marijuana operation. The letter of the law is violated. End of story.

The law recognizes the existence of “fighting words,” and the history has to do with the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The official version of events:

In late November 1941, Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah’s Witness, was using the public sidewalk as a pulpit in downtown Rochester, passing out pamphlets and calling organized religion a “racket.” After a large crowd had begun blocking the roads and generally causing a scene, a police officer removed Chaplinsky to take him to police headquarters. Upon seeing the town marshal (who had returned to the scene after warning Chaplinsky earlier to keep it down and avoid causing a commotion), Chaplinsky attacked the marshal verbally. He was then arrested. The complaint against Chaplinsky stated that he shouted: “You are a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist”. Chaplinsky admitted that he said the words charged in the complaint, with the exception of the name of the deity.

For this, he was charged and convicted under a New Hampshire statute preventing intentionally offensive speech being directed at others in a public place. Under New Hampshire’s Offensive Conduct law (chap. 378, para. 2 of the NH. Public Laws) it is illegal for anyone to address “any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place … or to call him by an offensive or derisive name.”

Chaplinsky appealed the fine he was assessed, claiming that the law was “vague” and that it infringed upon his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech.

I say “persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” because this seems like a much more plausible account of what happened:

UCLA professor Gary Blasi’s article on the topic describes the events thus: While preaching, Chaplinsky was surrounded by men who mocked Jehovah’s Witnesses members’ objections to saluting the flag. One man attempted to hit Chaplinsky in full view of the town marshal, who warned Chaplinsky that he was in danger but did not arrest his assailant. After the marshal left, another man produced a flagpole and attempted to impale Chaplinsky; while Chaplinsky was pinned against a car by the pole, other members of the crowd struck him. A police officer arrived and, rather than dispersing the crowd, took Chaplinsky into custody.

En route to the station, the officer, as well as members of the crowd, insulted Chaplinsky and his religion. Chaplinsky responded by calling the town marshal, who had returned to assist the officer, a “damn fascist and a racketeer” and was arrested for the use of offensive language in public.

Accusing the Jehovah’s Witness of taking the Lord’s name in vain is just adding another layer of psychological abuse to the situation.  I don’t think black people are surprised that the police would perjure themselves with impunity.

There are long law reviews about how the case was wrongly decided. What’s the First Amendment when we have a Jehovah’s Witness to put in his place?

There were situations in middle school where I would’ve looked like the “aggressor.” Example: choking one of my tormentors in class at his desk after I’d just fucking had it with being harassed by him. I didn’t even get into much trouble, because the teacher was humane and could actually see that I had to be pushed hard before doing something like that. Another time I got in trouble for kicking someone that was making fun of someone else.

Bullies think that sort of stuff is hilarious. They know the adults don’t know, and don’t want to know, about all the torments they’re inflicting on someone. They want to provoke the person into a reaction they can then respond with overwhelming force to. There’s always a pretext, no matter how transparently stupid it is.

Black people got lynched for sport, and it was always justified as protection for white women.

You should not have pushed your peer down and laughed at him. I did a similar thing and a similar thing happened to me.

I deserved it and learned a valuable lesson. Did you?

“Violence will be punished with overwhelming violence, because violence is bad” is a lesson of questionable coherence.

While I want to express my solidarity with Mr Diaz as a fellow victim of school beat downs, I’m a little dismayed that he glosses right over the part where he started it. “… on the day in question we had a spat over something — I can’t remember what. I do remember pushing him down hard onto the sidewalk and laughing about it, and the kid running off in tears…” I wonder if the other boy remembers and has a parallel story of the day his brothers helped him stand up to somebody who assaulted him. I’m certainly not saying that the brothers were in the right, or that their response was proportional, but I don’t think anybody was blameless here.

The purpose of the article wasn’t to assign blame, but to talk about how getting the shit beat out of you fucks with your head.

Notice how these commenters sound like they’re children or talking to children. “Growing pains.” “Valuable lesson.” “He started it.”

Again, none of us were there, but punishing a victim for retaliating and then saying he started it isn’t new. It’s like saying the Black Lives Matter people, or the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, were the ones that “started it.” If you stick your head in the sand and refuse to admit that the majority of people can be horrible, retaliation does look inexplicable.

I’m not sure I understand all the praise. You pushed a boy down and laughed. Street justice was served. Your fear is understandable, but were you really a victim here?

Yeah, pussy.  Fuckin’ sand niggers not taking responsibility for themselves, amirite?

I think it matters why he pushed the boy down, if we have to pass moral judgment on the situation, which we don’t. Another aspect of the immaturity on display here is the refusal to see that nobody is blameless in life. A mature adult reflecting on their childhood can remember things they’re not proud of and use them to illustrate things.

These people are judgmental, and nothing the author is saying matters are much as the other boy’s wounded pride. You don’t find the same condemnation of that boy’s unmanly cowardice. Recruiting people bigger than you to hold someone down while you beat them, rather than fighting your own battles 1-on-1, is conduct unbecoming of a Real Man. It’s also conduct that resembles drone strikes, police beatings, and making Saddam Hussein destroy his long-range missiles before we dared invade.

But, Junot Diaz pushed down the youngest brother and laughed. He started it with gratuitous cruelty. He deserves no pity for his fear or admiration for getting over it. He deserved it. The older brothers were just defending their younger brothers. Good on them.

Yes, they were defending their younger brother from the sand nigger. Niggers of all kinds are known to require extra brutality, because they’re slow learners.

The attitude of these commenters is exactly the attitude behind 3 strikes laws, zero tolerance, and all things “tough on crime.” They’re pretty much barbarians. The effect of their attitudes is barbaric, whether they have the insight to realize it or not.

This is the part of racism and oppression in general that’s the hardest to discuss with people who haven’t been outsiders. There’s something about these people that’s extremely threatening. They’re obviously hostile against you. Would you feel comfortable around people who reacted to your story of childhood trauma like this? What if they represented the majority of people in your daily life? What if there was a very real history of atrocities committed by people like them?

Wherever you find opppression, you find these people gloating over it.