WE used to call them “green ink letters”.
The ones that would arrive after a TV show or a controversial column.
The profane ones would tell us to do impossible sexual things to ourselves. The pious ones would predict that we’d a) die roaring and b) be prodded for eternity by little devils in the fires of hell.
It takes a while to cop on that green ink letters are a perverse measure of popularity. Or at least of media saleability. Editors, in my experience, don’t get that upset when bombarded with negative missives about one of their columnists, but they get severely edgy if nobody ever reacts to what a columnist writes. Better hostility, by a country mile, than apathy.
On the other hand, hostility should have its limits. Two years ago, a letter was sent to a publication where I had written a feature. Because green ink letter writers now mostly tweet, confining themselves to 140 electronic characters, the arrival of an obvious nasty by snail mail was a surprise. When someone in the office rang, describing the way it was addressed, which in itself was a giveaway, and asking where I’d like it forwarded, I said not to bother.
“Sure open it and read it for the laugh,” I said. “Then turf it into the waste paper basket.”
Grand, was the reaction. Well, that was the first reaction. The second reaction came about an hour later, when I was notified that the editor involved was on the way to Store St Garda Station to hand the letter over to our protectors of the peace. Apparently it had revealed itself to be a detailed death threat, complete with a competent drawing of a tombstone (not that tombstone-depiction is that hard) with my name inscribed thereon and a future date of my death.
It came from an imprisoned criminal — one of those blokes with a pet name like The Teapot or The Corporal — about whom I’d written something mildly funny.
Mildly funny hadn’t gone down well with the convict and he detailed his plans for my extinction with precision.
The gardaí came to see me. They took the threat seriously and gave me very good advice about protecting myself, including varying the route I take on my way home from work. I didn’t tell them that my car knows only the one way and that it’s difficult to change the mind of a 12-year-old vehicle. The gardaí also kept the letter.
I didn’t fight them for it. I didn’t even ask them for a copy. But that’s the odd thing about traditional hate mail: Very few recipients keep the letters. Which in turn means that anthologies of the genre are thin on the ground. Donald Caroll, who pulled together one of the few collections of stinker letters, says that “abusive letters are an acquired taste, and, like rocks that arrive through the window, make difficult -to-explain souvenirs”.
Whatever about keeping them, the one thing the recipient must never do, in response to hate mail, is answer back. That’s the way to grow your own stalker.
Although William F Buckley Jr, a failed American politician who drove viewers nuts on a weekly basis on a programme called Firing Line, invariably responded to incoming hand grenade-type correspondence, regularly replying to writers who ordered him to cancel their subscription to his magazine by saying “Cancel your own goddam subscription”.
One of the letters preserved in Buckley’s estate was from a TV viewer so furious, you’d wonder why he didn’t just switch off and watch something else.
“You make me sick,” he wrote. “I’ve never heard a person I’d like to shut up as much as I would you. If you saw yourself, as many do, your leer, sneer and malicious grin, if you had any sense, you’d take yourself off TV. Do you ever let anyone finish a statement without pushing your obnoxious self in? You are really a perfect example of a spoiled creature of the rich and inbred. Take some of your excess money and buy yourself a TV station.” Buckley replied: “I’ve done that. What shall I do next?”
Comedy writer Erma Bombeck also responded to her stinkers, one of which gave out to her for griping about everything from rusted grocery trolleys to the difficulty of opening aspirin bottles. The letter attacked her for, according to its writer, hating dogs, children and (strangely) “urologists who offer you a drink”. The postscript said the writer had been married “to a shrew like you once for three days”.
“How did you last so long?” Bombeck asked, earning herself the swift reply: “I drank.”
Buckley and Bombeck managed to make fun — and money-making material — out of their hate mail. Throughout history, however, hate mail has traditionally been filed or destroyed, because it most freq-uently took the form of essentially private abuse. Nobody except Abraham Lincoln, for example, was privy to this little gem, received when he was in the White House.
“God damn your god damned old hellfired god damned soul to hell god damn you and god damn your god damned family’s godamned hellfired god damned soul to hell and god damnation god damn them and god damn your god damn friends to hell.” Read a couple of centuries later, this piece of hatemail is almost funny in its repetitious fury, although at the time it was received, it would have been experienced in a much more potent way.
HOWEVER, it had the merit — and it is a considerable merit — of being delivered personally to the recipient and not broadcast to a wider audience, as is now the capacity of anybody, courtesy of Twitter.
Many of the recipients of this hi-tech version of the green ink letter are mortified by the possibility that hundreds, if not thousands of people may read the abuse and that as a result, the perception of them by the wider general public may be harmed. A message which would hurt and insult, if delivered by post, can shrivel when published for everybody to read and re-tweet.
The majority of modern epistolary venom is anonymous, but one example, in the last few days, carried the name of the sender.
I have met the recipient once and have — in this column — disagreed with his organisation’s opposition to gay marriage, so a negative tweet would be neither here nor there, as far as I’m concerned. But this tweet went way further than negative. It was an astonishingly crude personal attack, unsupported by evidence of any kind.
The sender has apologised, so let’s not name him here, despite the fact that the apology was miserably unrelated to the offence in describing it as “childish”. What’s important is that as a society, we find a way to at least corral the green ink tweeters into the dank dismissable ranks of the cowardly anonymous. Employers have health and safety policies. It’s time those policies were extended to take in the potential health and safety risks implicit in their direct or contracted employees sending destructive and profane tweets.
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