• Unlike most middle-aged bloggers, I’ve been hearing from the public for the whole of my adult life–I started writing newspaper criticism while I was still an undergraduate–and so it’s nothing new when strangers write to tell me that I’m a despicable beast. The emergence of cyberspace, however, has made it vastly easier for people to express their opinions of public and semi-public figures, either directly via e-mail or by posting a comment or review somewhere on the Web, which means that there’s a whole lot more to read today than there was in, say, 1980.
I don’t go out of my way to read everything that gets written about me, but I do see a fair amount of it in the ordinary course of my working day, and it never fails to strike me that a considerable number of the people who write about the pieces that they read, whether by me or anyone else, haven’t actually read them. Or, to be exact, they read until they encounter a statement with which they disagree, at which precise moment they stop reading, boil over, and start clicking away at their keyboards with what they imagine to be annihilating fury.
It goes without saying that the opinions of such folk aren’t worth knowing. But I wonder: are most people like that? In other words, might it be normal for the average human being to be incapable of considering, however briefly, the possible validity, however partial, of opinions in any way contrary to his own? I hesitate to suggest such a dispiriting notion, but the older I grow, the more likely it seems.
H.L. Mencken said it: “Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fear. It is piped into central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured and put into cans.” That was in Notes on Democracy, published in 1926. Plus ça change…