Casual Cruelty

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Photo: Jim Cooke (GMG)

Cruelty is so often casual, and crueler for it. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh used his high school yearbook page to drop an inside joke, naming a female student in a way meant to imply that she had been a sexual conquest for him and his football teammates. It is the sort of thing you can picture an 18-year-old boy—especially the sort of 18-year-old we are learning Kavanaugh to have been—finding hilarious. Little thought was put into it, surely, and the idea that the young woman would ever see it, or be hurt by it, apparently never crossed his mind.

It took 35 years, but she saw it.

“I learned about these yearbook pages only a few days ago,” Ms. Dolphin said in a statement to The New York Times. “I don’t know what ‘Renate Alumnus’ actually means. I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things, but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way.”


That sort of specifically male cruelty is not unfathomable to me, because I have recently been confronted by my own. Deadspin is currently being Gamergated by Barstool Sports, which dug up a handful of jokes I made in the comment section of Deadspin in 2006 and 2007, as a 22-year-old student, years before I came to work here. The false equivalence between 12-year-old blog comments and a website like Barstool, which continues to proudly traffic in sexism, racism, homophobia, and harassment, seems so self-evident as to not be worth dwelling on. So that’s the last time I’ll mention them.

My comments were vile. There was a fat joke. There was an anorexia joke. There was a rape joke. There are probably more; I don’t even remember writing these. (My cruelty was just that casual.) I am ashamed, pit-in-my-stomach, cheeks-afire ashamed. I am sorry, not that the comments have been surfaced, but that I wrote them in the first place. I am not capable of the words to express my disgust and my regret. Another bitter irony of casual cruelty: It’s so much easier to commit than it is to reckon with. I’m sorry.


But do you want to hear the really galling part? Any consequences I’m suffering and will suffer from this will be but a small fraction of the hurt the things I wrote were capable of inflicting on other people. And an even smaller fraction of men who write, say, or do hurtful things ever suffer any consequences for it. Men (cis, straight, white, neurotypical), have it so fucking easy. We can do stuff like this and never have to answer for it. We just skate through life! You wouldn’t believe it. Well, actually, you probably already do believe it, if you’re not a (cis, straight, white, neurotypical) man.

Cruelty was a primary language of the web for its first couple decades, and still is in certain corners. The anonymity (my Deadspin comments were anonymous, before I changed my display name to my real name when I started working here), and the ability to find like-minded people, led to echo chambers where people were encouraged to be their worst selves. They had all the thoughtlessness and offensiveness of, say, a football-team clique at a ritzy D.C.-area prep school. Not every online community was like this, of course; but it’s shocking to go back and see just how much of it was. Deadspin was among them.


Drew wrote about this better than I’ll ever be capable of, so that’s worth your time. But to retread a bit, neither he nor I nor anyone else who has worked here for a shorter time than us has any misconceptions about how gross much of Deadspin’s content was in the early days. A lot of that was indeed driven by the comments, where readers would leap to make the most tasteless joke possible, as fast as possible, all for validation in the form of +1s from other commenters. But the tone was certainly set above the fold, where snarkiness and dismissiveness ruled the day, and actual human beings were often treated as just the means to a punchline. That started to change when Will Leitch left, soon before I was hired, but even if Deadspin was better than most afterward, it was still crueler than it should have been. The site made its share of bad decisions and hurt some people very badly. You don’t have to go very far to find them.


Deadspin’s not that, now, I don’t think. The site is staffed by good, smart, conscientious people who I am certain were far better people at age 22 than I was. The site is bigger, and widely read, and I am now, 12 years after I started reading it as a bored student killing time at my work-study job, in a position of some power. Some of the things that made Deadspin’s name and grew it were inexcusable, and yet here I am, reaping the rewards. So at the very least, I have a debt I’m still trying to pay off.

I can’t change what I did. I can’t go back and unwrite those comments, nor my early-career blogs, some of which definitely qualify as problematic. All I can do is apologize, try to keep changing for the better, and to make this site better, which I hope I’ve contributed to in these last eight years. All any of us can do, since we can’t change our pasts, is blessedly simple: Don’t be a shithead.


It has historically been very easy to be a shithead. It does not require, like the other path, acknowledging your own mistakes and failings, or the broader societal machinery that abets it. The cruelty remains casual; the introspection requires the effort. It’s only been in the last couple of years that some few men are paying actual real-world prices for their words and actions, and even that tiny fraction of men have so terrified the rest that an entire reactionary culture war is being waged against the idea that there should be consequences for things.

Here is where that “Twitter mob” comes in, and I believe it’s what’s largely responsible for the evolution of the discourse over the last half-decade or so. I’m on record as saying public shaming is a good thing, because all it really is is the lack of insulation we’d previously had from having to reckon with terrible things we say. “Twitter” is just people, and people have always decided what is within the window of acceptable discourse and what is offensive. That the feedback is now so instant and so public has the wider benefit of signaling to everyone where the boundaries are. And boundaries matter, because outside of them, it’s real people getting hurt.


Because that’s what this is about: other people. My self-reflection is the means to an end, and that end is never forgetting that the people I write about and interact with online are actual people, not punchlines, no matter if they’re a famous athlete or an anonymous commenter. Real, actual people are reading my words. I don’t want to hurt them.

Twelve years ago, I received no such feedback; in fact, it was the opposite—all those +1s. I was allowed and encouraged to be cruel, and so I was. It’s no one’s fault but my own that I was so insecure and unsure of myself that to fit in I’d follow the shock-humor crowd at Deadspin, not caring who was the butt of a joke. The me of 12 years ago is nearly unrecognizable to me now, and I think that’s a very good thing. (I also know that the me of 12 years from now may not recognize current me, and that I’m still going to fuck up and say and do things that will make 46-year-old me cringe.) The point is that I really do think I’ve changed for the better over the years, and not because I suffered any consequences for bad behavior. That feels to me like the key here: Make the choice not to be a shithead, not because you might be called out for it, but because you owe other people the effort.