A few years ago, someone pulled a group of supposed community and thought leaders together to contribute to a blog.
I was one of the people asked to participate.
As the blog’s editor explained the concept, he assured us that comments on the pieces we wrote would be monitored. No one who contributed, he said, would be subjected to “name-calling” or other abuse on the site.
I laughed out loud.
The editor asked what I found so amusing.
I’d spent decades working as a columnist, a long stint as the executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and years as a radio talk show host, I explained. Just as a matter of intellectual curiosity, I was interested to see if anyone out there could come up with a name or an insult for me that I hadn’t heard before.
Besides, I said, if we were going to have our say, it was only fair to let other people have theirs too. If we don’t want to take our share of the hits, we shouldn’t take the field.
This brings me to the controversy involving New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.
Stephens reacted to a Tweet from a George Washington University professor.
Prof. David Karpf isn’t a Stephens fan. Karpf did a riff on a news story about bedbugs infesting The New York Times newsroom.
“The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens,” Karpf tweeted.
Stephens’ column routinely reaches hundreds of thousands of readers. Karpf’s Tweet, left to its own merits, might have reached a dozen.
But the Tweet wasn’t left on its own.
Stephens sent Karpf an angry email. He also sent one to Karpf’s boss.
That, in turn, prompted Karpf to rise on his hind legs. He made public Stephens’ emails and began pontificating about Stephens’ abuse of power and other such academese.
Clearly, neither the columnist nor the professor is quite ready to wear big-boy pants yet.
I’ve spent a lot of years in this business, so it’s not a revelation that, when it comes to criticism, most of us are better at pitching than we are at catching.
Still, there are times I’m amazed at how thin-skinned some people can be.
This is one of those times.
Stephens, a conservative, has written pieces accusing both Republicans and Democrats of, among other things, undermining the nation and exhibiting moral cowardice.
Yet he flips out because someone calls him a “bedbug?”
If Stephens is that sensitive, he ought to avoid places where the conversation can get really rough, like little girls’ tea parties or senior citizens’ church socials.
He made a joke at someone else’s expense in public, hoping to get a reaction. Now he’s whining because he got what he asked for – a reaction.
Admittedly, it’s an excessive reaction, but here’s a helpful hint for the professor: If you can’t deal with the other guy swinging back, you probably shouldn’t throw the first punch.
This story might be just an amusing episode if it weren’t indicative of a larger problem.
Too many of us – starting with the complainer-in-chief in the White House – think free speech applies only to ourselves and those who agree with us. We’re allowed to say what we think, but no one else is. Those who disagree with us just should sit down and shut up.
But that isn’t the way freedom works.
Freedom is rough around the edges. It’s boisterous. Sometimes, it’s even mean-spirited. It’s a kind of free-for-all.
In fact, that’s the point.
I’ve written hard things about people over the years. I understand when they get upset.
Sometimes, they say harsh things about me in return. I do my best not to take those things personally. I had my say. It’s only fair to let the other person have hers or his.
Maybe Stephens and Karpf will figure that out.
At least, though, they have satisfied my curiosity about one thing.
There is at least one name I’ve never been called.
Maybe, just like Bret Stephens, that’s the one that would have sent me over the edge.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.