Because we can’t give him the attention.
I met the awful man on a website. The website, while not without its problems, is not completely terrible (and it’s not the one you’re thinking of). Its problems boil down to the preoccupations of a specific community, and more than that, to the pathologies of an annoying, self-important subculture within that community. In said community, which still serves a basic function I value, the awful man is someone you’d be encouraged to ignore. That’s what everyone does, and that’s what I’d counsel as well, despite writing about him here in a way I hope will preclude any satisfaction whatsoever on his part: It’s clear that he loves to be written about.
The awful man does have an account on the website you’re thinking of, but you can tell he’s not crazy about it. That account exists so he can get people to look at the other one. So, come to think of it, I may have met the awful man on the website you were thinking of, and found his other account, about a year ago now. His grainy avatar is a white guy whose eyes are bright yellow from the camera flash. I have no idea if that’s really him, and in those moments when I begin to suspect that “he” is in fact some tortured algorithm, I must admit that it’s an ideal visual presence for his project: some ghastly relic of the old internet, a lost message board.
His project, which does arouse an unfortunate curiosity, is a creatively unhinged sort of harassment that takes on the cadence of schizophrenic poetry — the sort of rarefied abuse that, as a white man, I have the privilege of approaching with anthropological interest. I could analyze his rhetoric and look for clues to a true personality. I’d prod him until he presented differently. I had become a target, it’s true, but again, because of my position, I’ve never felt acutely threatened by trolls of any stripe. I engaged, I emailed, I questioned his strange behavior. And, of course, he was eager to talk, to unload even more of his apocalyptic language.
I could see even then that we weren’t getting anywhere, that what he said could never be corralled into anything like a legible profile or interview, however compellingly odd he was, and despite my misplaced attentions. Ethically, my first concern was his mental state, which I could not hope to ascertain. Then it became clear, as he heckled me for more questions, threatened to “shut down” the conversation, and bragged that he’d been written up in an Italian newspaper, that he was pushing for wider exposure, demanding further recognition. His normal schtick was secondary to this motive; I realized that our sort of exchange was exactly what he fed on.
He ramped up his impotent threats — there was nothing he could do to or take from me, yet a key to his madness lay in delusions of godly control that derived from his words — and I wondered what I’d hoped to accomplish by taking him seriously. I imagined there was a person to be explained, and found instead that he was nothing beyond his hatred, which often bizarrely coexisted alongside his manners. “Thanks,” he wrote back when I told him we’d reached the end of our on-the-record dialogue, “I enjoyed working with you.” Me, one of his chosen victims. It was maddening to see him veer toward self-awareness right before erupting again.
I can’t say I hadn’t been warned, either. When the awful man and I first publicly interacted, at least one colleague told me that my interviewee was precisely what he seemed, and not worth figuring out. Around the same time, one of my oldest friends had started to send me insane emails with the same aggressive, accusatory, literary bent, and refused to directly reply to anything I wrote back. Maybe I believed that, in talking to the awful man, I’d gain the insight I needed to help my friend, who appeared in the process of becoming an awful man himself. Was there anything to be gained, apart from a certain quietude, by casting both of them aside?
And even as the weeks and months went by, as the entire awful year separating me from the awful man unspooled its ribbon of horrors, I held to the notion that what we’d said to each other might form the basis of a coherent essay, a thing I could publish and be paid and praised for. I half-heartedly pitched it to a single editor, who confirmed what I’d known all along: that there was no value in it, no point in giving the awful man a platform, no excuse for proving his point. That was all I required from the universe, and afterward I deleted all relevant notes. It was over. At least I could congratulate myself for failing to carry out his demented prophecy.
For all I know, the awful man is obsessed enough to have followed my work since I first took his bait. I know that I check in on him now and then. He is still so mystic and appalling, so dogged in his purpose, and, at times, to a morbid sensibility like mine, unintentionally funny. Does it matter to him that I stopped listening? Or is he content to go on shrieking into the void until another idle commentator decides there is pathos below his curdled surface? We have to at some point admit that we can’t create meaning for people like him. Surely there are failures and fears at the roots of his sad ritual — I’m just mildly ashamed, after all, that I tried to dig them up.