Roger Marolt: Ask for it at your own risk
Did U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise deserve to be shot for expressing beliefs some consider to be inflammatory? Absolutely not! Was he asking for it? It is not the same question and much more difficult to answer.
I know what it is like to be controversial. It is what newspaper columnists do. I also have a fairly good feeling for what asking for “it” is, although I can’t give a concise definition.
About five years ago I had a writing epiphany. Up to that point, I oftentimes went out of my way to express views in the most incendiary way I could manage. I called public figures out. I ridiculed things people said or did. I delighted in pointing out flaws in logic. I figured out how to ask for “it” — pump up the rhetoric and blast the opposing view. It is an unfair fight because a columnist always gets the last shot.
Call it maturity or fatigue, to me they are oftentimes one in the same, but I decided to adopt a more comfortable approach. It’s not that I no longer care about my column’s popularity; I just find it easier to get it out twice a week if I don’t have to consider ducking and covering. That’s the new priority. After all, I’m not up for re-election for anything.
One of the first things I learned as a columnist is that being despised is not the worst thing that can happen. Oh, no, not by a long shot. The truth is that being hated is one of the best things that can happen to a young, ambitious columnist, or so I believed.
The worst thing that can happen when you lay it on the line is nothing. By “nothing,” I literally mean no response whatsoever. Lack of reaction in the business of opining is painful.
By contrast, when you are outspoken and write inflammatory things that make people mad, word gets around, so to speak. You collect huge numbers of clicks on the newspaper’s website. People share your column on Facebook. Your column gets posted on other websites. Readers send you lots of emails. You build a vocal base of followers, no matter that it is mostly made up of regular cranks and nuts. And guess how all this makes a columnist feel? You got it — important! And smart! And talented! Oh, and yes, all of this ego inflation is addicting.
I craved this attention. It was a mark of success. I’m sure I am not the only columnist who has felt this way. The problem is that the only way we get what we need to feed this addiction is to ask for “it.” So, I did. I started asking for “it” almost every single week.
In asking for “it,” you can’t always predict what strain of “it” you will get. The truth is that you don’t even have a clear idea of what “it” is yourself. I suppose the most general idea is attention, for better or worse. What I suddenly found frightening is that we are asking for “it” from people we are purposefully enraging, potentially to the brink of irrationality. At that point we are playing craps with other people’s sanity and betting they will play normally — I piss you off and you attack my credibility. But that is not guaranteed.
Even though I have tried to tame things down, I still manage to stir things up. Last winter I made snowboarders really angry without intending to. Trump makes me so mad I can’t contain my thoughts, which angers more people around here than you think. Then “it” comes and I feel the pangs of satisfaction and have to check my quavering fingers on the keyboard.
I think being a politician is a lot like begin a columnist in that, if you hear nothing but crickets when you send out your message, I am sure you get nervous about lack of interest in the audience. Then, the tried-and-true way to get a reaction is to ask for “it.”
In this context, I believe Rep. Scalise was asking for “it,” just as he, I, and countless others do with varying frequency when we put our words and ideas into the public domain. What is extremely unfortunate is that, thankfully very infrequently, dangerously deranged people don’t understand how much of “it” is too much when they deliver it. Something snaps under the weight of our provocation. Then, even if we don’t deserve their version of “it,” we get it anyway.
Roger Marolt has learned there are many ways to express an opinion. One or two of them aren’t offensive and none change anyone’s mind. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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