Taking Pleasure in Pain

By now you might have forgotten about Pete Wells’ scathing New York Times review of UNLV alum Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant. In the days after its Nov. 13 publication, Web readers shared it with an uncommon zeal, hailing it as pure genius. You’ve probably also forgotten the smaller surge of pro-Fieri Tweets and comments that followed. But the flap over Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar is instructive for those who want to understand why the public level of discourse is at its current level.

First, let’s consider the whole mess for what it is: You read a review panning a restaurant that you’d probably never heard of and will probably never visit. You probably got a thrill out of it. And you might have shared it with your social-media friends and followers, or even jumped atop the online dog pile.

The point isn’t whether or not Fieri opened a dud of a restaurant; it’s that we had a convenient target to attack. After all, in today’s politically correct society, so much is off-limits. And who doesn’t get a kick out of knocking down a guy who bleaches his hair?

But the absolute glee that many got out of basking in the snark of Wells’ review took it to another level. There was, underneath the smug self-assurance, just a touch of mob hysteria—the same “me too” vibe that led medieval villagers to follow the popular sentiment that, yes, that annoying old-lady neighbor really was a witch.

This angry, viral mob rule is bad news for a nation that absolutely has to come to a consensus on a variety of crucial issues, from how to teach our children to how to care for our elderly. Your opponent no longer simply believes that the government should have a more prominent role in health care; instead, he’s a socialist (or fascist). Or she can’t just be a proponent of smaller government; obviously, she’s a teabagger.

Our online personas can show us at our least empathetic, moving swiftly from modest schadenfreude to vile hatred of people we’ve never met and who have no idea we exist. So maybe we should think twice about the message we’re sending before we re-Tweet.