People blame the Internet for what seems like the spread of anger, meanness and bad manners. While the internet makes it easier to reach more people with much more speed, the things that people share is not so terribly different. Internet trolls, hecklers, and flame warriors seem to be modern phenomena, but it is the method, not the content that is modern. In Jane Addams’ day they just used letters. After having lunch with Addams, journalist Arthur Gleason wrote a long diatribe, including:
“She doesn’t care about people. She doesn’t like you. She likes to move you & bend you. . . This is no Florence Nightingale, nor bread-feeding legendary nun! How troubled she would look & empty beside a life of purpose like Moody’s. The lady is just one more consummate trick performer. She only looks one in the eye occasionally & she wears a stoop & forward tilt of the head from constantly speaking into the ear of politicians & getting legislation & into the ear of millionaires and getting money.”–Arthur Gleason to Leila Seward Gleason, May 4, 1906
Trolls spread false information and try to foster anger and emotional outbursts by posting provocative or outrageous comments and reactions to content. Back in Addams’ day it was “hate mail” and while its audience was more focused, the emotions and anger behind it were strikingly similar.
Despite her reputation as America’s best-loved woman, Jane Addams received anonymous and signed attacks. In 1912, when she supported Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy for President, her mail became a mine field, peppered with angry missives questioning her intelligence and honesty.
One letter, written by G.H. Bastian, begins by calling Addams “possibly blind to the fact that ‘Evil Communications Corrupt Good Manners.'” The letter goes on to savage Roosevelt,
Out of his own mouth a Liar, a most audacious liar, Lied about himself, about the President, about numberless persons and things. An international burglar “I took it,” he shamelessly prates, in reference to his theft of Columbian possession Panama. A consuming perjurer in that he violated his oath of office, an open flagrant violator of every confidence ever [reposed] in him. A shameless dirty mouthed black-guard whose vile tongue spoke evil of our best of men and women, even went so low as to label men “liars,” Crooks, brigands, 2nd story men, vampires and numberless other names degrading and dirty, can there be a doubt, a doubt in this day of [reckoning], in the day of exposé that Theodore Roosevelt is about the most unclean, the most vile, and contaminating citizen in the whole Country. – G.H. Bastion to Addams, August 26, 1912.
But then he turns towards Addams, and in language archaic, but with sentiments all too familiar to what we see on Twitter and in web comment sections:
Can it be possible that in all New England a woman — Yes even in this vast Country a woman can be found who would be willing to stoop low enough to espouse such a man. Now in order to be Consistent you should at once move to New York. Secure an office in the Tenderloin, in the Red light district, in fact you should display a red light in the front window, and label the door a “Negro Assignation House in the rear.” In addition to espousing the noble degrading cause of Rooseveltism you could handle a few “white slaves.”- G.H. Bastion to Addams, August 26, 1912.
Similarly, Addams received an anonymous letter from a woman complaining:
I have been reading after you for some time and I thought you would be a help to Ignorant [women] — but I see Instead: you are only a dupe to Roosevelt. [He] never has been; nor never will be any help to [womankind] — outside of the use that man makes of them for their [passion] sake. . . –Anonymous to Jane Addams, 1912.
The author compares women supporting Roosevelt to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam (Roosevelt) was only looking out for himself, and “If women is going to vote the same spiteful way that men are voting It will only add fuel to their hellfire and women and girls will only be slaughtered more than we are now.” The letter goes on explaining that women have to work hard to “Redeem their Honor.”
A study of internet “trolls” found that they score higher on the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits (narcissism, sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism). A 2016 study found that they espouse “negative social potency,” — their cruelty and willingness to hurt other’s for personal gain or pleasure. It is interesting to see what kinds of behaviors provoke such reactions. One of the instances when Addams received the most criticism and hate was in the early days of America’s entry into World War I. Addams had opposed the war since its outbreak, but unlike others, continued to speak out against it after the United States joined the Allies. It was not just individuals who called her out, it was the government, the press, and even former friends.
Newspaper editorials blasted her for stepping outside of her “place” and the attacks turned personal quite quickly. The Courier-Journal:
The World takes Miss Jane too seriously. She is by no means a mystic. Properly construed there is nothing ‘inexplicable’ about her. A commonplace woman of limited mentality, somewhat over-educated, she made a useful place for herself at Hull House. . . . But when, unsatisfied with plain, everyday settlement work, for which she seemed to have been fitted, she began to fancy herself a philosopher and started out as a writer and lecturer, she got away beyond her depth.” –Quoted in the Montgomery Advertiser, June 23, 1917.
In another case, Addams was attacked by Mildred Rutherford who called Addams “pro-German,” a believer in “the amalgamation of the races,” and that her father “was a white slave trafficker.” In this case, Addams’s response was published in the Atlanta Constitution (right).
Most times, Addams did not respond to these jibes and slanders, preferring to follow the advice most apply when confronted with such people — Don’t feed the troll.
To read some of the criticisms, both mild and fierce, that Addams received, click here.