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On Twitter, Ben Shapiro recently rendered the controversial opinion that human beings with penises are men, a declaration that led Reason editor Elizabeth Nolan-Brown to claim that Shapiro “needs his smug mug punched, repeatedly.” She later added: “Rhetorically, of course!” That is some odd rhetoric. A few months ago Nolan-Brown attempted to ruin a man’s life because he made a corny sexist joke on Twitter. Back then, “Make me a sandwich, woman,” was worth destroying a guy’s reputation online. But “punch this guy for having a political opinion I don’t like” is now totally cool. How the times change.

I want to render an uncharitable but probably accurate assumption: Nolan-Brown’s call to assault Ben Shapiro was not, in fact, “rhetorical” but was, however briefly so, real and sincere. We have seen enough of this “punch the people who offend me” meme in the past six months or so to know that those who say such things are generally deadly serious about it. Political violence, which is always one unpopular opinion away from legitimacy, is not something one confuses with mere rhetoric. Dana Loesch urging the NRA membership to “fight the violence of lies with clenched fists of truth” is unmistakably rhetorical, almost to a fault. Elizabeth Nolan-Brown saying “Punch that dude in the face for disagreeing with the trans agenda” is something else entirely.

Maybe Nolan-Brown meant what she said and maybe she didn’t. To her credit she has since taken the tweet down, issuing a subsequent tweet that says, unambiguously, “Don’t actually punch Ben Shapiro. Don’t actually punch anyone except in defense.” Good for her. Just the same, it is somewhat hard to take her seriously. “That guy needs to be punched in the face” is not—either in American or British English—a rhetorical idiom of any repute. By comparison, the idiomatic turn of phrase “she was calling for his head on a platter,” say, is far more well-known and far less inflammatory. When you say  something like “That guy should get punched,” you usually mean it, even if you regret it or retract it later.

Ultimately, I think, what this little dust-up reveals is not anything so much about Elizabeth Nolan-Brown (other than her belief that men can somehow, through the magic of transgenderism, become women). The takeaway here is that the Internet, or at least social media, has become a kind of rolling gaffe factory, a place where one’s worst and most stupid impulses are generally on display for the world to see. Some of us (ahem) got off Twitter years ago, and dialed back Facebook to a barely perceptible degree; others stayed, and there is not a consistent user of social media that has not, at some point and to some degree, embarrassed himself or besmirched his own reputation. It can happen anywhere, of course—even right here on this little blog—but the unfiltered and slapdash nature of Twitter and other platforms makes those kinds of embarrassments all the more likely and common.

For those who commit such gaffes—for the people who call for political violence as if it were normal and praiseworthy—social media can be a terrible thing. For the rest of us, it can be useful for that very same reason: it is good to know, in any case, who among us believes in striking, beating and assaulting those with whom they disagree.

Trial of the Century will be taking the rest of the week off for Thanksgiving. We wish you a very happy holiday and even better leftovers. 

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