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E-mail brings a blue streak of hate-filled profanity

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Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom shouldn’t be surprised by profanity, obscenity or colorful language. It’s one of the liberating things about this profession. You can swear a blue streak in a newsroom, and most journalists won’t even look up from their computers.

But there’s profanity, and then there’s profanity.

The ombudsman gets a steady stream of obscene, vile and profane e-mails, and some phone calls, that are many degrees more intense than anything we hear in newsrooms.

They are racist, sexist, creepy, and threatening and contain so many references to unusual uses of bodily orifices that pornographers and psychiatrists could have a field day with them.

I’m not talking about some of the writers and callers who sprinkle their thoughts with the occasional expletive for darn, heck and bull droppings.

I’m talking about the cowardly and unsigned invective of hate-mongers. They come from the right accusing me and The Post of being part of left-wing, commie-loving, socialist-smooching, White House-colluding conspiracies of one form or another, not to mention committing all kinds of lurid acts with President Obama. And they come from the left, saying that The Post and I are neoconservative, racist, fascist Zionists who do unnatural things with animals.

For a while I was getting one every week from a reader who began by addressing me as — let’s see if I can clean this up for a family audience — “you intercoursing, corrupt, illegitimate child” — or as I called it, the weekly FCB rant.

Lately, as public criticism of Obama has increased, I’m getting particularly distasteful e-mails about him. They almost invariably use the “N” word for African Americans. Others use mocking shuck-and-jive language to portray Obama as lazy, evasive and sexually insatiable.

And let’s not leave out the sectarian attacks against Jews and Muslims. Imagine every stereotype against adherents of these faiths, add in anti-Arab and anti-Semitic cultural references and color it with obscene reproductive metaphors, and you’ve got the picture.

What is all this about? Shawn Parry-Giles, a professor of political communications at the University of Maryland, said several factors are at play.

At the most charitable end of the spectrum, this is about people feeling powerless, anxious over economic downturns and in need of an outlet to vent, she said. This echoes the thoughts of Mark Twain, who frequently defended cursing: “There ought to be a room in every house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.”

Technology also plays a role. “Before the Internet age,” Parry-Giles said, “you read a newspaper, you reacted, but you had to get out pen and paper, write it down and stick it in the mail. That was cathartic enough that sometimes people wouldn’t send it.”

Finally, this anger is a reflection of the country’s divided politics. Parry-Giles, who is researching rhetoric of the pre-Civil War and early Abraham Lincoln years, says the language of that era grew steadily more divisive as the Civil War approached. During the 1860 campaign, Lincoln was derided as a know-nothing country bumpkin who, because of his deep-set eyes and prominent brow, looked like an “ape.”

The constant danger of this kind of heated rhetoric, Parry-Giles said, is that “there are those cases where people cross the line from speaking out to acting out.”

After Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in January, Parry-Giles tracked a brief ebb in heated political rhetoric. People responded positively to the president’s remarks at the University of Arizona memorial service: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized . . . it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Fine words, too quickly forgotten.

Journalists should report divisive, extreme language used by politicians, pundits and even
e-mailers, and call them on it. It was right that New York Times columnist Joe Nocera apologized for comparing House Republicans to terrorists for the concessions they demanded in return for a debt ceiling increase. It was wrong that Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the actions of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke "almost treasonous."

Occasionally I’ll respond to some of these profane e-mailers by telling them their behavior is uncalled-for and offensive. That usually brings one of two results — either I never hear from them again, or I receive an apology and subsequent letters that are pointed but not profane. Both are good results.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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