It happens every Presidential election cycle, regardless of party affiliation: Once someone becomes a genuine contender, every word s/he has uttered, in any speech or writing, becomes fair game for criticism.
Opponents will scrutinize every pronouncement for phrases that can be isolated and used against the candidate, even if it means intentionally taking those words out of context or twisting their meaning. Egos, resentments, and insecurities go into overdrive. We’re seeing plenty of this in the current GOP nomination battle, but these practices are hardly the province of one party.
In addition, certain members of the general public — a small group, I hope, but prolific nonetheless — begin relentlessly criticizing the candidate online. (I assume they are the same bottom feeders of the Internet who anonymously post hateful things about anyone or anything they don’t like.)
It’s one of the many reasons why political discourse in America has become so ugly and empty.
Not limited to politics
Of course, these practices aren’t limited to the political realm. They occur throughout the world of ideas and information.
It means that perceived leaders in their fields must be on their guard, without appearing paranoid. Once someone is regarded as an authority, it’s a fair bet that some others will deeply resent her success. They may make it their mission to follow her work closely, criticizing and undermining it whenever possible. Their intent is not to engage, but rather to tear down.
When these behaviors become obsessive and targeted, the term “word stalking” is an apt one. And the Internet, for all its wondrous power, aids the word stalkers in hounding the objects of their anger and resentment.
Silver lining (sort of)
If you find yourself on the uncomfortable receiving end of such unwanted attentions, congratulations, it means you’ve “made it” to some degree. Let me explain:
In his marvelous 2008 book Tribes, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate. Initiating, says Godin, is “what leaders do.” They see a need and act upon it, thereby causing “events that others have to react to.”
Those who initiate, however, also attract the word stalkers who have taken reacting and responding to an obsessive level. Yup, it can get a little creepy, and it underscores the adage that if you want to enter the public arena, it helps to grow a thick skin.