Conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens deleted his Twitter account Tuesday morning after a social media flare-up over being called a “bedbug.”
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The conflict started Monday afternoon, when a Times editor tweeted, “There are bedbugs in the NYT newsroom.”
“The bedbugs are a metaphor,” Dave Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, replied. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
The tweet itself barely made a ripple. But four hours later, Karpf described an email Stephens sent to him and his boss:
This afternoon, I tweeted a brief joke about a well-known NYT op-Ed columnist.
It got 9 likes and 0 retweets. I did not @ him. He does not follow me.
He just emailed me, cc’ing my university provost. He is deeply offended that I called him a metaphorical bedbug.
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
Karpf later posted the full email, which accused Karpf of “setting a new standard” for personal attacks, and asking the professor to come to his house, meet his family and then repeat the insult to his face.
The revelation of the email led to rounds of mockery from other users, and making Stephens the second highest national trend on Twitter.
Some rewrote the first line of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” in which a protagonist awakens to find himself transformed into a roach, to be about him, while another prankster changed Stephens’ Wikipedia entry to include “bedbug.”
Others pilloried Stephens not just for having thin skin, but also for perceived hypocrisy.
Stephens has written extensively in defense of speech that provokes “discomfort,” especially against what he has characterized as the “siege of the perpetually enraged.” Some on Twitter accused Stephens of wanting discomfort for others but not for himself.
Still others rolled their eyes at what constituted a personal attack to the columnist, as women, especially women of color, routinely endure far more scathing abuse on social media:
If Bret Stephens is offended by being called a “bed bug,” then he should see the list of words I’ve filtered out of my mentions. White fragility is real, and we should all really stop accommodating it.
— Evette Dionne 🏁 (@freeblackgirl) August 27, 2019
It probably is a bummer to be called a bedbug but people have written to me that they hope I get raped. Must be nice to get insulting comments and feel comfortable inviting the person to your home!
— Elise Foley (@elisefoley) August 27, 2019
The provost responded Tuesday, offering to host Stephens for a discussion on online civility:
“Using dehumanizing rhetoric like ‘bedbugs,’ or analogizing people to insects, is always wrong,” Stephens said in an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday morning after quitting the social media platform. “We can do better. We should be the people on social media that we are in real life.”
On the segment, Stephens also defended the decision to CC Karpf’s provost.
“I had no intention whatsoever to get him in any kind of professional trouble,” Stephens said. “But … managers should be aware of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists, interact with the rest of the world.”
After all that, one Twitter critic summed up her take on the drama in a single emoji: a snowflake.