If you don’t follow the NBA and its most exciting young team—the Memphis Grizzlies, of course—you probably missed this story. Ja Morant, our young superstar (yes, I’m going to say “our,” because I love this team) just came back from an injury and was heckled by a few courtside fans at the game.

Why would they heckle Ja? The Grizzlies were the hottest team in the NBA after Morant sprained his knee. They won 10 out of 12 games without their best player. Then, in his first game back, they struggled and lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder—a team they’d beaten by 73 points (an NBA record) just days before, without Morant.

Heckling is common. It happens at every game. But this time Morant seemed genuinely distressed. At a postgame press conference Morant said, “I’m just frustrated. Normally, y’all have seen it, when anybody says something negative about me, it fuels me, but, tonight, the remarks from the fans actually hurt. I’m going to do what I normally do and bounce back, and I’m very excited for this next game."

He then announced he was taking a break from social media. He was back soon enough, but this incident—where a public figure expressed hurt at the drive-by taunt of courtside trolls—reminded me of a reality that helps explain why our public square is often so relentlessly toxic, whether you’re an athlete, a celebrity, a pundit, or just an ordinary person locked in a flame war on Facebook.

Simply put: cruelty works. And by “works,” I don’t mean that it necessarily accomplishes its specific objective. Morant didn’t “sit back out” because a few fans demanded it. But cruelty has an impact. In fact, I’ve never in my entire life met a person who was truly unfazed by vicious attacks.

I’ve met people who pretended to be unfazed, but in candid moments the truth comes out. It bothers them. It matters.

To read the rest, subscribe to The Atlantic.

Already a subscriber? Sign in