Musing about her experiences as conservativish libertarian (or maybe she’s a libertarianish conservative) in the world of sci-fi publishing, Sarah Hoyt touches on the insidious power of whisper campaigns:
Whisper campaigns are scary effective, because they can get in behind your rational thought. If someone told you to your face that I was a white supremacist and you’d met me and (particularly) my kids, you’d probably pee yourself laughing. BUT if the same info came to you whispered, as “Well, you know, her opinions on race are just nuts” or worse “of course, I disagree with her thing on race” – incredibly effective because it leaves you to make up in your own head how bad my opinions must be for someone to say just that.
There is also the corresponding difficulty of standing up to them:
It’s easier to cow most humans (social animals) with social ostracism than with death threats. There’s something heroic in standing up against a death threat while merely standing up against losing your job because of a whisper campaign calling you a poopy head looks slightly silly. Worse, because it’s a whisper campaign you’re never absolutely sure it’s not all in your head.
My experience in the whisper mill of Tiverton politics leads me to think Hoyt somewhat understates the problem. Standing up to whisper campaigns isn’t merely difficult because the sense of something’s being juvenile too easily transfers from the whisperers to the self-defender. Even if the subject matter is quite adult and serious, using means of communication that are likely to reach large numbers of people can seem defensive, especially if none of the whispers have been uttered loudly enough to hear in the public sphere. Depending what the floating accusations are, the fact of a prominent response could even reinforce them.
Standing up, then, means continuing to do whatever it is that’s evoking the attacks while also continuing to go about your life, daring to live as if you aren’t a wicked, ostracized outsider.