Insults and food: Using hate to fuel good in the world

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On today's episode of the 5 Things podcast:

As a journalist, USA TODAY columnist Rex Huppke has had his share of insults, most journalists have. With the introduction of social media and email, it's become a lot easier to fire off a mean tweet or send a nasty email as opposed to hand writing a letter and dropping it in the mailbox. With the internet at our fingertips, it's easy to dehumanize a person, especially journalists and bombard them with negativity.

Back in 2018 Huppke, then at the Chicago Tribune, decided to turn what was a negative experience into something positive. He asked readers, both those that loved him and those that hated him to donate to a local food bank.

5 Things Sunday host James Brown sat down with Huppke to talk about his Insult-A-Columnist-Holiday Food drive.

The concept is simple, you donate to Feeding America under one of two team names: RexRocks or RexStinks-either loving or hating him. No matter which team you choose, your donation benefits those struggling with food insecurity based on the zip code you provide.

Huppke said, "let me have it! Insult me, please." He promises to write a column geared toward whichever team wins; either grotesquely talking about how wonderful he is, or excoriating himself by letting the world know just how terrible he is. So what are you waiting for? Insult Rex and donate by clicking on the link. The drive runs through December.

Donte to Rex Rex Huppke’s Insult-A-Columnist Holiday Food Drive.

To read Rex Huppke's columns, click here or read some below.

Insult a columnist, help people in need with USA TODAY's Insult-A-Columnist Holiday Food Drive!

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Follow James Brown and Rex Huppke on Twitter.

If you have a comment about the show or a question or topic you'd like us to discuss, send James Brown an email at jabrown@usatoday.com or podcasts@usatoday.com. You can also leave him a voicemail at 585-484-0339. We might have you on the show.

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Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

James Brown: Hello and welcome to 5 Things. I'm James Brown. It's Sunday, December 4th, 2022. Thanks for listening.

Go, Bills. Every week we take an idea and go deep, and this week is about insults in food.

My colleague USA Today columnist, Rex Huppke. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

Rex Huppke: Right on. Yeah, that's it.

James Brown: We'll explain in a few minutes. Rex Huppke, welcome to 5 Things.

Rex Huppke: Hey, thanks. I'm glad to be here. And you pronounced my name right. You're the first person to ever do that. So congratulations. That was good.

James Brown: I feel proud. I just took a wild guess.

Rex Huppke: It's a weird name. I'm not going to lie.

James Brown: Do you recall your first insult?

Rex Huppke: First insult as a journalist or first insult in life?

James Brown: Let's go both ways. Let's start with life.

Rex Huppke: I grew up in Florida and I went to a private school that my parents sent me to. My parents didn't have a ton of money, but they got me to somehow manage to stretch and save, and they got me into this school. But I was the poor kid at the fancy school. I have this very vivid memory of one dude because I didn't wear the polo shirts. We were thrifting clothes and stuff like that. He called me the dregs of society. That one stuck with me. I'm not going to lie to you. Little therapy might have followed that.

James Brown: How old was this kid?

Rex Huppke: Oh, this was like, geez man. It was early middle school. I don't remember exactly what that age is, but it was pretty young. I'm sure I was called other things before that, but that's the one that I remember that has powered me throughout my life.

James Brown: The dregs of society ...

Rex Huppke: Yeah, very nice. And I was like, dang. Really went low on that one

James Brown: And heavy for a 12 or 13-year-old.

Rex Huppke: Right. Yeah, I know. Smart rich kid.

James Brown: I've worked in journalism for a number of years. And as of you, I think anyone who's reported to some degree has gotten an insult, or at least a high level of sarcasm. What are some of the more memorable ones there?

Rex Huppke: One of my all-time favorites is a guy who kept emailing and referring to me as a marketer of evil. I always swear I was going to add that to my LinkedIn page. It sounded a lot tougher than I actually am. So yeah, marketer of evil. I've been called a liberal puke is another one that I've gotten for some reason. I don't know if that's a common insult in certain circles, but I've gotten that a number of times.

My first name is Rex and they call me Rexy. They infantalize a lot, so I don't know why that is either. But anyway, I'm sure there's a whole psychology book on people who send hate mail to journalists, so that kind of stuff. And then a lot of things that I can't repeat. Somebody challenged me to a duel one time.

James Brown: I take it you didn't take him up?

Rex Huppke: No, I did not. Decided to pass on pistols at dawn.

James Brown: What do you make of that, or why do you think that journalists attract that kind of behavior?

Rex Huppke: Well, we've always been somewhat divided as a country. Obviously it's way worse over the past five, six years than it previously has been. But even before that, there were still plenty of people out there who love to be angry about things. And the advent of the internet, and email, and social media made it so much easier. Before they had to send a nice handwritten hate mail, which was much more onerous, I think. So now people can just pop on, shoot you a mean tweet. They can send a vile email slamming you.

But what's actually interesting about it, I think people dissociate a lot because we become, as journalists, whether you're a reporter or a columnist, you're just a name. You don't come off as being an actual human being. We've gotten to this point where everybody's arguing and bickering in Facebook, and Twitter, and social media circles and whatnot. I think it's almost a game. It's almost gamified somehow.

James Brown: They're communicating with an idea of you, not you.

Rex Huppke: Right, exactly. It's like an abstraction I think. You are a face on Twitter. You are a name in pixels on a USA Today webpage. In other words, they would not go up to a person in real life and say these things to their face, but they can do it quasi-anonymously online and it feels safe and harmless.

And then when they actually realize that they've hurt someone, or they see what they've said and recognize how horrible it looks when it's put back in their face a little bit, then they will sometimes back down.

James Brown: Yet you're welcoming it. Can you explain?

Rex Huppke: Well, I long ago realized that it's not going to stop. So it just seems to be part of what happens. I wish we had a way in our society of that being taboo for anybody, left, right, middle, whoever. And again, when I talk about this stuff, I always stress that I'm a pretty liberal person, but this is not the sole arena of people on the Right. A lot of people on the Right attack me because I'm writing about a lot of more liberal minded stuff. But I've seen it go both ways, both from conservative colleagues getting heat from the Left, as well as even sometimes when I've written some things critical of the Left that then brought out just some atrocious hate mail.

What I try to do is shine a light on it a little bit, and in some ways try to diffuse it by showing people, I call it my reader fan mail. I post this on Twitter regularly where I'll just screenshot an email. I take out the sender's information because I don't want to dox anybody, just so people get a look at what journalists happen to see. Because it certainly is not unique to me.

But what I decided several years back was to try to find a way to redirect some of that negativity. And so when I was at the Chicago Tribune as a columnist, I started a food drive around the holidays which was aimed at getting people who don't like me and people who do like me to donate money to a food bank to try to help people facing food insecurity. The idea being whether you like me or dislike me, it all goes to a good place. And if you want to figure out whether I am a terrible person or a good person, let's let the market decide.

James Brown: Why this cause? There's a million of them out there.

Rex Huppke: First of all, food insecurity is a huge problem in this country and it's a problem that gets overlooked a lot. We talk about food pantries and people, they have a certain idea in mind of what that means. And they overlook the fact that, in my humble opinion, nobody should have to worry about food in this country. That's a problem we should eradicate. And I wish there was a way that we could have the collective will to do it. But in the meantime, there are millions of Americans who struggle to put enough food on the table and feed their families. And so to me, this is an issue that everybody should be able to agree on. It's not political to say, "I think you should have enough food to eat. I think you should have nutritious food. You should be able to feed your kids and your family and stuff."

That was really the thing is,

A, I thought it was just a fundamentally important problem in our country to begin with.

And B, it was a way of doing something that was not going to be politically divisive somehow. It wasn't like I was asking for donations to some ideological something or other. It's just good. It's just something good to do.

James Brown: What was the response?

Rex Huppke: Surprising, honestly. Before I came to USA Today, I was at the Chicago Tribune. And all the money we were raising was for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies around 600 or so pantries all throughout the Chicago and surrounding area. And the first year we raised a little over a $100,000, which blew me away. And then we did it again in the following year, and it went higher. I believe the third year we did it, we hit 250,000. So it was amazing. Because again, I talk about the political division that we have. But it shows you that if you open a door, people have a tendency to rush in. People in this country, I think, when you give people an opportunity, you show them a way to help other people, they will do it.

It was one of those things where at the end of each year really restored my faith in humanity a bit. Because you just saw people, some who enjoy what I write, some who can't stand what I write, but everybody putting in to try to make people's lives better. I named it the Insult-A-Columnist Holiday Food Drive, just to have a little bit fun. The two teams are Rex Rocks and Rex Stinks. I always have the promise that the Rex Rocks team wins, I'll write a column just grotesquely describing my fantasticness, and praising myself to the ceiling. If the Rex Stinks team wins, I'll write a column excoriating myself and letting the world know what a horrible person I am. You put a little skin in the game, I guess on my end.

But it worked out amazing there, and it was really wonderful to see. And then I came aboard with USA Today back in February, and I'm just delighted that we've been able to find a way to take it to a bigger audience here. This year we're working with Feeding America, which has a network of 200 plus food banks all across the country. Basically, they cover every inch of the United States as well as Puerto Rico. They supply food banks, which then supply community organizations, pantries, shelters, all that sort of thing. It's a really good organization. And what they were able to do is set up a donation page where we can have the same approach, two different teams, like me, don't like me, whatever.

The donations are then sorted by zip code. So if you're in Georgia, your donation is going to go to a food bank in your area. If you're in Texas, same. If you're in California, Washington state, Oklahoma, wherever you happen to be donating from, if folks in the Chicago area who previously donated to the drive, the money from them will be going to the Chicago Food Depository again. It's a really nice way of setting it up so that people are not donating to just one food bank. They're actually going to be helping people in their communities, friends, neighbors, whoever it happens to be.

James Brown: And you have a website for this? What's the address?

Rex Huppke: Feedingamerica.org/excusatory. And of course, I'll be sharing that in columns on social media all over the place. It's going to run through the whole month of December.

James Brown: Any famous last words?

Rex Huppke: Let me have it. Insult me, please. I would love to take whatever people want to throw at me, donation wise here and really let me have it. That's what I say.

James Brown: Rex Huppke, thanks for joining me.

Rex Huppke: Hey, thanks. It's a pleasure.

James Brown: If you like the show, write us a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you're listening. And do me a favor, share it with a friend. What do you think of the show?

Email me at jabrown@usatoday.com, or leave me a message at 585-484-0339. We might have you at the show.

Insult Rex to help him fight food insecurity. You can learn more about it in a description, or on usatoday.com.

Thanks to Shannon Rae Green and Alexis Gustin for their production assistance. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning.

From all of us at USA Today, thanks for listening. I'm James Brown, and as always, be well.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Insults and food: Using hate to fuel good in the world