Trolls have been around since the internet began — well, really, longer, if we want to get strictly accurate. When people started producing drawn and printed works, other people started talking about them. Some people praised them, while others offered critical commentary, engaging with the work from the perspective of people who were intrigued but not completely convinced. Perhaps they thought the concept could be better expressed, or they wanted to pick apart the ideas therein. Religious commentary and responses often provoked heated and complicated conversations as people discussed very intense matters close to the heart, like what happens after death, the nature of the soul, the face of G-d.
But then, the trolls. The people who hated just to hate, who either lashed out at work they didn’t understand or just irrationally hated something or didn’t like what something implied. The people who disagreed not because they wanted to have an interesting conversation, but because they wanted to erase something, and its creator, from existence. The goal wasn’t to have a discussion about the nature of the work, but to eradicate it. Trolls had varying degrees of success — think of the desecration of temples and works of art by people who disliked them, or the Great Schism, or, for that matter what the 99 Theses did to Christianity — but the Internet created new grounds for them to truly flourish. For, in an environment where vast quantities of information can be distributed and discussed, it is perhaps not surprising that much of that discussion is, to be blunt, vile.
Trolls are often somewhat unfairly cast as conservatives against liberals, people tearing down social progressives against people trying to create change in the world. I’m prone to falling into that trap because I move in progressive circles (though I observe a fair amount of fauxgressivism as well and often find myself fundamentally disliking and disagreeing with the ‘leaders’ of such communities), because I see virulent abuse being hurled not just at the people around me, but at myself. I’m been told to go kill myself, I’ve been informed that people would be happy to see me raped and murdered — by a variety of creative means, I’ve been threatened and hacked and doxed and dragged through a wide variety of muddy ditches by people who fundamentally just want me to shut up.
But I’ve also seen ‘liberals’ be equally hateful and abusive. Trolling is not limited to people of a particular political and social inclination, no matter how much people with allegedly progressive politics like to claim otherwise. I’ve seen people who claim to be righteous threatening people they disagree with, I’ve seen abusive and violent language hurled at people with opposing political views, I’ve witnessed horrific and appalling responses to conservative commentary — including perfectly moderate commentary from people genuinely interested in having conversations. I might not always agree with that commentary, but that doesn’t mean that I should abuse the people making that commentary — let alone that I have the right to do so.
Trolls, it would seem, are universal. What I don’t understand is the point — why do people troll? I might fathom it on an intellectual level: People disagree with each other, people don’t like things that other people say, people want to erase what other people say, people use cruel and terrible and abusive and nasty things to tear each other down, but I don’t really understand it on an emotional level. I find trolling troubling because it’s hateful and horrible, but also because it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t like things that don’t make sense to me.
I spend much of my life encountering things that I disagree with. Sometimes they are interesting things that I want to engage with and the people who are voicing opinions or commentaries are clearly open to having conversations about them, so I do. I prefer to have those conversations in person, where we can actually engage with nuance, without people piling in on us, where both of us can feel free to speak openly without fear. In other cases, I see that people are baiting, or not interesting in talking, or that they are saying things I disagree with so virulently that I have no interest in addressing them at all — in no small part because I know their authors have zero interest in considering other perspectives (I’m sure some people can say the same about some of my commentary).
So I just don’t engage with it. It’s easy enough to shrug and walk out of a room, close a tab, unfollow someone. It’s easy enough to just walk away, rather than to descend upon someone with a firestorm of virulent abuse, followed by my troops. I don’t like using the language and culture of violence against people, even people I dislike, and I abhor people who use that strategy — especially ‘progressives’ who claim to be against violence, who claim to be anti-war, who claim to care about social issues. If you think that violence is wrong, why do you use verbal violence against people you cast as your enemies, instead of just people you don’t necessarily agree with? Why, socially, do people consider this acceptable?
It’s curious to me that in a culture where many pro-choice people sensibly say ‘if you don’t like abortion, don’t have one,’ people can’t seem to master the concept of ‘if you don’t like an idea, don’t engage with it.’ We’re not required to engage with or support every single idea we encounter. We don’t have to read every article that will enrage us. We don’t have to comment on every irritating statement someone makes. We have the power to walk away.
Those who do not, it strikes me, aren’t upset about ideas and concerned about refuting them. They’re just part of a culture of hatred, sometimes the very culture they condemn, and they’re being abusive and cruel because they can, because they think they have a right to do so, because they’re under the impression that being hateful is a perfectly reasonable response to something they disagree with — they’re being mean just to be mean, tearing the wings off butterflies and using a magnifying glass to watch them burn.
Image: Fire Storm, JD Hancock, Flickr