Saturday, July 24, 2021

How to Deal with Internet Trolls

Back in the day-- it does not seem all that long ago-- protesters were protesting by tearing down statues. Not only the statues of slaveholders and Confederate Civil War heroes, but of Abraham Lincoln and even abolitionists.

When mobs are afoot, reason takes a holiday.

At the time, one Charles Barkley, a Hall of Fame basketball player, someone whose rational faculties are fully functional, declared that the best thing to do about public monuments to the Confederacy was to ignore them. Having grown up in Auburn, Alabama and having encountered such monuments every day of his young life, Barkley recommended that people look past them and work on their game.

It was very good advice indeed. In truth, and by the work of reason, tearing down a statue will not improve anyone’s ability to do algebra. If you think that it will, that explains why you do not know how to do algebra.

In any event, Julie Burchill offers a studied approach to social media trolls. She might have been talking about the excessive sensitivity many have developed to the possibility that they might be triggered, that is, that an errant reference to something that recalls a trauma will cause them to melt into a pool of jelly. Of course, what does or does not trigger you or me can be highly individual--if you were mugged by a group of young men wearing baseball caps, you might feel triggered by baseball caps. Should we thus ban baseball caps?

Triggering bespeaks thin skin. Thin skin bespeaks depression. Depression bespeaks enhanced sensitivity. In short, you judge the value of someone else’s speech, or someone else’s literary work, on the basis of how it affects your mental health. Apparently, all that therapy you have been doing has not thickened your skin. It has made you more depressed.

It does so by making you more sensitive, but especially by giving you the impression that it is normal to be triggered. It also tells you that you will never get over your trauma, until the capitalist patriarchy is overthrown and a new world of justice descends on the planet-- or some such.

Would it not be a crashing irony to discover that all the sensitivity training we routinely foist on people makes them more sensitive, more thin skinned and more depresses?

The inimitable British writer Julie Burchill writes in her latest Substack post that the obsession with trolling is symptomatic of a culture that has given itself over to therapy. But that means, a culture that values feelings and that infantilizes everyone and everything.

Anyway, Burchill is opposed to policing social media. She is opposed to anti-trolling. She feels that we have become a bunch of whiners who have nothing better to do than to advertise our pain and suffering. 

The answer to trolling is not policing social media - but in individuals toughening up. From the lowest reality star to the richest Oscar-winner, if you're not hard don't pursue a career which is all about being appraised by millions. And whatever happened to Sticks & Stones? The rise of feelings is just part of the wholesale infantilisation of Western culture - it starts with weather reporters saying 'Wrap up warm!' and ends with a woman who has been stripping off to get attention since she was a teenager protesting that she's a private person. 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent' Eleanor Roosevelt famously said; these days, she’d be expected to plead with her detractors to BE KIND.

Of course, there are strict limits on free speech. You are not allowed, by the limits of jurisprudence, to libel, slander or defame. You are not allowed to extort, to conspire or to blackmail. Some speech acts are civil torts, some are criminal acts, but saying insulting and stupid things do not count.

Anyway, Burchill believes that the open forum of debate should not be  a free-for-all. And she suggests that trolls who write anonymously should be given a time out, to allow them to come to their senses:

I believe that people should be allowed to say anything about anyone online – except accuse them of criminal acts without proof, or threaten criminal acts against them. I believe also that trolls who do not write under their real names very much degrade the level of public slanging matches and, if they are so keen on being fictional characters, should have their voting rights removed for an allotted period of time in order to teach them that the immeasurable benefit of free speech has solemn responsibilities as well as cheap thrills, and to punish them for being cowards.

At a time when the police are not very much into policing our urban spaces, or into inhibiting California shoplifters or BLM rioters, and where prosecutors in major American cities have refused to prosecute crime, it is rich indeed to set them to policing speech:

I believe that our aim should not be to pursue a policy of ridding cyberspace of trolls – it can never be accomplished, and the police have far more important things to do, such as clear up their woefully low conviction rates of every actual crime from burglary to rape – but to make people immune to them. If strong fences make good neighbours then strong defences make good citizens. By placing the emphasis on making bullies stop bullying rather than encouraging the bullied to toughen up to the point where the bullies give up because they’re no longer getting the response (fear, outrage, sorrow) they want, we are still dependent for our happiness on the unkindness or kindness of strangers. If you’re happy to stay that way, so easily and so illogically hurt - serve you right.

So, the Burchill solution-- toughen up, thicken your skin, ignore the bullies, and perhaps they will come to their senses. Otherwise, beat them senseless. There, that will solve the problem.


Sam L. said...

I have no problem with Internet trolls, as I never see or hear any sign of them. And I don't do "social media", which seems to be mostly antisocial. Of course, I am ensconced
in my secret underground lair.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

I am ambivalent. Ideally one could comment, write, pontificate, and opine in a free manner under one's name - except in our society, we have established the fact that opinions are no longer just one's own bailiwick but can impact anything and everything off line. Many companies (my own included) have had a policy in place for some time that essentially anything said or done anywhere or appears on the InterWeb that the company deems antithetical to itself is cause for discipline and/or termination.

Besides, some of the great works of authors of history - Benjamin Franklin comes to mind - have written under a pseudonym.

The fact that we are far more concerned about monitoring and controlling speech than catching and bringing actual criminals to justice does indeed seem to be a double standard of note.