22 August 2016

Trolls guard a bridge

The August 29 issue of Time has a cover story about internet trolls. Joel Stein identifies trolling with the "alt-right," which he defines as "an Internet-grown reactionary movement that works for men's rights and against immigration." After Donald Trump hired someone from Breitbart News to take over his campaign, I saw Breitbart described as "alt-right." In the context, "alt-right" seemed like a euphemism for just plain bigotry, and Stein argues that the alt-right "may have used the computer from Weird Science to fabricate Donald Trump." He traces the alt-right's roots to the infamous Gamergate controversy, which Stein says was fueled, if not by misogyny, then by anti-anti-misogyny, if not simply a rejection of anyone without a thick skin. He notes that ball-busting was a way of life in the circles where the alt-right was born before people started criticizing its misogyny and other bigotries. With that, presumably, comes a contempt for people who can't take it, and outright hostility toward those who won't take it. If they insist that ball-busting comes with the territory, or that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat, Stein claims that they're actually "arguing against self-expression, something antithetical to the original values of the Internet." The question really is where self-expression ends and trolling begins. Stein's implication is that people who argue that "if you can't handle opprobrium, you should just turn off your computer" are people who dish it out but can't take it, who don't want to be called out for their comments while reserving the right to comment on everyone else. The more specific implication is that these people are happy "viciously making fun of each other," but that it isn't fun anymore when they get called names like "racist," "sexist," "homophobe" or just plain "bigot." That may be because, as one self-styled troll hunter says, trolls don't really hate people, but "love the game of hating people." If so, what they really resent is when people don't recognize (or refuse to) that it's all just a game. To some extent, trolling may be a backlash against the way the stakes of everything have been raised in our more sensitive culture, so that lives seem to be at stake not just in politics (already a dubious notion) but in everyday discourse. As Stein notes, many trolls are in it for the "lulz," and you can recognize in trolling the same "everything is a joke" mentality I used to hear expressed when I listened to Howard Stern on free radio. In a strange way, that attitude is an unconscious defense of an old-fashioned kind of liberalism that was based on the idea that nothing in public life really was (or should have been) a life-or-death matter -- especially politics. But when identity becomes ideology, and when many people do feel that their lives are at stake in each election, and demand an ever larger "safe space" at the alleged cost of others' liberty, trolling -- or the perception of trolling -- becomes inevitable when others reject those ideas, and with them the idea that they're somehow responsible for your happiness or your sense of "safety," much less your life.

The big problem I had with Stein's article was the way he takes for granted that as a straight white male, his "vulnerabilities [to trolling are] less obvious." How he can study trolling as a phenomenon of the mostly white alt-right and not see it as an expression of a pretty obvious vulnerability is a mystery to me. To some extent trolling may be a "keep out of our man-cave" tactic in defense of ballbusters' rights, but it's also a defense mechanism, not solely against the intrusion of Others with unpredictable sensitivities and different rules of conduct into their realm, but more obviously against the argument that they are evil -- that their culture and even their attitude are to blame for inequality and suffering in the world. Donald Trump would not even come close to winning the upcoming election were he not boosted by people who no longer want to be told that they're wrong, that they must change while no one else has to. Stein closes his piece by writing that "in the information age, sound is as destructive as fury," but thinking so may blind him to the silent fury of millions who plan to do their trolling at the polls.

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