DeFrates column: Let them troll on; freedom of speech is real
Take a quick walk over memory bridge with me to that innocent time when we were just becoming acquainted with the Internet. We were still dating it casually, not yet codependent.
Specifically, think back to the first time you naively decided to scroll down to the bottom of the page of your favorite online content, before you knew any better. You had just watched that awesome music video/read that really insightful political commentary/appreciated that honest essay about parenthood. Whatever. Then you did it.
You decided to read the comments.
You skimmed through some harmless responses. There were a few you really agreed with, a few you didn’t, and then you read something entirely different, something almost incomprehensibly ignorant and offensive. You stopped to re-read it, and re-read it again. Maybe you shared it with a friend or spouse, and asked wonderingly, “Who even says things like that? Something must be done!” You had met your first troll.
Then maybe you responded in one of three ways:
Response #1: Love and Logic
“Oh my goodness! That mean person must not understand what the original author/performer/politician is saying/trying to do. Let me explain it to them in a more rational or simpler way, so that they don’t keep making these hurtful assumptions.” You wrote a clear, thoughtful, but strongly worded, response to help move the nasty commenter into a more right-minded place of mutual understanding. And were promptly called several unspeakably naughty names.
Response #2: Snark-in-Kind
“What a jerk! I can take him/her down a peg or two!” You came up with the ultimate cut-down. You really gave it to him/her! Zinger! Some cream for that burn? Mic drop. Oh wait. Five hours and a deep wallow of bitterness later …
Response #3: Righteous Judgment
“Someone’s feelings could be hurt!” You immediately wrote to the administrator of the site, requiring them to remove such repulsive content right now.
Maybe, like me, you have tried all three of these at some point. Each time, only realizing afterward that the empty, helpless feeling inside meant that you had just served up a little piece of your humanity: a crispy little delicious strip of negative attention.
We have all fed the trolls at some point.
Yes, they exist. We know that now. They live. They breathe. They type and lurk. They thrive on our loathing.
And today I wanted to say something to all the miserable, lonely people who have ever written something terrible from behind the omnipotent cloak of anonymity: troll on, you emotionally maladjusted souls. Troll on.
For so many reasons, troll on.
We had it coming, anyway. We opened the Pandora’s box of impulse control. We hobbled the frontal lobe. We gave the devil a workshop and an audience as soon as some genius created this enormous, unregulated, faceless and instantly gratifying playground we call the Internet. Is anyone actually surprised?
But it is the depth of our horror at the outcome that encourages me so much.
The fact that we really do live in a country where someone can publicly write the kind of ignorant, offensive ideas that shock us means, quite simply, that freedom of speech is real. And The First Amendment is even more important when you are deeply offended by the things a person says because that means that it’s actually working.
We should never hope to live in a world where we are not offended by something on a near-daily basis.
Besides, the Internet allows for total self-regulation, which I fully suggest. If you do not want to populate your mind with the rottenness of a few others, then don’t look for it. If you find it, ignore it, move one, instead of responding in kind. Or better yet, try living the rest of that day in direct contradiction to the nastiness of a few. None of that requires any form of external censorship.
There are some limitations, however. In the real world, people cannot protest on private property, stalk someone or incite violence, and online comments to this effect can and should be blocked or removed.
But everything else is fair game, including the nasty little personal attacks on authors, performers and politicians. Ad hominem fallacies are not new, and neither is the need to cut others down in order to feel more vital. Sticks and stones and whatnot. Anyone who decides to publicly display his or her ideas must accept this.
What we are witnessing is only the bioindicator of a healthy intellectual ecosystem.
Finally, to anyone who has sincerely thrown themselves on a troll-grenade for the benefit of others, thank you. Those of us who write and revise, earnestly hoping to share a brief moment in time with our readers, appreciate the effort. But even negative attention is attention.
So please, don’t feed the trolls.
Lindsay DeFrates lives in Carbondale and writes, rafts and raises boys.
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