To troll or not to troll? That is the question. First off, a caveat. While it has multiple definitions, for clarity, I adopt the Google Dictionary definition of Trolling: “To make a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.”
Trolling is controversial. In 2017, sensitivity is regarded as a natural virtue. Those who seek to upset the equilibrium of discourse are increasingly regarded as evil or Trump voters.
And increasingly, the big institutions are fighting to purge the web of trolls. Twitter has just announced such a crackdown. It will offer users opportunities to control what they see, and make complaints more efficiently. On paper, this might seem like a good thing. After all, some trolls are deeply unpleasant misogynists or racists, etc. But in reality, the subjective nature of trolling raises serious concerns here. The more censorship Twitter offers, the more temptation colleges, school, and business administrators will have to embrace censorship of all trolls rather than simply the worse trolls. And that would be bad for society. Because trolling can be positive.
Don’t get me wrong. Insulting individuals simply for their race, religion, sex, sexual preferences, etc. is rude and unbecoming of a good citizen. I would never support banning this speech under hate-speech laws, etc. (here’s why), but it lacks my sympathy.
That said, where trolling is tempered as a response to prima-facie idiotic comments or acts, it serves three useful purposes.
For a start, trolling offers effective retaliatory speech against stupid speech. My definition of stupid is speech offered as an end in and of itself rather than as an offering of debate. Those, for example, who prevent debate because they personally disregard the arguments of those who wish to challenge them (the safe-space crowd, etc.). My rationale: those who oppose free speech deserve our fundamental unseriousness. Here, trolling renders judgment against self-righteous authoritarian impulses.
Second, trolling helps us to draw out emotional irrationality. Take Vanity Fair’s film critic, Richard Lawson. Earlier on Tuesday, Lawson tweeted that the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary will lead to higher child suicide rates. It was a loopy comment. But more than that, Lawson’s tweet was a veil of commentary hiding basic mouth frothing. Lawson, to borrow Alan Partridge’s terminology, was tweeting like a mentalist. In response, I quote-tweeted Lawson with “Welcome to the left’s AlexJonesville.” Lawson later deleted his tweet.
Result: Trolling Lawson’s nuttiness, we, the tempered trolls, forced Lawson to look in the mirror. By trolling those too emotional to be serious about serious issues, trolling offers an unseriousness-of-response antidote. Don’t get me wrong. I welcome debates from those who disagree with me. But emotional idiocy is not debate.
Third, tempered trolling is an amusing and cathartic venture. When individuals are too serious in their self-consideration of unique majesty, they become tedious. And that tediousness is annoying. Trolling gives us a strategy for venting. It makes us feel better without replicating a trollee’s hyperventilation.
Ultimately, disdain can sometimes be the ally to morality rather than an enemy. This is especially true in areas of political commentary. Of course, where at all possible we should seek respectful and passionate debate with one another. But unchecked sensitivity is dangerous because idiotic emotion is a poor servant of civil society.