Tag Archives: Trolls

Hiding in the Bushes

hashtagsFrom a communications point of view, concealing one’s identity is usually a breach of faith.  But now anonymous comments are consumed as a form of entertainment, as if the collective id of a society has broken free of its constraints.

Like many children in the 50s, I thought it was a great stunt to sneak up on a neighbor’s house, ring the doorbell, and then go hide in the nearby bushes.  Serious crime it wasn’t.  But it did inadvertently remind my younger self of the not-very-useful-lesson that sometimes we don’t have to take ownership of our actions.

It’s never good when we can abuse the trust of others without paying a price.  In our times we find the adult equivalent of hiding in the bushes every time we scan internet sites for the often dubious comments that follow.  Many regretfully permit anonymous comments: Slate.com, and the Washingtonpost.com, to name two.  To their credit, others such as Huffingtonpost.com and Facebook do not.  We invite trouble when a person is free to weigh in on almost any topic without claiming their own name as the marker of a basic social responsibility.  Hashtags representing various avatars allow us to escape the moral consequences of owning our comments, depriving the human recipients of our criticism the right to know who we are.  Is it any wonder that many reactions to online stories are ill-considered, inflated and mean-spirited?  Some swirl in virtual cesspools of rhetorical maliciousness.

Character assassination by proxy is never pretty, and can’t help but make us a coarser culture.

From a communications point of view, concealing one’s own identity used to be considered a fundamental breach of faith. This is the dark stuff that arises from whisper campaigns, witch-hunts, and those awful unattributed pamphlets alleging communist treason that ruined the careers of so many artists in the 40s and 50s. Character assassination by proxy is never pretty, and can’t help but make us a coarser culture.

I’ve written before about these writers who exist on the wrong side of the borders of civil discourse, most recently just after the bomb attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The complaints are still valid:

Typical are the monikers used by individuals who responded to a Slate.com story about the recent Boston bomb attacks. Slate was careful and responsible in its reporting. But as with most news sites, the individuals who signed on to make comments concealed their identities. Readers heard from “Celtic,” “ICU,” “ddool,” “roblimo,” “Dexterpoint,” “Lexm4,” and others. “Celtic,” for example, noted that the suspects were “Muslims,” expressing mock surprise that any of them would produce “terrorist actions.” “Dexterpoint” decried “lefties” who he imagined to be anxious to confirm that the terrorists were not Muslims.

At its worst, this is the territory of the unqualified conclusion and the fantasized conspiracy: often a stream-of-consciousness unburdening of personal demons unchecked by the kind of self-monitoring individuals usually apply in the presence of others. Turned outward, this reactive rhetoric is often a jumble of histrionics from persons who seem to want a stage and an audience, but lack the mettle to do more than offer taunts from behind the curtain.

Aristotle observed that an individual’s character is perhaps their most valuable asset. He subscribed to the conventional view that you reach others best when you offer an olive branch and the assurance of your good name. Instead, the oppositional language of denigration fills a simpler expressive need. What was once the art of public comment on national and community issues now seems more like an unintended registry of disempowerment. It’s easy to account for the attractions of screeds posted with abandon and without interest in preserving even the remnants of a civil self. But if there are pleasures in delivering anonymous and wounding responses, they make a mockery of the familiar cant that the “internet wants to be free.”

The functions of criticism and accusation come with the duty to be fully present. To engage in these forms without disclosing our identity amounts to a kind of moral crime.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

Sometimes the Perfect Response is No Response

The psychological rewards of angry responses are overrated.  Even a brilliant retort is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels.

Photo: Harry Truman, the Library of Congress
Photo: Harry Truman, Library of Congress

For many of us the urge to enter the fray to correct or admonish others is a constant.  It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes.  It’s a self-fulfilling process.  Others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas or acts; the least we can do is return the favor.

Aristotle was one of the first to systematically describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged.  He equated the ability to make counter-arguments as just another form of personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he essentially noted that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed around. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has perhaps become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that seem to need an equally aggressive return.

The digital world easily brings our indignation to the fore.  Many websites welcome comments, the majority of which are misguidedly protected with anonymity.  And it isn’t just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude.  The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays and narratives seem to wilt in their absence.  What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments?  To make matters worse, some of us actually get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

There are many circumstances when the urge to respond is worth suppressing.  Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding or hurtful, or simply the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down.

The psychological rewards are also overrated.  Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to correct them. But they are probably determined to ignore you.

And there are costs to becoming shrill. Harry Truman famously sensed this.  The former President had a hot temper.  Even before he was elected he had more than his share of critics.  But his approach to responding to criticism made a lot of sense.  In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation.  But he usually didn’t mail them.  The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman the permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words can have at least two advantages.  The first is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway.  We tend to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.”  The second advantage is that rapid responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. In addition, fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening.

Time gives us a better perspective.  It allows us to better anticipate how our responses will be judged.  Most importantly, it helps us break the cycle where one wounding response is simply piled on to another.

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