I (haphazardly) follow the work of outspoken and feminist writer Lindy West. West recently published a thought-provoking piece about ‘trolling’ and its effect on her. West sums up her experience thusly:
“I’m a writer and a woman and a feminist, and I write about big, fat, bitchy things that make people uncomfortable. And because I choose to do that as a career, I’m told, a constant barrage of abuse is just part of my job. Shrug. Nothing we can do. I’m asking for it, apparently.”
The focus of the article is West’s decision to ignore the standard advice of ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and speak out about the pain caused to her by a particularly cruel act of trolling. But beyond this, West uses the article as an opportunity to question the general acceptance that trolling is a fact of life and that the best way to deal with it is to ignore it.
I find her thoughts very compelling, and I have often wondered why it is that we have convinced ourselves that there is no other course of action than passive acceptance of this reality of extreme amounts of abuse, antisocial behavior, and disregard for the humanity of others from whom we differ— often in the tiniest of ways. Furthermore, it is often those who are most marginalized: minorities, women, those speaking out against oppression, those with non-idealized bodies etc. who are most visciously trolled. Therefore it is they who must bear the most weight of abuse both online and off. This seems unfair, and also strange that we tolerate a level of abuse online (towards ourselves and others) that we likely would not tolerate quite so passively when confronted face to face with it.
Additionally, trolling is an aggressive silencing tactic. In a forum that offers great potential for helping marginalized voices speak and be heard, should we not do more to protect this space from such attacks? Shouldn’t companies who manage these online spaces be doing more to make these spaces hospitable, and if they are not should we not demand this?
“I feel the pull all the time: I should change careers; I should shut down my social media; maybe I can get a job in print somewhere; it’s just too exhausting. I hear the same refrains from my colleagues. Sure, we’ve all built up significant armour at this point, but, you know, armour is heavy. Internet trolling might seem like an issue that only affects a certain subset of people, but that’s only true if you believe that living in a world devoid of diverse voices – public discourse shaped primarily by white, heterosexual, able-bodied men – wouldn’t profoundly affect your life.”
West points out that while certain acts of cruelty and cruel speech can’t necessarily be made illegal, “But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate it without dissent.” West further challenges the idea that ignoring the trolls actually helps:
“Over and over, those of us who work on the internet are told, “Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t talk back. It’s what they want.” But is that true? Does ignoring trolls actually stop trolling? Can somebody show me concrete numbers on that? Anecdotally, I’ve ignored far more trolls than I’ve “fed”, and my inbox hasn’t become any quieter. When I speak my mind and receive a howling hurricane of abuse in return, it doesn’t feel like a plea for my attention – it feels like a demand for my silence.
And some trolls are explicit about it. “If you can’t handle it, get off the internet.” That’s a persistent refrain my colleagues and I hear when we confront our harassers. But why? Why don’t YOU get off the internet? Why should I have to rearrange my life – and change careers, essentially – because you wet your pants every time a woman talks?”
West eventually confronts one of her trolls and has conversations with him. Most terrifying of all, she discovers that he’s a relatively normal, albeit pathetic person who didn’t really consider himself to have strong political (or other beliefs) over which he disagreed with West. Rather “He said that, at the time, he felt fat, unloved, “passionless” and purposeless. For some reason, he found it “easy” to take that out on women online.”
I think West’s story not only powerfully questions the accepted status-quo for online behavior and expectations of that behavior, but it also reveals a profound and deep misogyny in our culture . . . where this relatively typical man feels that it is ok to satisfy a compulsion to abuse women merely as a reaction to his own personal misfortunes and feelings of general inadequacy. It seems to indicate that this is a very common standard. Similar to many of the men in the television show The Fall which I wrote about earlier, these ‘normal’ and ‘good’ men still persist in mistreating women because underneath everything it seem that they just don’t respect them as equal and consider it somewhat acceptable to cause them pain— the only difference between these men is the amount of abuse they believe is acceptable to enact upon those who are female.
West sums up her encounter:
“I asked why. What made women easy targets? Why was it so satisfying to hurt us? Why didn’t he automatically see us as human beings? For all his self-reflection, that’s the one thing he never managed to articulate – how anger at one woman translated into hatred of women in general. Why, when men hate themselves, it’s women who take the beatings.”
It’s only when confronted with West’s story of pain (which she published in spite of the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ norm), when confronted with the fallout of his abuse, does the troll experience an epiphany about the awful nature of his behavior and begin changing his ways. In other words, in order for the man to become a better person he must first harm a woman and then witness her pain. That’s pretty messed up, and an insane (yet rather standard) method for achieving person growth.
Perhaps we can learn from West’s story that sometimes confronting trolls with the realities of their abusive behavior can bring about change and cease their abusive behavior. I just wish that the troll wouldn’t hurt women in the first place.