Ah, the internet troll. The lowest life form in the internet gene pool. At best, they taunt, tease, lie, and generally agitate. At worst, they stalk, steal, threaten, and harass until their targets run away in a mixture of fear and anxiety. The internet is a big place and if you want to get around, you’re going to have to cross a few bridges. Unless you step so lightly that you don’t make a sound, you’re going to have to deal with the village of trolls lurking under every pass.
Common wisdom says that you are not to feed the trolls. Sure, they’ll lunge over the side of the bridge and batter you, but just keep pressing forward. Don’t pay attention to the insults and hate they are throwing at you, don’t defend yourself, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But the farther you go into the land of broadband, the more bridges you have to cross. If you find yourself covered in bruises every time you take a journey, you’re going to stop travelling at some point.
Walking over a bridge shouldn’t require full body armor, no matter the weight of your gait. Expressing a thought or opinion is not hate bait. Defending yourself and watching out for the most dangerous of trolls does not mean that you have welcomed abuse.
So what’s a person to do?
Well, if you’re Lindy West, you write an article about why silence doesn’t silence trolls and call out the one that has hurt you the worst. Just what did this particular troll do? He created a Twitter account using the name and photo of West’s recently deceased father and then used it to belittle and insult her. You’ll notice I said he. That isn’t just an educated guess. Lindy heard from the guy who created the account in an email the day after she wrote the article. Here’s is some of what he said:
It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever.
I’m done being a troll.
We talked for two-and-a-half hours. He was shockingly self-aware.
He hated me because, to put it simply, I don’t hate myself. Hearing him explain his choices in his own words, in his own voice, was heartbreaking and fascinating. 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 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.
The podcast episode touches on how women receive the vast majority of online hate. In the second segment of the episode, they discuss the show’s own experience with the sexism of the criticism they receive from listeners. If you’re paying attention it isn’t hard to see the main problem here. Trolls dehumanize their targets and their victims dehumanize them in return.
We see this cycle everywhere. It is the eternal us versus them. It pits whoever the ‘us’ is against the monolithic, unknowable, unconsidered ‘other’. Our screens can be tools of connection, but they can also be barriers. It is sometimes hard to see the humanity without actually seeing the human.
Women have been dehumanized since the dawn of society, it’s internalized. It makes us easy targets. People saying and doing despicable things on the internet go for easy targets, but they are still people. Trolls don’t look like cartoons. They aren’t trolls at all. When we ignore the fact that they are real people, we are dismissing the weight of their actions. You can’t blame a troll for being an unforgivable grump anymore than you can blame a dog for peeing on a fire hydrant; it’s what they do. But we can and should hold people accountable for their online actions.
People still say horrible things to Lindy West, but she views those people differently now. I think that’s the key. We have to see each other as we are, not as inhuman receptacles for our preconceived notions.