“It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity.” -Lindy West

trolls

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.

I apologize.

Almost two years have passed since that email, but Lindy recently talked to him on the phone for a segment on This American Life. Here’s some of what Lindy said about their conversation:

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.

troll-face
Not a person.

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.


10 thoughts on ““It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity.” -Lindy West

  1. someone wrote that by labeling offenders/ wrongdoers criminals, we are making it easy to not identify with them as human persons. We see them as less than us and fit for punishment.

  2. Obviously, the ongoing dehumanizing of women cannot be denied. I think, though, that you’ve touched on an issue that reaches well beyond male-female relationships to all other human interaction–whether that be male/female, religious/non-religious, Democrat/Republican, native/foreign. We have a tendency to conceptualize faceless individuals, who then act as stand-ins for all other people who even remotely fall into whatever category we’re considering. I had a conversation the other night with a friend who suggested creating an app that would invite people in conflict in whichever online social medium to “step aside” for FaceTime or a mini-Hangout, which would allow the faces to become part of the picture again. It’s a lot easier to lash out at the unknown than at the experienced–which is yet another reason why I feel like the online society can create problems if engaged unthinkingly…

    1. Oh completely! I tried to convey this, but I did linger on the sexism side of it quite a bit so thanks for bringing me back around to my point.

      That is a really interesting idea for an app. That’s exactly the kind of solution that I think could make a difference. It immediately reminded me of a program I heard about that is trying to ease Israeli/Palestinian relations. It’s called PCFF. What they do is set up phone calls between people on either side that have lost family members because of the conflict so they can connect and empathize.

      Of course, the most daunting problem for solutions like these is getting people to use them. I’d definitely use such an app and, if it was popular enough, I can imagine it being integrated into every major service we use from Facebook to YouTube and beyond.

  3. Thanks for this post. I enjoyed your article then followed the links. Still thinking. Sometimes, I’m astonished at my hardcover book – – ignorance.

  4. It baffles me how someone can attack someone else. Mindless. It also makes me wonder how these people treat animals. Whatever the ratio might actually be, there are many, many “humans” who aren’t really human.

    It’s good, though, to see some personal recognition of what this idiot was doing.

  5. Empathy. It’s shocking how little of it I have at times, especially if I’m feeling hurt and misunderstood, but is it an excuse to be a dick to others? A thousand times NO. And therein lies the rub. Who does this kind of thing if they’re at least halfway happy with themselves and their lives? Thank you for showing how complex and how very… well, human this situation can often be.

    1. Indeed. It is easy to say it, but hard to live it. I fail and succeed in almost equal measure probably. The effort to empathize is making a difference for me though. As you said, human behavior comes in degrees and varies by moment. If we all try a little more, I think we’ll see a huge improvement.

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