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As I’ve discussed before, the atheist and skeptical communities have a problem with sexism. How big of a problem, however, depends on who you ask. If you ask me, or Rebecca Watson, or Greta Christina, or PZ Myers, the answer is going to be something along the lines of “pretty substantial.” If you ask others, however – perhaps your run of the mill fan of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or even an occasional attendee of skeptical conferences – you might very well get another answer. Of course, some claim that the sexism problem is entirely a myth manufactured by femi-nazi bullies intent on punishing and ostracizing everyone who does not toe a particular ideological line. But we talked about those folks last time. Today, we’re going to talk about one other common response to this question: “it’s mostly just trolls.”

This is a common response not merely from people within the skeptical and atheist movements, but from people in all sorts of communities in response to all sorts of problems – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and even classism. Bullies are bullies, so the logic goes – and kids these days (and they often are imagined as adolescents, teenagers, or young adults, it seems to me) get on the internet and just start picking fights for the fun of it. Indeed, trolls are often perceived as not even believing what they are saying – they are causing discord and hurt feelings for the sheer thrill of it. Thus even for adults, there is something about arguing online that strips people of all sincerity and makes them less receptive to other ideas and less capable of realizing they are attacking actual human people. Empathy be hard on the internets, you know.

Now, I do not want to suggest that there is nothing to these points. Psychologists and social scientists have been looking into this and there does indeed seem to be something about the internet which brings out our most ugly selves. But when such research is cited as a way to try to minimize a culture of hatred towards women or minorities, I have a real problem with this. For several reasons.

Remember: trolls are people, too.

Remember: trolls are people, too.

First, trolls are people. They come from somewhere. Indeed, as our own Jan DeVry has illustrated, sometimes we even know these people in real life. So even if the internet creates a certain dynamic, they are still real people with real thoughts. So when a feminist youtube video gets flooded with rape threats, or a blog post about racism is overwhelmed by white people complaining about all the babies that poor black women have, each of those commenters represents a discrete human being (with legs and arms and hands and everything!) sitting at their computer typing those words. Given the amount of trolling certain posts or videos on the internet accumulate, that is a hell of a lot of people thinking those awful things. Even given the capacity of the internet to make us stupid and combative, that is still a whole lot of people being stupid and combative by being overtly sexist, racist, and homophobic. Upon realizing this, I think the only appropriate response is something along the lines of yikes. Or holy fucking shit. Or something like that.

Because here’s the thing: even if the internet can magically turn people into assholes, how they choose to become assholes is quite important, for it tells us something about the larger society that the trolls are a part of. Even if the alienated teenager typing away in his basement about sluts and femi-nazis is not “really” misogynistic (and I am pretty damn skeptical that this is possible) the fact that he has gravitated towards misogynistic language as a major form of trolling is very telling, no? After all, if a person wants to troll, there could be many different ways in which they could attack and belittle other people. And yet, attacking women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals seem to be very popular options. Goodness, I wonder why that is! It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with actual, widespread attitudes of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, could it? I mean attitudes that exist off of the internet – that is, in the realm where all those people, unrecognized as trolls, operate as fully embodied beings.

And it is precisely because those attitudes are so pervasive and widespread that I do not believe that trolls arbitrarily choose from the various types of awful they see around them without any pre-existing tendencies; trolling, it seems to me, reflects attitudes you already hold to some degree or another before you get on the internet. To say that what a troll says while online does not reflect his or her inner, off-internet self makes about as much sense as saying Mel Gibson is not really anti-Semitic; it was just the booze talking!, right? Because I don’t know about you, but when I get really wasted I also start saying all sorts of horrible shit that I never express any agreement with nor experience any approval of when sober. Happens all the time.

And yet, all of these claims are heavily implied, if not overtly stated (because then it sounds kind of obviously not true) when people claim that problems of hatred in a community can be written off as “just a bunch of trolls.” Yet it is a very common thing to say, and it is common for good reason; for the argument that it is merely trolls is a way for us to hide from how bad things actually are. The outward civilities of our culture may make it hard for many of us to believe – especially privileged people, who are not as often exposed to straightforward expressions of prejudice – but our society really is this sexist, and racist, and homophobic, and transphobic, and classist. The trolls reflect back at us our worst qualities stripped of any colorblind or politically correct coating; and in our attempt to play it down, we reveal our inability to face it directly. So the next time you hear someone shrug over something hurtful or hateful with the throwaway comment, “eh, it’s just trolls,” perhaps try politely suggesting to them that “in trollibus, veritas.”