What Wit Wins

By shouting loudly enough, we (those who complain) seem to have successfully made internet trolls and the harassment they can deliver one of those topics that can’t be ignored. This is a good thing, in that it challenges some of the assumptions that allow the trolls to run wild.

It is also a bad thing, in that people who don’t have to deal with this kind of harassment suddenly discover that it’s a Topic!™ and must be expounded upon. These are people who haven’t even bothered to get the basics down (or are willing to obscure them to make their point), as with Brendan O’Neill, who ignores the fact that many of the cases he wants ignored involve threats.

Sometimes it’s a mixed thing, as someone grapples with the topic in public rather than sorting it all out before speaking. This too has it’s good points, with getting feedback and keeping the issue visible. It also has drawbacks, as things are said by people used to being authoritative that are incorrect or incomplete.

As an example, see Jacques Rousseau’s recent opinion piece in the Daily Maverick. It’s got the bad, in that it repeats, “Don’t feed the trolls”, without recognition that trolling is more than online hijinx. It’s got the good, where it recognizes that the cost of disengaging to avoid trolls is high. It’s also got the almost there, as in this quote.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (as you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

Rousseau has some of the functions of mockery correct. It does change the apparent social order. It does elevate the self-regard of the mocker. Mockery alone doesn’t usually change minds (though, done well, it can very effectively skewer a point composed of little more than hot air, and all that hissing is difficult for onlookers to miss).

Baby sticking out tongue.
“Tongue” by Joe Shlabotnik. Some rights reserved.

What he misses is that it matters where this all starts, the state of affairs before the mockery begins. It is a very different thing to be sitting in a comfortable position when a random, bizarre troll shows up than it is to be the recipient of an ongoing barrage of trolling. It is a very different thing to be trolled while comfortably maintaining the status quo than it is to be trolled while fighting to shake up the balance of power.

If you are comfortably propped up by all of society’s means of maintaining power, a troll means very little, even a persistent and threatening one. That trollish sense of entitlement, that idea that the troll is justified in disrupting anything you want to do, is laughable. At any time, you can ask and receive all the help you want dealing with it.

In that situation, mocking a troll may well be gratuitous. Someone who exercises public social power where they have all the institutional power is…someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the technical term is “git”.

It’s not quite the same thing when someone without those resources does it. Other people aren’t going to step up for you to tell the troll it has no claim on your time or attention. There’s a good chance that some of them will use trolling as an opportunity to interject the idea that you’ve brought all this on yourself by being “disruptive”. In other words, you’re very much on your own at the sharp end of the sword.

Mockery is very useful here. Does it raise up the person who uses it? Oh, yes. Those who are watching too. And there is little that’s more heartening when you’ve been consistently worn down by fighting your own battles. This isn’t using mockery to feel superior, but simply to regain your sense of standing equal to the rest of humanity. This is fighting the degradation that this kind of harassment can bring. It’s getting a little of your own back from the trolls.

Also, that mockery is a nice little piece of social engineering. It’s a signal, particularly if executed well, that one’s status is not nearly so low as everyone has been led to believe. After all, we associate wit with class, even though we probably shouldn’t. Mental agility and social intelligence don’t limit themselves that way. Still, we make the association, and it can be all the more useful for being unreasoned.

That means it’s sometimes possible to use trolls and mockery to give you the standing to demand change that you would be denied if everyone had stayed polite. It is like the tai chi of the culture wars: Impossible to achieve unless your opponent make a non-rational attack against you, it uses their non-rationality against them to better your position. Again, it is getting back what the trolls would take from you. And I fail to see the problem with that in either case.

This is what we miss when we consider trolling to be a single phenomenon, isolated from the environment in which it takes place. We miss that the same behavior does different things depending on who does it and to whom it is done. It simplifies the problem to the point of introducing misunderstandings.

I love that we’re talking about the phenomenon of trolling. I appreciate that more people like Rousseau are getting into the functional analysis of interactions with trolls. Everyone who does gets us one step further to understanding how trolling functions in all our discourses, including the political. We’re just not quite there yet.

What Wit Wins

5 thoughts on “What Wit Wins

  1. 4

    I think that mockery is a perfectly acceptable rhetorical tool. In fact, I believe that both mockery and ridicule are effective tools in the fight for social justice and equality. Pointing and laughing will certainly be more effective than slinging invectives.

  2. F

    It is also natural and correct to respond to a troll’s mockery with a better mockery of their incorrect, deceitful, and/or bigoted mockery. If you do it well, it is also more concise and delivers the return message with more clarity than doing a dry, point-by-point response every time.

    When some flat-Earther shows up deriding you for “believing” the world is spherical, is it really effective and worth the effort to pull out all the centuries of scientific evidence and spoon-feed it to someone who isn’t even going to consider it anyway? I think it is better to respond with witty mockery, or to just call the person an idiot. (YMMV – I don’t personally hold to the thinking that every use of words such as idiot are abusive or elitist, certainly not when used against those who certainly operate within the realms the word idiot describes.)

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