"Fuck the high road": Jessica Valenti on "don't feed the trolls"

I’ve long advocated that the best way to deal with trolls — though I use this term relatively loosely, I generally mean a slightly broader category of troll than the average internet user who thinks creating sockpuppet accounts to harass and slander individuals is the only thing that actually amounts to trolling (and that it can’t possibly come from people within the movement!) — is to confront them. Take their words and use them against them. Force-feed them with why they’re wrong — even if they won’t accept it, bystanders will.

The only way to change society and push back against the small fringe of vocal misanthropes who manage to amplify their messages artificially, who abuse technology to make their fringe opinions seem far more prolific than they actually are, is to directly challenge their fringe opinions and explain why they’re wrong, hurtful, unworthy of dialog, morally atavistic. And when the messages get too abusive, you stop them from appearing in your well-curated online space in order to limit the amount of damage to passers-by they can do with their “trolling”.

Jessica Valenti apparently agrees.

Don’t feed the trolls: it’s probably the most common refrain in online discussions, especially when dealing with misogynists in feminists conversations. The idea is that the best way to deal with sexists is to starve of them of the attention they’re so clearly desperate for. Besides, we think, why sink to their level?

But the high road is overrated. It requires silence in the face of violent misogyny, and a turn-the-other cheek mentality that society has long demanded of women. A vibrant feminist movement has ensured women don’t take injustices laying down offline—so why would we acquiesce on the Internet?

Though, I do take mild issue with this:

Indeed, one of the questions I’m asked most often by younger feminists is how to emotionally and mentally deal with the incredible amount of hate that gets thrown their way. My advice has usually been not to talk to brick walls—to think of their activist energy as a precious resource and save it. But I’ve never fully taken that advice. Responding to—and making fun of—sexists has always been a part of my feminist work. Not just because it shines a light on misogyny or holds people accountable to their words—but because it’s fun.

It is not always fun to slog through the hatred in order to throw it back in the haters’ faces. You might not realize it, but that does psychological chipping damage too. Over time, you do get worn out. You run out of resources. You have to take more, and longer, breaks to restore your sanity. You have to come up for air more and more often, just to restore your faith in humanity by experiencing some of it that still actually resembles humanity, and remind yourself that most of society doesn’t actually think the way the troglodytic trolls do.

So marshalling and metering your resources is important. And doing other things like starting projects and enjoying time with friends and, hell, even just spending a nice quiet evening at home with a glass of champagne and a hot bath and maybe that audiobook you were looking forward to listening to when you got a chance. Do that. It helps. Trust me.

"Fuck the high road": Jessica Valenti on "don't feed the trolls"

11 thoughts on “"Fuck the high road": Jessica Valenti on "don't feed the trolls"

  1. 1

    Hey, some people have the… the only word I can think of is “valor” – to enjoy the good fight. And good for them. If you have that gift, the ability to enjoy confrontation in a good cause (even if, like physical exertion, it can wear you down over time) then I say use it, to whatever extent you deem wise. I’m personally very bad at confrontation, so I have a lot of admiration for those who happily step up to bat.

  2. 2

    I sometimes itch for a good fight. I other times just want people to accept when I try to walk away, and not follow me out of the bar grabbing at my shoulder and screaming “DON’T WALK AWAY FROM ME.”

    It’s hit or miss.

    I don’t begrudge the people who have the infinite wellspring of stamina with which to go into battle with aplomb every day. But I also don’t begrudge those who have to take breathers. Need all sorts of units on the field, no?

  3. 3

    Oh, yes, on the field and off it. In the culture wars, I am a REMF – I keep an eye on the various fights and lend a word here and there, but I spend most of my time way behind the lines, teaching kids how to reason and hoping that will eventually help.

  4. 4

    I generally mean a slightly broader category of troll than the average internet user who thinks creating sockpuppet accounts to harass and slander individuals is the only thing that actually amounts to trolling

    Recently, I found something that provides a pretty good outline of what I would consider “trolling”: Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement

    I consider the bottom three levels trolling, and the fourth borderline.

    confront them. Take their words and use them against them. Force-feed them with why they’re wrong — even if they won’t accept it, bystanders will.

    Sadly, standing up for facts and not backing down in the face of popular opinion on progressive/Occupy FB groups and trying to deal with trolly tactics has gotten me labelled as a troll. Because I’m not afraid to pop up and call bullshit when I see it, back my arguments up, and demand actual responses.

    It really makes me despair sometimes, because it seems that the more I call out bullshit now, the less people listen. One person tries to be constructive and definitely avoids the poor tactics, and I try to applaud them for that when they’ve posted and I’m otherwise have to deal with total shit, but…I question things, and people’s brains shut down. And I have no idea how to counteract accusations of being a troll as I’m trying to fight trolls.

  5. 5

    I’m conflicted.

    Because I like sport debate as much as the next person.

    But I think the wankers over at that place of slime don’t deserve my time and attention. I certainly don’t bother going over there, anymore than I bother going over to Red State or Little Green Footballs.

    Probably because their “ideas” aren’t “ideas” at all. Fundamentally, they’re just boring little wankers who haven’t (metaphorically) stopped eating Cheetos and moved out of their parents’ basement. When you’re dealing with people who have the emotional maturity of 12-year-olds, it’s hard to work up anything other than apathy. Or an “avoid at all costs” distaste.

    I know one thing — any conference, meeting, convention, social gathering, or conclave of any sort that features someone identified as being from “over there” won’t be seeing my face. And any organization that provides cover for those little cretins — officially, unofficially, or otherwise — won’t be seeing my money.

  6. 6

    I agree completely: the confrontation is less about trying to change the mind or even necessarily behavior of the troll, it’s about engineering a discourse hostile to (harmful) trolling, where it becomes difficult to sustain ongoing harassment, and it’s about possibly convincing some of the lurkers. “Don’t feed the trolls” maybe works for a certain type, but not the type that can and will spew a hateful message a minute for hours on end. That troll is clearly going to troll whether you feed it or not. Trolling as harassment shouldn’t be ignored (though suppressing it by blocking it and curating discussion spaces is dandy).

  7. 7

    That is a quandary sometimes. It’s one to thing to have a healthy debate with someone, it’s entirely another to give any energy towards an individual whose purpose is to irritate the shit out of people.

    Behaving like a child online is their elixir. I don’t want to dignify their remarks, but I often times don’t want to allow them to walk away from some of the regurgitated bullshit they spew.

  8. 8

    Somebody in another comment thread (don’t remember which blog) made the point that the “don’t feed the trolls” rule arose in a completely different environment, Usenet. Killfiles were the most effective form of shithead control and replying to said shithead allowed hir’s droppings to slip through via your reply.

  9. 10

    This assumes the troll disagrees or holds an extreme worldview that needs to be confronted. The truth is, there are nihilistic people who simply pretend to have whatever opinions are necessary to piss off the locals. These are people who will go to a Christian message board and write all sorts of posts about how awesome atheism, Satanism, paganism, Islam, etc. are (they will pick whichever one based on what they think will get the biggest reaction), and then will turn around and post fundamentalist Christian nonsense on an atheist forum.

    These are the same people that “grief” online games “for the lulz.” They have no beliefs or principles. They only care about getting as many people as angry as possible, and if you respond to their misogynist flamebaiting with a long and detailed post about feminism and about how their ideas are wrong, they will have succeeded. They will have done what they came to do in the first place, make people angry and waste their time. They’re not going to actually read you response, and if they do, it’s only so that they can make more incoherent responses to you.

    If by “troll” you mean “vile loser with a loathsome outlook,” then the appropriate response is to do as you suggest. But if you’re dealing with the other kind of troll, then the only appropriate response is to ignore and/or ban them, because they don’t believe what they claim to believe in the first place.

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