Opinion

It's time to kill the word 'troll'

This pejorative of the internet era is as unhelpful as it is intellectually lazy

At the risk of being accused of trolling, I'd like to suggest that everyone who spends their days on the digital playground of social media should henceforth cease invoking the facile, vacuous, imprecise, insipid term "trolling."

For the handful of readers who may not be familiar with this ubiquitous bit of internet slang, allow me to explain. A "troll" is someone who makes inflammatory, outrageous, and ostensibly insincere statements in order to draw attention to himself by provoking an emotional reaction in readers.

The problem with the term "troll" is (at least) three-fold:

First, the internet is a human menagerie, a virtual street fair of almost boundless extent that makes Mardi Gras look like a buttoned-up Upper East Side cocktail party. Every single minute, thousands of people are writing things that might be considered inflammatory and outrageous to thousands of other people. Are they all trolls? Everyone online wants to be noticed, have a say, start an argument, be recognized as clever. Do we really need a term designed to single out for opprobrium people who engage in behavior that is contextually normal and expected? An internet without trolling wouldn't be the internet — just as Dave Weigel's Twitter feed wouldn't be nearly as witty and fun without the shameless, snarky, often outrageous provocation.

Second, trolling is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Last week I wrote a column arguing that liberals should cheer the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. I wanted it to be counterintuitive and hopefully thought-provoking. Did that make it trolling? Some liberals certainly found it inflammatory, in the sense that it inspired a highly emotional reaction. So I must have been trolling. Except that other liberals (and some conservatives) responded much more equably to what I wrote. They certainly wouldn't have called me a troll. Which readers were right? I submit that it is impossible to say. Which means that "trolling" is useless as a term of evaluation. (Much more so, for example, than the terms "beautiful" and "ugly," about which there is comparatively far more social and cultural consensus.)

Which brings us to the third and most damning indictment of the term: The insinuation that the "troll" is insincere in her act of provocation — or that the act of provocation is motivated entirely by the desire for attention. This is something that can almost never be demonstrated, and since it directs attention away from the provocation itself while impugning the inevitably concealed motives of the provocateur, it must invariably amount to an ad hominem attack. Accusing someone of trolling is more like calling him an a--hole than responding cleverly and insightfully to what he has to say.

And what's so bad about provocation anyway? It certainly wasn't invented in 1992 (the year, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when "trolling" was first invoked in its current meaning).

Machiavelli was being pretty inflammatory when he wrote, "If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared."

Was Niccolò trolling?

How about Nietzsche when he pronounced that "God is dead," called on his readers to follow him in exploring regions "beyond good and evil," gleefully declared himself the Antichrist, unconditionally denounced human equality and democracy, claimed that "a great war hallows any cause," and praised the "blond beast" who "might come away from a revolting succession of murder, arson, rape, [and] torture with a sense of exhilaration and emotional equilibrium, as if it were nothing but a student prank"?

If Nietzsche's provocations seem a little baroquely Prussian, how about those of his greatest American successor, H.L. Mencken, who described democracy as "a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance" and suggested that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public"?

Sounds like Class-A trolling to me.

Did Mencken believe these things? Or did he just write them to get attention? I have no idea, and neither do you.

What about Andrea Dworkin's sarcastic quip about how "men know everything — all of them — all the time — no matter how stupid or inexperienced or arrogant or ignorant they are"?

That one has me feeling more than a little inflamed.

Or Malcolm X's arguably outrageous aphorism: "You show me a capitalist, and I'll show you a bloodsucker."

Oh, what a tweet that would have made!

Then there's Ayn Rand's characteristically anti-Christian call to fight the "idea that charity is a moral duty." That sounds like something a troll on Paul Ryan's payroll might accidentally post on the congressman's Facebook page.

My point is simply this: At its most basic level, trolling is what everyone is doing online every hour of every day, and what many others had done long before the internet era. And at its best, trolling is coterminous with thinking itself — which often involves and requires provocation as a goad to move the mind out of its well-worn grooves and easy pieties.

So please, let's retire the term.

Okay, that's enough trolling for today.

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