Friday, 27 April 2012


I feel like I'm in my internet dotage.  When I started out online, reading blogs, commenting on blogs and blogging myself, centuries of internet-time ago, I had a sense of what a troll was, and why s/he was a bad thing.  Now, increasingly I see all manner of dissenting comments, comments framed perhaps vehemently or carelessly or sometimes even fairly courteously, flagged as trolling, and the commentators warned that if they repeat their comments they'll be banned.  A recent example: this Chris Betram Crooked Timber post about the legacy of colonialism: 'Skeletons in the Imperial Attic'. I broadly agree with Bertram in this post, and disagree with the first comment, from 'Jawbone' ('this is pure white self-hatred'). But it seems to me that 'Jawbone' has a right both to dissent from Bertram's view and to articulate that dissent, and that he doesn't do so here in a way liable to incite hatred or cause a breach of the peace.  A couple of other commentators expressed their disagreement with 'Jawbone', which is all good.  Then Bertram commented: 'Had just decided to zap the troll, but now there are referring comments. Jawbone: further comments from you will be deleted. Other people, please ignore.' Not so much 'I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it' as 'I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death my right to block, unfollow and no-platform you.'

Calling someone a troll implies a judgement about their intent: it is saying not just that they are disagreeing with you, but that they are doing so in bad faith, just to get a rise out of you, disingenuously, wickedly. But increasingly, it seems to me, 'troll' is becoming a synonym for dissenters of any stripe. That's not a good thing.  In the light of this, it's a particularly bad thing.

Of course, 'Jawbone' can always get his/her own blog and say what they like; and of course the comments thread of somebody else's blog is space that belongs to that other person.  But it's a public space, for all that; courtesy is an ideal rather than a necessary condition of debate, disagreement is healthy and 'troll' ought to be a rhetorical blade unsheathed only at last resort.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think the theory that one can foster intelligent debate by tolerating all views except those containing gross slurs and personal insults has been thoroughly exploded by the toxic sludge that is just about every newspaper comment section on the planet. Good commenting communities require oversight and strongly enforced community standards, and part of those standards is some baseline consensus on acceptable language that goes beyond zero tolerance for insults and slurs. Take, for example, the inevitable comment about quotas, or the commenter who exclaims that "I read what I like and don't notice gender!" whenever the discussion of women in SF starts up. At best, these commenters are clueless; at worst, deliberately anti-feminist. Either way, what value is there in debating them? Either time is wasted educating a newbie who has every means at their disposal to educate themselves, or it's wasted on someone whose core assumptions are irreconcilable with ours.

In this case, I would absolutely call the commenter in question a troll. Their comment has nothing to do with the subject of discussion, and its purpose is to derail and distract from that subject. I rather doubt that Jawbone is trying to start a discussion on the rape on Nanking - they just want to stop discussion of Western excesses. It's the same dynamic you see when a post on feminist issues gets a comment about "men's rights" - combative, derailing, and fundamentally groundless. The very antithesis of what's needed for a valuable discussion.

Adam Roberts Project said...

'Derail' is an interesting idiom, though. Is that what discussion is supposed to do? To run along the rails laid down by the initiator? ('this is the line along which I insist discussion proceeds; any attempt to deviate from this line is trolling') Can that really lead to 'discussion' in the fullest sense?

You say, of a certain kind of commenter: "Either way, what value is there in debating them?" And of course I know just the sort of person you have in mind. But if you don't think there's value in debating them, then don't debate them. That's not the same thing as actively suppressing their comments, which is what we're talking about here.

There are laws about hate speech in public spaces, which seem to me a reasonable compromise between censorship and free-speech: your disemvowelling of the recent SH homophobic and Islamophobic comment is a good example of how to handle such discourse (I'm not going to link to it, since I don't want actively to lead people to the articulation of those views). But many people, treating their own blogs are their own little kingdoms -- which, in a sense, they are -- in effect say: 'I want the balance to be much more strongly on the side of censorship than it is in Law.' That's their call, but it doesn't seem to me a good thing. Discussing race, even from a tendentious, right-wing position like 'Jawbone', is not the same thing as advocating race-hate.

Niall said...

I agree with Abigail, and I agree with Adam, and you know how that makes me mad.

Adam, I'm sympathetic to your desire for full discussion, and I can think of online spaces where I don't think that sort of full discussion is available. But I think Abigail is right that we run up against a difference between how face-to-face discussions and online discussions work. In face to face discussions you can select the group you're going to have a discussion with; and sometimes that's a completely open group discussion, and sometimes you want to get into a topic in depth with people who already know something about it. Online it's harder to have that sort of focused discussion without the sort of strict guidance and moderation Abigail describes.

At the same time, instinctively I wouldn't call Jawbone a troll, because that does still imply to me the intentionality and malice that Adam describes in his post. But maybe the language has shifted under me on that one.

Niall said...

That was me. God damn blogger.

nostalgebraist said...

Abigail, I agree with you that there are times when a given contributor's statements are so clueless, off-topic, or whatever that any response to them (even a good one) will lower the overall quality of discussion. But I don't think calling these commenters "trolls" is a productive response.

The problem is that what troll means -- or, anyway, what it used to mean, and what it still means to my ears -- is "person who deliberately posts inflammatory (in one way or another) stuff to get a rise out of people." It doesn't (or didn't originally) apply to people who were just clueless, even if the actual effect of their involvement is the same as it would be if they were acting deliberately. Maybe the word "troll" is evolving away from this sense, but at the moment it's at least in some transitional state, where if you call someone a troll in the new sense, there's a sizeable probability they'll think you're calling them a troll in the old sense.

And it seems to me like telling clueless people that they're being deliberately annoying will actually encourage them not to become less clueless. They're likely to think, and not entirely without reason: "these people must belong to some weird insular ivory tower clique. Here I am, saying something that I and my real life friends say to each other all the time [this is probably true], and they are actually incapable of imagining that real people might say this seriously. They think it's so far outside the realm of plausible human opinion that they instantly jump to the conclusion that someone could only say it in bad faith. These people are clearly out of touch, and I shouldn't waste time listening to people like them."

If we meant troll in the old sense, this reaction would be pretty much justified. It isn't, because we mean it in the new sense. Why use the word at all, if it invites this unfortunate confusion? Yes, we can spell out what we mean, but if we have to give a gloss on the word every time we use it, it can't be a very useful word, can it? And yes, we could just say "the newbies can easily educate themselves, so we shouldn't take their our effects on them into consideration." But isn't it good to at least avoid doing things that will discourage such self-education, if it's as easy as avoiding an ambiguous and contentious word?

(This is all just about the word "troll" itself. I'm not sure what I think on the censorship issue.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Unless Adam is making some subtle point, my comment from Sunday seems to have been eaten. I'll try to recreate it.

I should say that if this discussion hinges on the meaning of the term troll and whether it applies to the case in question, I'm perfectly willing to cede to the opinion that it doesn't. It's not a word I tend to use, mainly because I don't find it very useful for determining where a comment moderator's responsibilities begin and end.

So I'm perfectly willing to accept that Jawbone is not a troll while still feeling that the Crooked Timber blogger was in the right to shut him down for trying to derail the conversation. You've expressed discomfort with that term, Adam, but to me it seems perfectly descriptive. How else would you describe responding to a blogger who announces that they wish to discuss X with the suggestion that they discuss Y instead? Especially given the none-too-subtle undertone of Jawbone's comment, that X makes them uncomfortable while Y allows them to bask in self-righteousness, and the false equivalence drawn between the two?

You write that to espouse the idiom of derailing might prevent discussion in its fullest sense, but this strikes me as a fallacy along the same lines as the thinking that if we permit all speech except those instances containing insults and slurs, an open, multifaceted, tolerant conversation will magically emerge (or, for that matter, the thinking that if publishers, editors, and readers pay no attention to the race and gender of the authors they read, the result will be an egalitarian market). In my experience, when conversations are allowed to run their own course they gravitate, regardless of their original topic, towards subjects that the majority - which usually means straight white Western men - finds more congenial. I can't tell you how many times I've participated in a discussion of a feminist issue when a single "but what of the men?" style comment immediately swept the entire discussion towards a "universal" issue that concerned men, rather than the original "special interest" feminist topic.

That's one reason why it's often preferable to shut a derailing commenter down than to simply ignore them. Another is that beyond there being no value in engaging such commenters, there is often a negative value in allowing their comments to stand unchallenged. That inaction sends a message to the people reading your blog about the kind of space you've created and the kind of speech that is tolerated on it, and they may choose not to comment for fear of being accosted by the kind of commenter you'd just as soon not have on your blog at all.