Let’s have a little compassion for (some of) the trolls

It’s looking pretty grim out there in social media land. A lot of what once was conversation has devolved into warfare. The issues of our time — Trump, Brexit, identity politics, housing and homelessness, how to pronounce “GIF” — seem to divide us ever more starkly, and so we huddle within our filter bubbles, and/or lash out at those outside. It’s hard to shake the sense the trolls have won.

You know who I mean, right? The random drive-by commenters who argue with you on Facebook. The dogpile cesspools of abusive assholes who haunt Twitter. The acquaintances who seem to escalate every disagreement, no matter how trivial, into an angry flamewar. The people who don’t just disagree with you, but hatefully scream their disagreement.

They may be a tiny minority of the population, but they care so much about having their opinion heard, at times they seem to be a majority of the conversation. Whenever this happens, though, I try to remember two things. First, this immortal David Foster Wallace address:

the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am … [the] lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line, maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer … Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible–it just depends on what you want to consider … The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.

Second, a man I interviewed some years ago who had spent ten years in the California prison system. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said to me, “there are some very bad men in there… but most are just fuckups like me.”

Some few trolls are vile abusers who deserve no compassion, but most, I submit, are just fuckups. You may be furious about Donald Trump’s candidacy; you too may believe that as many of half of his supporters are “deplorables,” but even so, what about the half who are not? I give you this great John Biggs piece “Why I’m Voting For Trump.” I give you David Wong’s “How Half Of America Lost Its Fucking Mind.”

More generally, I propose: don’t let the truly awful people convince you that they represent all of their side, because if you do, they win.

Now, I understand that a lot of people have no time for this kind of moral hairsplitting. I understand that as a white man, I have the rare privilege of knowing that if I’m attacked it’s because of who I am, rather than what I am. I understand that people attacked for what they are tend to be, quite rightly, seriously disinclined to consider the psychological intricacies of who their attackers may be. Fair enough.

But please bear in mind: I’m not suggesting that we try to have compassion for (some of) the trolls because it’s the abstract ideal right thing to do. I’m suggesting it because it works. Nothing sticks in a truly awful person’s craw like compassion, even if feigned (although banning / muting them would be better yet; freedom of speech does not mean anyone has to listen to you.)

More to the point, nothing is more effective when reacting to a sick or hurt person who is lashing out, and I think (and/or hope) that describes a lot of the apparently terrible people out there.

At the same time, compassion is also, I fear, the human instinct most quickly and easily leached out by social media, which seems to render us all a little bit more sociopathic. So just as an experiment, just to see what happens, maybe try to make a point of adding a little more to our collective online lives — rather than demonize each other even further.