Turning trolls to stone
The word “trolls” appeared in my column last Sunday. Since I love words, and love to explain them, let me devote today’s column to a disquisition on that word.
It appeared in the course of this observation: “There are, by a considerable multiple, more American college football fans than there are left-wing trolls.” Note, that it was an observation, not an opinion; and that I went out of my way to be charitable to the Left, by allowing the inference that there are rightwing trolls, too. (And there are: millions.) Alas, none of the trolls whose blog-site comments on that column were brought to my attention, returned this compliment.
Where to start? Perhaps with the further observation that we seldom use this word, any more, with reference to Scandinavian mythology. The scandalous truth is that I am myself rather murky on that subject. I’ve noticed that the “trolds,” “thurs,” and “jotnar,” from Old Norse, may be giants or may be dwarfs. This, in itself, throws a spanner into my perhaps over-compartmentalized thought processes. That they are, in the main, supernatural agents, we may take as par for the mythological course.
According to Wikipedia, the unique source for much of the information posted most confidently online, trolls “are frequently described as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted. They are sometimes described as maneaters and as turning to stone upon contact with sunlight.”
I can’t tell you whether trolls existed in, say, the 9th century. You had to be there. But I can testify that, by the definition cited, they exist today. And the way in which I use the word, when not referring to Scandinavian antiquity, is the contemporary way, hatched in cyberspace.
Though of any physical age, a troll is “extremely old” in the sense of brittle. He manifests a world view no longer troubled by experience. He is strong, at least in his language, though characteristically very weak in reading comprehen- sion; and bereft of reasoning ability. He is a “maneater” by disposition, prowling in search of reputations to smear. And sure enough, if exposed, he will become as silent as Iago: turned to stone on contact with the light.
There have been many attempts to define the troll, who is Legion in electronic space. A quick Google search yields plenty. But I think that Wiki quote goes most of the way to explaining the etymology. Trolls today behave as trolls of old.
They appear out of nowhere. They do not post their names, but rather assume fanciful identities which, in themselves, reveal many of the troll qualities. Pseudonymity and anonymity have always supplied a cover for mischief, and a means to free the perpetrator from any responsibility for his acts.
Everything from the use of obscenities, to the telling of malicious lies, to the orchestration of “transgressive” or criminal acts, is encouraged by the concealment of identity. This is the seldom-acknowledged dark side of the “social media.” And it advances, as any demonic force, by its very glibness.
It speaks volumes about our (linked) moral and intellectual de- cay, that the “right to privacy” is now generally confused with this squalid “right to anonymity.” They are nearly opposite. Indeed, anonymity can be easily exploited to intrude into private lives.
The invisible Internet commentariat, or trolls, wait in ambush in the mythic way, for real persons. That is to say, they attack, from their privileged invisible position, works that are tangible and signed, by persons thus made accountable in law and otherwise for what they have written. This does not merely make libel, slander, and casual misrepresentation easy. It sets an example, encouraging others to join in on the same terms.
Pause here to reiterate the crucial point. We are not discussing an isolated evil, for the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is now everywhere interactive with material reality. People are drawn in, by the millions, and people draw out into society the habits acquired there. Taboos which held up nicely, when we were dealing with each other face-to-face, disintegrate online. Yet once a taboo line is crossed in the human heart, it is crossed, definitively. A vital check on obnoxious behaviour is lost. (See: “Occupy Wall Street.”)
The whole moral order depends upon such lines holding: on maintaining, in every public circumstance, a common respect for decency. Setting the exalted standards of civilization aside, no society, however primitive, can hold together long, once these lines are publicly crossed. One may turn to the anthropologists to find what happens when that happens.
“Free speech” is adduced, along with that “right to privacy,” among the more asinine defences of the trolls. But here we are driven to recollect exactly what is required, for a regime to be sustained in which free speech is possible. This positively requires the identification of speakers, and then their explicit protection from those who would silence them.
The old newspaper convention, by which letters to the editor will not be published until the identity of the sender has been established, was to this point. Verily, correct names and addresses were once attached in print. Carry this convention into the Internet, and the trolls will be turned to stone.