Turn­ing trolls to stone

Ottawa Citizen - - OPINION - DAVID WAR­REN David War­ren’s col­umn ap­pears Sun­day, Wed­nes­day and Satur­day.

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.

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