December 14, 2016

Playing With Trolls

I’ve been playing with trolls lately, not the the really nasty aggressive, could be a Russian dude getting paid to mess with our democracy, or the I-only-read-Breitbart News-and-have-a-pepe- avatar variety, but the kind that might be a dad’s cousin of a friend who shows up in my friend’s Facebook feed saying something outlandish and rude- hackneyed talking points they heard on Fox News or read on some thread somewhere else.

As an experiment I have been trying to engage with these strangers in a calm, racial, open-minded way. It has been difficult not being snarky or straight up mean, my natural tendency is to insult and demean, but I have made it a point to ignore my base instincts and try to act more civil.

This process has me thinking about a few basic rules that might allow us to have more tolerant social media spaces. Spaces that might lead to more dialogue and less anger. More understanding and less yelling. More listening and less blind opinions.

  1. Don’t engage with a stranger without building some context of who you are. You would never just approach a total stranger in the street in real life and start yelling your opinions at them. So if you find a random person on a feed who is saying some thing you disagree with do not simply attack that person’s ideas, no matter how off-putting or rude they may be. Introduce yourself first. Perhaps the person will feel a slight hesitation before the conversation suddenly becomes a volley of insults. 
  2. Start by giving in a bit. Admit to something that you might have gotten wrong. Show some empathy and give-in a little to a point that they are making that you might agree with, or at least understand. People are much less likely to insult you or your ideas if you have shown a bit of vulnerability. 
  3. Stick to the points of the content that has been shared. Try to move beyond their simplicity insults and barbs- try to get back to what it is about the content that they find objectionable. Ask them questions. Lots of questions. “If you don’t think that women should have the right to express their fear and anger in art, how do you think they should speak up in society?” “If you don’t feel that silent protest is appropriate during the national anthem, how do you think black Americans should show their frustration with the system? How do you define racism?” Try to make the person think about what they value and how they think, so they spend less time hurling cliches and one liners at you. 

This work is difficult and perhaps pointless. After all why would we want to try and change the mind of so-and-so’s dad’s cousin? Who has time for this?

I guess I see this as teaching. If we want our students to learn how to be empowered and kind and take ownership of these online spaces, then we have to be role-models even when we are angry and the work feels difficult and impossible. We need to act with grace and dignity in the most absurd conversations.

Be yourself. Be vulnerable. Ask questions. Get people to think about what they value, why they are angry?

You have to resists the urge to be petty. That is what they want. Most of these people have not thought about what you want them to think about. Yes it is true that if they are true trolls, all bets are off an none of this matters, but if they are simple angry and ignorant and afraid, then you might be able to help them re-think what they think about privilege, or race, or class or TrumpII. You might be able to educate some people and be the shinning light in at least one Facebook thread.

Am I being naive and idealistic? Probably. I don’t think I have another choice. Below are a few examples of what I am talking about.

I was involved in a conversation about the meaning of white male privilege:


I'm not saying this to be confrontational, I can appreciate your account of your modest middle class life. And I know many people who have had similar experiences and because your life does not look like the glamours celebrity lives we see in the media, you do not see it as a privilege.

You worked hard and never asked for anything and you made do with what you had and that wasn't much, and so how can that be privilege.

But just being white in America and male in America and middle class in America is a privilege many people don't have. You don't see it, because you have not had to experience or ever exposed yourself to what other American realities might look like. Take a look at some novels by James Baldwin or listen to some music by Dead Prez or watch a film called The might give you some insights in the privilege that you do have.

I appreciate the time you took the time to watch the video, but I think you are missing a key point- privilege is not an all or none game. It is not as if you have it or you don't, privilege works on a continuum. We all have certain privileges for various reason over others, it doesn't mean we are better or worse, or that we worked harder than other or not, it's simply the hand we were dealt.

Sure, some people waste their privilege while others make do even without having it, but that doesn't negate the fact that they have certain privileges to start with.

The fact that you were born a white male from a working class family doesn't take away from your successes, but you had certain privileges that say a gay Puerto Rican man born in the Bronx didn't have. (Like not being beaten up for his sexuality) Or a single woman born in Flint, Michigan, (Clean water)

It is not a comparison- we have all ad obstacles we need to over come, but we all have certain privileges and recognizes those, allows us to be more empathetic to marginalized members of our society.


After some back and forth, this person said.

“Ok, I see your point. I've generally always associated being privileged with being given virtually everything on a silver platter, which the majority of folk in the world are not. Others work very hard to earn at least some of those privileges. I've just never considered myself privileged, simply because nothing has ever been given to me without hard work.”


Small victory but I’ll take it.


Here is another one. The original post was about an art project where a 19 year old woman wrote sexist Trump quotes over naked female bodies.

This person replied with, “ This is why our young are total dumb asses!! Is that allowed in their safe places….”


My response:

Hello everyone, I have been watching this thread with mild amusement for a while and now felt the need to add my two cents.

I don't you know you or your connection with XXXX and XXXXX, but I have known them for years and consider them good friends. I bring this up because it gets tricky interacting in these social media spaces, when we know so little about each other. You could be some random relative of Kim's (although by your tone I doubt it) or some random person who popped in on her public post. Either way, I think it is civil and necessary that before we offer our opinions or insults on any give topic that we are polite and introduce ourselves.

I am a 42 year old father of two girls and an international teacher of 15+ years. I am a self professed liberal and believe in progressive politics. I fight for peace, justice and love. These are ideals I value, and I have spent my life working toward spreading awareness in this field. It is why I became an educator.

I hope that adds some context about why this post in particular matters to me. Remember the post! The one about how a nineteen year old young women who felt threaten by Trump’s misogynistic language decided to use art as a vehicle to express her anger and fear, to which you replied by saying, “This is why our young are total dumb asses!! Is that allowed in their safe places….”

You later mentioned, in a mocking sort of way, how peoples' feelings might be hurt, to which I want to say yes my feelings are hurt. I assume you are using this tone as a way to bolster your own potentially fragile make ego, or maybe you are just trolling and being a dick, hard to tell these days, but the fact of the matter is that my feelings are hurt, when I think that my daughters are growing up into a world where their worth is evaluated by their looks and their bodies.

I did not see this art project as an example of why young people are “total dumb asses.”

More importantly, I am not sure why you felt the need to leave the comment you left on this particular post and then turn the thread into a playground argument worthy of elementary school kids.

Going back to the original content, I am curious do you agree with the statements made my Trump about women? Are you a father? Do you have a wife? Mother? Sister? Would like them to have an outlet for their frustrations? Have you ever asked them what it feels like to be a woman living in an aggressively patriarchal work?

I think asking each other questions is a better way to use these spaces and our time.

You can insult me back, and that would be understandably predictable and cliche, or you can take some time to actually engage with the world in a way that helps us come to a better understanding of each others lives.

Please note that I did my best not to insult you or use any kind of “trolling” behavior. I did look up conservatism and it is defined as, “social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization.”

So what traditions do you value that you feel warrant maintaining, in particular in the area of women’s rights, seeing that is what the original post was about.


In that same thread, another person wrote, “Where were all you people when good 'old Bill was sticking a cigar into Monica in the bathroom off the Oval Office?”

To which I replied:

I was twenty two years old and trying to find myself. I was disinterested in politics at the time and worried about how I might make rent or have enough money to buy beer. I worked a few jobs waiting tables whilst going to school.

I think if that happened now and I was an adult, I would be looking to feminist news sources I trust to look for guidance about how I might think about this issue.

I would explore ideas around consent and control, power and patriarchy. I would not be partisan enough to excuse behavior of someone simply because of their party affiliation.

I am not sure however, how your comment about Clinton, is relevant to the story Kim posted. I assume you are implying that "you people." (Liberals?) only care when republicans do things wrong.

I am here to say that is not true at least for me.

So back to the post, since you are obviously a champion of women's rights, based on your defense of Monica Lewinsky, how are you helping to empower women in the age of Trump?

Neither one of them have yet to respond.


Let me know if you have a troll in your thread that could use a lesson. I can do house calls.

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