Thursday, August 28, 2014

The blog post the trolls don't want you to read

You have met them. The trolls. The persistent trolls. The trolls that absolutely just have to talk. With you. Constantly. A lot. About everything.

They come in waves. Sometimes they are very active, and want to say a great many things as fast as possible. Sometimes, they seem to have forgotten all about you. But, like so many tax-related issues, their return is preordained.

They are also wavelike. As in, they say just about the same things every time they wash over you, in the same manner, with the same underlying patterns. Which is good, since we during their downtime can describe and predict how their next wave is going to turn out. As in, say, a blog post such as this.

This is not an attempt to out those who suffer from the condition of being trolls. It aims at being useful for them and those in their close vicinity. Partly as a kind of self-test - are any of these things applicable to things I'm doing? And as a kind of manual to those who are at the receiving end of a troll wave - how can it be contextualized and understood? And, lastly, as a kind of reference point - it is always good to be able to point somewhere and exclaim "look, you are so predictable that there's even a blog post written about you and what you're doing, read it!".

But enough ado. Let's roll.

1. They are functionally illiterate when it comes to things they don't agree with

It might seem mean to call them functionally illiterate. But the alternative - that they are literate but actively choose not to understand even the simplest of texts -would be even meaner. Let's exemplify this: feminism.

The Wikipedia article about feminism has this to say: "Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women." Which seems straightforward enough - an umbrella term for various movements that strive for equality in various ways. Not one thing, but many things, united by a general tendency to strive in the same overall direction.

Show this to a troll, and what they read is this: "Feminism is a unified movement whose enslaved and hive-minded minions want to kill all men and mankind as we know it, and establish a matriarchy where the Ur-Mother has absolute authority."

Should you attempt to kindly point out that the text does not support such a reading, you'll wish you didn't. One might assume that a quick look at the table of contents, with its explicit mention of all the various kinds of feminisms, would be sufficient for the task. It should be sufficient to everyone with a modicum of literacy - but, alas, the troll will only get mad for being talked back at. And thus commences the troll rage.

Whereby feminism (or, indeed, any other phenomenon whatsoever) continues to be regarded as a unified object. Even though basic literacy would suggest otherwise.

2. Those who happen to be literate don't know about libraries, or how they work

It's one of the strangest things about libraries. They are free, they are loaded with books, and anyone can use them. Literally. If you're interested in something, you can just stroll over there and peruse the books to your heart's content. It is as strange as it is marvelous.

Yet, for these people, it would seem that even the most accessible library is situated on the top of a large mountain. Figuratively. The trolls can walk around for years and years and say the most outrageous things, things they would stop saying if they took the time to read just one singular book on the subject. Whatever the subject.

Now, you might object that they are not interested enough to do such a thing. Thing is, in order to become the subject of this post, they'll have to be trolls, which must be said to be interested in the things they are trolling about. They are interested, but they are not able to combine their interest with the notion of a library.

This, sadly enough, makes literary and academic references meaningless to them. The mountain is insurmountable. The libraries are free and open, yet impossible to reach.

Which is a shame. One book would have sufficed. And the libraries are legion.

3. They know that you are wrong. About everything

Quite literally everything. There is no room for compromise. There is no common ground. You are wrong, and they will neither cease nor desist until you have confessed this. In public. Repeatedly.

It goes without saying that it is hard to dialogue your way to a mutual understanding and a sharing of common ground between you and them. No matter how receptive, conciliatory and understanding you try to be, they won't reciprocate. Their only tactic is aptly named "scorched earth". And the only ground good enough to scorch is yours.

According to them, you are always wrong. You are never right. About anything. Ever.

4. Details are always more important than context

As a result of 3, you will be wrong ever when you're right. An ordinary way to assure this outcome is to zoom in on some detail you might not be absolutely 100% confident about, and exploit this lack of completeness to the fullest extent. They will at length point out how wrong you are about this one minor detail, and then force you to admit that you were wrong about it (with or without your participation). They will then zoom out and apply this admission to your whole argument, and/or your whole person. Without mercy.

5. They have acute difficulties with rhetorical figures, such as synecdoches, exemplifications and enumerations

A synecdoche is an expression where the part gets to represent the whole. Such as when "the crown" is used to represent a monarchy and its institutions. One might assume that a reader would understand such shorthands. but alas - you are wrong! Either literally, in such a way that a monarch has other regalia (spires and suchlike), or even more literally, in such a way to suggest that the crown as a physical object does not have any authority in and of itself, and that you are both foolish and wrong to say such a thing.

Trying to provide examples of general phenomena is received the same way. Whatever example you provide is not read as an example, but as all examples, the entirety of the phenomena (and, indeed, of discussion). Which immediately proceeds into a fine-grained discussion about cases where the things you mentioned are in fact not examples of the phenomena in question. Or that it is a bad example (see 4).

One might think that mentioning a whole host of examples might disarm this tactic. But no, you are still wrong, and your examples are either incomplete (as in, you forgot something, and must now explain why), or one of the things you mentioned was wrong in some other way, and you must now explain why you were wrong in this regard. No further discussion will be allowed until this wrongness is resolved.

The common theme for all these examples is the inability or unwillingness to assume anything for the sake of argument. That would be giving you the benefit of the doubt, and that won't do, since you are undoubtedly wrong about everything. Whatever you say, however you say it.

To exemplify: the sky is not blue. It's azure.

6. They will read everything you say in the absolutely most belligerent way anyone can ever read anything

Let us say you write something about kittens. It includes cute pictures of kittens. It is all about how cute these kittens are. You mention at one point that you want a kitten, due to cuteness.

One might assume it impossible to read this belligerently. But in their eyes, it becomes a declaration of war. Something evil. The evilest thing they have seen in years. A declaration of war against the many things that are hunted and eaten by cats. You have just told the world how much you hate cute small mice that never hurt anyone. And you have additionally told them that you plan to use your own home to breed and train predators whose only reason for being is the extermination of cute small mice. And every other innocent being that cats are wont to hunt.

You are a threat to the ecosystem, and if you had your way you would flood your surroundings with cats. You are evil and must be stopped. Without delay.

This might seem far-fetched, but all this follows from 3. You are never right, ever. Not even about kittens. No matter how cute.

7. They will have no qualms ascribing you attributes and intentions as it suits them

Did you know that you had full knowledge of the situation and knew exactly what you did before you did what you did? Did you also know that you did it with full knowledge of exactly what would happen, and intended things to happen just as they happened? Did you know that you, unlike the rest of humanity, have an uncannily complete knowledge of how complicated systems interact in order to accomplish maximal harm to everyone involved, and actively strives to accomplish this very harm?

Probably not. But the trolls know. And whenever something goes wrong in your vicinity, this wrongness can easily be expanded according to 6. Suddenly, you have superhuman superpowers, but abuse them. Because you are wrong. In every way.

Should things go your way, on the other hand, these superpowers are nowhere to be seen. Strangely enough. Things went your way despite of you, not because of you. And things would have gone even better had you not been there. Because you are wrong even when you're right, no ifs or buts.

8. They will point out that you abuse your position

It doesn't really matter what position it is. Or if it is a formal or informal one. If formal, then there's always something. If informal, then you're a bad role model. It doesn't really matter what you actually do - it becomes wrong, regardless. Whoever you are, this will be used against you.

9. They think you focus on the wrong things

But why are you not writing about this? Or this? Or this? And why nothing about this? But what about this?

That the answer is that you are a human being with limited amounts of time, energy and possibility to communicate coherently doesn't matter. The world is huge, and there's always lots and lots of other things than the one that you are actually doing that is both important and in need of doing. It doesn't help that no matter how thoroughly you do something, there will always be something you missed, some elaboration you didn't do.

There's always more. And the trolls will ever always remind you that it's your fault that you didn't manage to save the entire world all by yourself.

10. They think you have more important things to do

A variation of 9. If you ever do something that is not completely focused on the most important goal - something like, say, having fun - the trolls will immediately complain that you have more important things to do. You are after all a human being with limited amounts of time, energy and possibility to communicate coherently, and should prioritize accordingly. As in, doing what's important rather what isn't.

The words "vacation" or "rest" or "recuperation" means nothing. There are more important things to do.

11. They will forget the good things you've done.

See 3. If it can't be ignored, see 7.

12. Nothing from your past is too old to be resurrected, as long as it is bad. Which it is

A popular pastime among trolls is to dig up dirt on you from times long long ago. So long ago that it is wholeheartedly behind you, either by process of forgetting or convalescence. So long ago that it really doesn't matter any more, other than when someone actively remind you of it.

Guess which troll will actively remind you of it. Do not guess whether they will add their own spin to it or not. They will.

13.  They think you were better back in the olden days, before you deteriorated

If you've been around for a while, then people have known you for a while. And since people grow and change, you grow and change. You learn things, realize your mistakes, and generally get better at what you do. Such is the human condition.

Change can also be read as deterioration. And when someone wants to read you in a belligerent manner, the words change and deterioration become synonymous. You haven't learnt anything, you've only gotten worse. You could become a better person if you turned back time and became your own self again. Maybe. Unless it's too late for that.

The people saying this are your biggest fans. They never tire of reminding you of it.

14. They agree, but

But they don't. Since you're wrong. They won't put it in those terms, though. They will instead put it in such a way that they agree with some minor thing, and they proceed to but everything else into a discursive pulp. Without any possibility of a common ground. It might seem like an indirect approach, but you'll know it when you see it. Such as when republicans agree with democrats, and then proceed to say they should become republicans instead.

15. They think you do too much

Congratulations, you made it all the way to the end! May the trolls fear to tread under the bridges you frequent!

Originally published May 1, 2014


  1. As somebody who works with the public and the media, I think several of your points are symptoms of other tactics. To be persuasive you need to be a valid speaker with credibility in the subject area and you need to be seen as being reasonable.

    So some of the things you point out are actually attacks against your validity as a rhetorical combatant: "you're not from Wisconsin so why are you talking about what they're doing to unions or teachers?"

    Some are attacks against your credibility: "the number you cite from that 1995 study on global warming has been debunked, and if you get that wrong..."

    Some are attacks against your reasonableness: "you agree with Obama, the most extreme left-wing president we've ever had..."

    It helps to understand what they're really trying to do so you can respond -- though, as you point out, that's usually fruitless.

    Other times, as you also ably point out, they're just myopic dumbasses fixated on protecting against what they see as attacks on a world view that is at the core of their belief systems, and thus their egos. They will hear what they want to hear and twist it whichever way they need to so they can put it in their sights and destroy it.

    1. I wrote a kind of a follow-up post to this one, in an attempt to address some of the points you raised. How does one retain dignity in the face of unreason? Worse, willing unreason?

      Most of these things are indeed attacks on one's legitimacy. The key question being if they are made from a place of malevolence or ignorance. The latter can be forgiven; the former - probably not.