Facing our Trolls

I’ve been thinking about trolls.  No, actually, not the cute, big hair, naked belly button dolls of my youth … but internet trolls.  Act One of This American Life told the story this week of Lindy West and one of her former trolls.  Ever since listening to the podcast, I’ve been thinking about how I handle trolls and how I exhibit troll-like behavior.  Wikipedia defines an internet troll as:

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtrl//ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people,[1] by posting inflammatory,[2]extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotionalresponse[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[4]

Often trolls are anonymous, have more than one fake log-in, and use spiteful verbal abuse.  West was no stranger to trolls.  As a writer and performer she would often attract trolls who would make terribly offensive statements, threaten to rape her, or use even more vivid descriptions of abuse.  Common wisdom is “don’t feed the trolls.”  Ignore them.  Getting your ire up and responding is what encourages their behavior.  There was one particular troll comment, however, that was especially destructive and hurtful. It was soon after her father’s death that she got a tweet … from her father.  It mentioned her father’s love for her brothers and his disappointment in West.  That hit way below the belt.  She just wanted to know why! How could someone stoop so low, as to create a fake twitter account in her father’s name and do this to hurt her so much?

It wasn’t long until she got an answer.  She received an email from the man who admitted to being the troll.  He had read a tweet of hers later in the day, and he knew she had read his troll tweet.  And for the first time he realized there was a live human being on the other end of his hate.  He apologized.  In the radio interview which followed, West asked him why.  She gets trolled every day, it’s part of her job, but this … this was the meanest thing that had ever happened to her.   The troll (for understandable reasons, we never did get his name) said, it wasn’t her stance on rape jokes … this was the topic of most of her hate filled responses … he actually agrees with her that rape jokes are in poor taste and are hurtful to women.  No, what got him riled up enough to become her hate-filled troll was her confidence.  She spoke and wrote with authority, power and confidence … like she had a valuable place in the world.  It was also the fact that she was fat and publicly not ashamed of body.  He, on the other hand, was overweight, out of shape and ashamed.  He was at a low point in his life and he couldn’t stand that she could be happy.  Yes, he admitted, he was also misogynistic.  He hated that, as a women, she could be so in his face with her self-confidence. His anger led him to lash out, even to stalk her and her family enough to create fake twitter account, and to tweet the meanest tweet Lindy had ever received.

I’ve been trolled … not at this level or as consistently as Lindy West.  Perhaps it was a post on Facebook or an online forum that I participated in … way back when, it was after a letter to the editor.  Most of the time, I, too, follow the advise … don’t feed the trolls.  My blog is moderated for spam, but I also delete hate posts.  And I have removed comments on my Facebook posts and blocked some from posting.  It’s a consequence of internet presence.  It happens.  What I learned from this story, though, isn’t just about trolls, but about me.

If you follow me closely on Facebook, you probably have noticed that there are occasions when I rant.  Oh, I do my best to keep it cool and collected, to make it intellectual and reasonable, I try my best to respect people, but I will virtually-spit on their ideas.  I have exhibited troll-like behavior. This week, in fact, I wrote a six paragraph comment to my sister-in-law’s post about a bumpersticker she saw. Why did two lines, “if you are living like there is no God, you had better be right” and two smiley faces entice me to spend nearly an hour crafting a six paragraph response?  Well, shamefully, it was a poorly masked attempt to taunt, “My God is better than your God.”  And by implication, “I’m better than you.”  PRECISELY, by the way, what I objected to in the in the snarky bumper sticker.  *sigh*

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In conflict mediation training we learn that most outbursts and conflict arise out of the base of our brain … the fight or flight response center.  It doesn’t usually engage our frontal lobe executive functioning.  It is a deeply emotional response that may or may not even pass through our consciousness.  In the case of West’s troll … the emotional response was out of his own anger and self-doubts about himself.  In my troll-like comment, I was emotionally hooked by an early childhood fear … the fear of never being good enough for God (or my parents or my teachers or my friends) to be pleased with me.  I grew up in a shame-based church … one that taught about Grace, but dwelt on Sin.  I left as soon as I realized there was a way to be faithful to the God I loved without the Martin Luther inspired self-loathing.  My inner child, though, my emotional center, still gets stimulated by seemingly little things.  “it was just a bumper sticker,” my sister-in-law responded,  “I simply saw it on the car in front of me and it made me smile and think.”  But to my inner child, it awoke the troll deep inside, the one that was still fighting the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams” of my childhood and adolescence.  And I picked up the sword to fight.

The blizzard-that-wasn’t postponed our Tuesday evening Presbytery meeting to next month.  But if we had met, we would have debated the “definition of marriage.”  Many were concerned that the “trolls” would come out.  Most Presbyterians make up their mind on how to vote on amendments like this long before they arrive at a presbytery meeting.  I don’t expect that anyone will change their mind by the debate we offer, but the process is important … and even more so, an awareness that this is a deeply emotional issue that affects our deepest sense of self.  That’s why we set boundaries on the kind of debate we have … stick to the issue, no more than two minutes, give each one a turn before speaking again.  It’s why we’re having a pre-presbytery conversation.  Because we want to acknowledge the personal depth and pain and fear involved with this.  It’s not the high-functioning executive lobe that’s at the center of this debate, no, it’s our fight/flight/freeze response that is stirred up.  Some fear for the futures of the church.  Some of our trolls are stirred out of love of family, some out of their own gender identity and the hurts that came with acknowledging themselves, some out of a wounded-ness that came from abuse by someone else, some out of a deep shaking of their Biblical foundation, and it keeps going.

I could write … let’s not be trolls any longer … but it will happen, of course.  I will promise not to write another inappropriate rant on my sister-in-law’s or my aunt’s or my cousin’s (always my family, it seems) posts, but late one night my frontal lobe will be dozing while my troll rises from my pain … and it will undoubtedly lash out.  I know there will be other trolls at presbytery meetings, at council meetings, at other church and community meetings … and on the internet.  I probably won’t feed them.  And when I am at my best, I will call out my own, at least, and allow my more reasonable, mature, grown-up, self to take charge … I will remind my troll of the love of Christ that is so great … it loves us through the trolls.

In the end, Lindy West, met her nemesis and found that she couldn’t hate him.  In fact, she kind of liked him.  He wasn’t evil, he was human.  He was caring.  She forgave him.

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