If we ignore the human in the ‘troll’, they will always exist

2 August 2013

In my new, therapised, calmer and less argumentative state (don’t laugh friends, I claim merely ‘less’), my urge to comment on events of the day is much reduced. However, following a Twitter exchange with Robin Ince and Caitlin Moran’s article  supporting a 24 hour Twitter ‘walk-out’ on Sunday 4 August I am moved to put fingers to keyboard.

The issue at hand is how to react to the fact some people threw a slew of statements, apparently mostly threats of rape, at Caroline Criado-Perez (I say apparently because I do not care to read them myself), a woman who campaigned to ensure another woman, Jane Austen, would appear on a banknote. Moran includes some of these comments in her article:

“Everybody jump on the rape train – @CCriadoPerez is conductor.” “I love it when the hate machine swarms.” “Rape rape rape rape rape rape.” “Everyone report @CriadoPerez for rape and murder threats and also being a cunt #malemasterrace.” “Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart – give me a shout when you’re ready to be put in your place.” “HEY GIRL – WANNA THROW THAT PUSSY TOWARDS THE BLACK MESSIAH?” “Rape threats? Don’t flatter yourself. Call the cops. We’ll rape them too. YOU BITCH! YO PUSSY STANK!”

My main reaction is: what? Whilst not surprised it happened and continues to happen – people appear capable of anything – I am happy to admit I do not understand why those people did what they did, and continue to do. This is perhaps the result of not having read the tweets myself – which is why I quote them via Moran – but I very much doubt it. That is, I doubt Criado-Perez said anything anyone could argue warranted such abuse (if anything ever could).

There is, of course, a simple answer: some men hate women. But that doesn’t come anywhere near explaining it for me. To say, ‘some people reacted to the leader of a campaign to ensure Jane Austen appeared on a banknote by threatening her with rape because they are men who hate women’, just doesn’t do enough work. If they had argued against women appearing on banknotes, and in the course of that been rude, maybe I could accept such an explanation, but they didn’t.

Read the tweets above again. Can you honestly say you understand someone who does that? Can you enumerate all the possible reasons for such behaviour and, supported by evidence, state without doubt which one, or ones, are the correct explanation? I can’t. It is so far removed from something I would do, or something anyone I know would do, I am at a loss to explain it.

It is this lack of understanding – both within myself and the commentary I have read – that prompted my exchange with Robin Ince, a man I respect for his humorous championing of the critical method, of science, of thinking. So when I read his comment that, “perhaps the rule should be that if you are not civil enough, then you’re not allowed civilisation” I was a little disappointed. So I asked if such a punishment should be meted out regardless of why one is uncivil.

Whilst Ince agreed it’s important to try and understand why people do what they do, he also said, “first you have to remove the fear, then you have to find out why the fear mongers wish to create such a climate”.

“This is my point,” I replied. “You assume their object is to create fear, when their motive could be any number of things, and probably more than one, and they probably don’t even know the truth themselves, so hasty reaction could inflame the situation”.

“In the end,” Ince continued, “a slew of rape threats creates fear, what do you think the intention of saying you’ll forcibly fuck someone is? …they might be doing this for mental reasons or misogynist reasons or both”.

“It might be a really fucked up way of declaring ‘I need a hug’,” I suggested. “How many bullies are so because they have very few friends?”

“That was true of Jeffrey Dahmer,” Ince rejoined. “But I think we are also allowed to be cross with him for killing all those young men.”

“I know we may be cross, we can’t do anything about that, but I don’t think we should act in crossness,” I finished.

For me, saying you are ‘cross’ with Jeffrey Dahmer just doesn’t make sense, although I know it does for many. But whatever you feel, the reason I don’t think we should act solely on our emotional responses is that they are often based on assumption, as Ince demonstrates. This places action before the need for understanding.

I know many agree with Ince. Indeed, you may be saying to yourself, ‘why is this guy focused on understanding despicable people – they don’t deserve understanding, they deserve punishment’.

The reason I am focused on understanding is, as well as being ineffective, uninformed action easily – and often – leads to undesirable consequences. Take the case of medicine; if one takes homeopathic ‘treatments’ for acne, say, the worst that can happen is one is stuck with the acne. But if one takes them for cancer, the repercussions, assuming you don’t wish to die, are likely to be much more serious.

So to Caitlin Moran’s support for a “24 hour walk out”, which she believes will not only be “a symbolic act of solidarity – which are my favourite kinds of symbolic acts – but because it will also focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses of their private company”.

The main concern I have about rushing to legislate (whether private or public laws) – which is what we have done more and more in recent years when dealing with people and actions we find unsavoury – is that prosecution is not a deterrent, as Moran acknowledges:

“In the last 24 hours, these rape-threats have expanded to include MP Stella Creasy, who has been vocal in both defending Criado-Perez, and calling for changes in the way Twitter is run, and Creasy – along with the Independent Tv critic Grace Dent and Guardian fashion columnist Hadley Freeman – have received bomb-threats. Again, this is all after an arrest has been made for abuse on Twitter. After.”

In addition to that, see the death penalty for murder and the rising prison population. Legislation, it seems, is not the way to make the future a better place than the past when it comes to the negative behaviour of individuals. (There’s also the question of whether Twitter could come up with anything that would solve the problem. However quickly you close an account, another can be opened and the abuse continued.)

Such legislation is a quick and easy way to make us feel better about ourselves. We can point to having ‘done something about it’, regardless of the outcome. But all we have really done is declare ourselves unable to work together as human beings, to talk to each other, with the aim of creating a better society.

Of course, legislation has effected many good things, such as the extension of voting and employment rights. But these examples are of laws which aim to secure the ‘public’ rights of individuals in the face of those who would curb them, rather than change the behaviour of individuals whose ‘private’ actions impact negatively on others.

This may seem a fine distinction, as one could argue that, for example, laws against sending children up chimneys aimed to change the behaviour of unscrupulous exploitative adults. But the motive for the creation of the legislation was a positive one – to protect the child – not a negative one – to punish the employer – and that is an all important difference.

People respond much better to a positive approach. Politicians know to sandwich a negative comment or admission between two positives. Improvisers are taught the power of saying ‘yes’ to their co-performers and it results in much better performances. A manager who constantly rejects ideas will soon find themselves without a team, or at least not a happy one.

How, then, do we protect the individual from online abuse? The abuser needs to be removed from the equation, yes, but by some other mechanism than a negative locking them out of the system (assuming that could be achieved) or prosecuting them (both of which leave the abuser existing anyway, and without their online outlet who is to say what they may turn to, especially given recidivism rates).

In the UK, the amount of violent crime is falling overall. Why? The extension and opening up of education, healthcare and other positive efforts that reduce poverty and isolation. That is, the way to remove a criminal from the equation is to ensure the criminal does not exist in the first place by removing the conditions under which someone becomes a criminal.

The key to changing behaviour is an understanding of the root of that behaviour. If we know that people who commit crime are more likely to be from a particular socioeconomic group, then we have a better chance of crafting a solution to the problem.

This should go for all behaviour we rightly deem to be criminal, unsavoury, undesirable: if you want it to go away, understand it and act accordingly. It is exactly what we do with disease, why not with social ills too?

We should therefore work with these abusers, rather than punishing them, in an effort to understand them and find out if they are happy as they are or if they want to change. But we cannot stop there, because if the conditions exist to cause them to be an abuser, they will continue to exist and more abusers will be created. We therefore need to learn from them in an effort to understand how to alter or remove those conditions. Prevention is always better than cure; the only sure way to protect ourselves from abuse is to create a society in which nobody wishes to abuse.

Unfortunately, there appears to be absolutely no appetite amongst the commentators for understanding why someone ends up wanting to abuse others. In the current situation, as so often happens, most want to be seen to be either for free speech or against abuse, so the solution is either to put up with it or deny the abuser access to society, the solution Ince was pondering. Neither camp considers who these abusers really are, why they are, or what they are revealing about themselves through their abuse; they are simply ‘trolls’, even to defenders of free speech, a term which removes their humanity, renders them ‘other’ and declares them unchangeable.

I say this not solely to defend their humanity for its own sake – because every human, however unpalatable, warrants such a defence – but exactly because I wish to see an end to such abuse. Again, without an understanding of its perpetrators that aim will not be achieved.

This may be seen as idealistic, unachievable; I hear the cries of ‘that’ll never happen’ quite clearly. But as Moran says, “it does my head in to see someone who lives in a democracy, wears artificial fibres, drives a car, has a wife who can vote and children whom it is illegal to send to work up a chimney, saying, on the internet – invented in 1971!!!! – ‘NOTHING CAN CHANGE!’” The people who were instrumental in effecting those changes knew that if we aim for the ideal, we can achieve more than if we didn’t.

It is precisely because we chose to regard offenders and mentally ill people as still human that we have made progress in the last century or two. If we want to make more, we must see the human in the ‘troll’.

  1. Thank you, Dan, for saying what needed to be said. In all cases, it is reconciliation, not discrimination, fear or hatred, that ultimately changes people for the better.

    For the record, as a blind bloke, I suspect that a lot of this outrage is merely irrational prejudice based on an imaginary dominance in an increasingly equalised woman population. Frankly, I see equality as a given; a manifest reality that takes no explanation and needs no distinctions. But, since many women recognise that they don’t want a part in being seen as humourless, terrorising bitches capable of wielding powers that can ruin mens’ lives with a few mincing words, it’s probably easy in these trolls’ minds to justify “Putting women in their place”. It’s just a hypothesis, and while I’ve never engaged with a misogynist troll, I’d bet that it’s the ultimate agenda. They’re never going to come out in public and say that, and in instances where I’ve challenged people who took issue with statements I made in public because of my blindness by trolling me in private, it’s always been a firmly-held but erroneous conviction that has been the cause. Often these encounters end badly, despite my efforts to correct the delusion, but I always hold out hope that existing social mechanisms of unpopularity and contempt for such ideas can serve as a final solution to such ignorance or abuse. It is indeed regrettable that so many individuals prefer uninformed gut reaction over reason, on both sides, but the solution is ultimately to show the wrong of it, not to condemn the offenders.


    • avatar Dan Sumners says:

      Thanks for taking the time to reply Sabhattin, and for your kind words. As my article makes clear, I don’t think there’s an ‘ultimate agenda’; we’re not talking about an organised group of people, but various individuals with their own reasons, conscious or otherwise.

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