Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't feed the trolls - but don't let them win!

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #1: Open debate is unproductive because our most frequent adversaries are inflammatory trolls who won’t be convinced.

The second half of this argument is probably true; feminists do encounter an alarming amount of blowback from angry, antagonistic shock-jockeys who do nothing but lob personal attacks and sexist insults. We’ve all seen that attention-mongering YouTube comment that says something to the effect of “You bitches need to shut the fuck up and get back to the kitchen,” or “Suck my cock, niggercunt!” It is clear such people seek only to distract, disrupt and offend. One might even say they represent the online equivalent of shouting down a speaker whose ideas you dislike…In any case, they are assholes, and they need not be tolerated. Free speech ought not be misconstrued as a defense of their comments; in fact free speech as the principle outlined above may actually be furthered by banning them or removing their comments, so as to enable actual debate in their stay. I’m not opposed to all comment moderation in private forums of conversation.

But too often in feminist communities, the field of banned “troll” comments expands to include any comment that expresses disagrement with any component of feminist ideology. Thinking Girl’s discussion guidelines read:

“if you disagree with the basic premises of feminism, and are tempted to argue with myself and other feminists about the basic premises of feminism and how wrong they are, that pretty much makes you a troll… I don’t like trolls. They suck me dry of valuable energy that could better be used building solidarity with other feminists, collaborating on issues of feminist theory or practice to better organize to take down the white supremacist patriarchy (which yes, does exist). :) Also, trolls are ridiculous. The obvious goal is to derail the discussion because of a perceived threat to your (or your bosses’) power structure(s). Which, quite simply, is really childish” [emphasis original, not mine]

The idea that feminists’ energy “could better be used” consorting with people who already agree with them is widespread in the feminist movement. Twisty, the famous author of the advanced feminist website I Blame the Patriarchy, writes:

“while opposing viewpoints are encouraged and welcomed, in order to be considered suitable for posting here, these views must proceed from within a framework of feminist theory…the moderator will enforce a policy requiring that dissenting opinions clearly exhibit philosophic value”

The result, if you’re a dude, is that even polite and reasonable disagreement on complex and nuanced elements of feminist ideology is enough to label you a “troll,” and feminists are encouraged never to “feed the trolls.” How did this approach to dissent become so widespread? One Jezebel feminist explains the frustration underlying this mindset:

“It is nearly impossible to address problems facing women—especially problems in which men are even tangentially culpable—without comments sections devolving into cries of "misandry!" from men and replies of "misandry isn't real" from women. Feminists are tired of this endless, fruitless turd-pong: hollow "conversation" built on willful miscommunication, bouncing back and forth, back and forth, until both sides throw up their hands and bolt.”

To her credit, that particular author seems to be trying to move past this roadblock by interacting with the dissenters. But she is in the minority among feminists; as she describes, many others merely “throw up their hands and bolt.” Articles like these represent a rapidly growing sentiment in the feminist movement that people who disagree should be written off as “not part of the solution”: people to be ignored or vilified, but never engaged in person.

The trouble with this is that by lumping well-intentioned and open minded dissenters in with the trolls, you shut down any meaningful discussion with people who are not already feminists, which thereby prevents feminism from growing and gives the trolls exactly what they were after in the first place. This “verbal terrorism” gives the troll a sort of heckler’s veto over the discussions taking place. Opportunities to spread feminist ideas to people who are genuinely open to them or on the fence are lost, as a direct result of the people trying to stop the spread of feminism. At the risk of sounding like a Team America parody of myself, when you censor dissent, the terrorists win!

I sympathize with the irritation that knowledgeable female feminists feel towards ignorant males who present oppressive ideas. As feminists realize, antiquated but entrenched sexist attitudes are one of the biggest hindrances to communication between those who “get it”, and those who don’t. I look forward to working alongside feminists to combat these attitudes whenever and wherever they arise.

That said, as a male who’s done everything humanly possible to learn about feminism, and still has plenty of reservations, I hope you can appreciate my own frustration at the inability, despite my most earnest efforts, to have a polite exchange with any feminist I have encountered. Too many feminists, no doubt flustered by the obstacles I just outlined, have assumed an attitude towards these conversations that is far more inhibitive of actual communication than any troll I’ve ever seen. Some have even sunk to their opposition’s level, preferring caps-lock insults and caustic sarcasm to actual good faith efforts to wrestle with opposing ideas. It’s unfortunate, for there are plenty of good reasons to “be the bigger woman.”

Although it is often true that the individual whom you debate will not leave the conversation having changed his or her opinion, I implore feminists to remember that there is a massive audience of people on the internet who read these discussions from the sidelines. These people are often insecure in their own beliefs and reluctant to contribute themselves, but form their own opinions based on who makes the more compelling case. Unlike someone who’s made a great public spectacle of their beliefs (and thus may not back down even when clearly wrong simply for pride’s sake), these people can and do change their minds silently, without the fear of losing face. And just as anti-feminist trolls reflect negatively on anti-feminism by revealing themselves as threatened benefactors of the patriarchy, feminists who refuse to engage with polite and sometimes persuasive critiques of their own “basic premises” reflect negatively on their own ideology’s ability to self-scrutinize.


So, by all means, ban the trolls once they’re uncovered – but don’t use maleness or disagreement with any portion of what you have written, however fervent or irritating, as a shortcut for troll identification. If the individual’s only sin is wrongness, prove them wrong. If you’re too tired or too irritated or too whatever to prove them wrong, tell them you’re not in the mood, and let their post stand uncontested; folks observing can decide for themselves which case they find more compelling. What you should not do is censor them just to avoid the headache of refuting them, because it makes feminists look ridiculous. Don’t let the terrorists win.

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