When I’ve tried to deal directly with internet trolls, I’ve had little luck. What I mean is, their minds were made up about me before they trolled whatever I might have written. No matter how politely I’ve tried to engage them, rarely do I get anything in response but vitriol.
Occasionally, I’ve been placed on the other side, accused of being a troll for having made a comment—once for explaining where “gaslighting” comes from (someone had used the word without knowledge, it was clear, of the Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman movie). Yeah, I was being pedantic and a bit snarky, but that’s different from being a troll. But the other person took the opportunity to make the accusation and cut me off.
As a professor, I’ve long been sensitive to the impact of trolls on academics who get involved in social media. Steven Salaita lost a tenured position at the University of Illinois through attention brought about, essentially, by trolls. He is by no means the only one who has found academic freedom trumped by trolls. I don’t want to become another victim of trolls, so I try to watch what I say (something I shouldn’t have to do—not for that reason, at least). As I also do want to stand behind fellow professors attacked by trolls, I constantly watch for instances of harassment, ready to jump in with whatever defense I can muster.
Today, I read one such story, ready to climb on my high horse and yell, “charge!” Jared Yates Sexton, a professor at Georgia Southern University, had live-tweeted a Donald Trump rally in Greensboro, NC and then had written about the experience online for The New Republic. Today, for the same magazine online, he described the aftermath: “By Saturday, the new cause online was a concentrated effort to try and cost me my job at Georgia Southern. The trolls planned a deluge of calls and emails to my college’s dean and Georgia’s Board of Regents.” This, of course, is ridiculous; Sexton shouldn’t even need defense (and probably doesn’t), but the charged atmosphere both of United States politics and American academia puts us all on a hair trigger.
As I neared the end of the article, I began to realize that Sexton was approaching something other than just another of the endless anti-Trump screeds, the making fun of Cheeto Jesus and his hapless tailgating buffoons that has become de rigueur for almost any media outside of Fox and Breitbart (I can’t help it: I fall into it, too). He was writing about the lesson he had learned, that the wall between troll and trollee ain’t quite as substantial as our online rants have led us to assume and believe. He’s not arguing that he should like the trolls, simply that he can talk to them—to some of them, at least:
[J]ust as I had gone to Greensboro to empathize with Trump’s base, I attempted to engage my trolls to glean their motivations. To my surprise, some of them abandoned their attacks and met me halfway.
Since then I’ve been trading messages with people who, only days ago, aggressively questioned my motives and my integrity. They tell me about their children, their jobs, their favorite movies. Chances are we’ll never agree politically, but we can at least have a conversation.
Maybe that’s the antidote to all of this anxiety and fear. Seeing past the names on the screen. Staring into the divide and finding the person on the other side of the machine.
Lord knows, there are people on my block that I am not going to reach out to. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t. Just as Sexton found online, people in real life can be, to use his word, “vile.” The divide isn’t simply part of the digital but is part of how we live our lives. Good guys and bad guys: That’s how we have long separated, us against them.
A friend of mine, a very conservative, even libertarian, law librarian, posted a comment to an article that she would have liked to catalogue for her firm—but she objected to the way the author inserted essentially irrelevant observations. She was laid into, told to take off her burka, to admit to her real liberal colors and worse. Startled, she tried to engage but found the abuse escalate. Having experienced somewhat the same reaction, I told her I no longer read comments, for the most part, on anything I write. That pains me (I want to engage in discussion), but the rabbit hole sucks you down—and it is not worth the effort.
As a teacher, I want to erase the simple lines we create between people we decide are “good” and those we deem “bad.” I want to do the same with ideas, not by giving equal weight to the “vile” (the false objectivity of so much contemporary journalism means nothing to me) but by recognizing that there is a person behind even the most ridiculous ideas. And not a “bad” person. But the effort is tremendous—and wasted, if the person on the other side isn’t also willing.
What Sexton points out is one of the great rules of teaching: When people are at loggerheads, find something else to talk about. Just keep them talking. Approach the contentious topic obliquely, and only after establishing some sort of common ground, be it on children, jobs or movies. We all do this in the classroom—and I should do it on the block (though I don’t, I should). But we don’t do it online—not often, at least, and rarely do we even consider it as a possibility. Our online discussions have become so encased in their silos that nothing—except hate—enters most conversations except a binary that keeps getting stretched to further extremes.
It’s not just “names on the screen” that we need to see past. It’s differences of all sorts, all of the components of diversity. Recognize the differences, sure, but don’t focus on them. Sexton is being naïve, but deliberately so, just as we teachers have to be, to succeed in the classroom. We have to believe in progress, for education itself is progress.
We don’t have to love everybody or embrace them all—we can even state firmly that some of the things some of them are suggesting are vile—but we don’t have to hate.
I don’t even have to hate my neighbors—even though their motorcycles have destroyed the grass strip in our shared driveway. And worse.
It doesn’t matter.
Reaching over the divide does.
Thanks for the reminder, Professor Sexton.