What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

[Content note: online harassment & threats]

Many of us who have dealt with trolls online have spent a lot of time–to much, probably–wondering what motivated them, how they would justify their actions (or not), whether they would ever regret it or apologize.

Writer Lindy West actually got to find this out. After she publicly called out a troll who’d made a Twitter account impersonating her late father and used it to harass her (yes, that happened), he emailed her and apologized. He even donated money in her name to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had treated her father before he died. On an episode of This American Life, West called him and talked to him more about why he did what he did.

The conversation was both amazingly honest and also painfully unsurprising, at least to those of us who have dealt with this sort of behavior. The ex-troll admitted that he’d been in a really bad mental place when he’d made multiple accounts just to harass West. In the email he’d originally sent to apologize, he wrote, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” In the TAL episode, he explained that he was overweight and unhappy with his body, and West’s public satisfaction with (and celebration of) her own weight made him resentful. Gender played a role, too:

Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that– and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first. …I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my– the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life. But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them– seek them out to harm them emotionally.

West added:

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

Indeed, that level of self-awareness is pretty rare in anyone, let alone in men who harass and threaten women.

Although none of my really-awful trolls have ever apologized, one who used to mildly troll my comments section did, and confessed that it had to do with his own mental health issues that he was taking out on me and my blog. I became his outlet, the lightning rod for all his grievances with himself and the world. From talking to other women with a presence on the internet, I know my experience (and West’s) is not unique.

There is a lot to learn from the TAL episode. Although trolls/online harassers probably have a variety of motivations, there clearly is a subset of them that troll because they can’t or won’t deal with their own personal issues. I want to be very careful here and not do the whole blaming mental illness thing, but I also want to trust people who have mental illnesses when they say that their mental illness is what prompted them to do something shitty. That’s part of humanizing mental illness, too–acknowledging that sometimes, especially when untreated/unmanaged, it can cause people to act in ways that aren’t really in accordance with who they actually want to be.

But also, you need not have a diagnosable mental illness to be in a bad place in your head at some point in time. You need not have a diagnosable mental illness to believe on some level that it’s okay to outsource emotional caretaking to someone else. The common thread here isn’t “mental illness” but “people avoiding dealing with their own issues and taking their pain out on others,” which, as I’ve been discussing a lot around here, is a gendered phenomenon.

In the episode, West concludes:

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

That is what horrified me most about this whole thing, aside from imagining what it must’ve been like for West pre-apology. How on earth could a random writer on the internet give these people what they need–partners, friends, self-love, satisfying jobs? It’s a frustration that I’ve felt before.

When the episode first aired, I saw a lot of people hailing it as some sort of sign that, see, trolls really are people too, and they’re redeemable, and maybe if we just remember not to lose sight of their humanity, then they’ll see the light and stop trolling! (Note that although I’m borrowing some of West’s wording here, I absolutely don’t think she’s this naive. Not after everything the internet has put her through.)

It’s a nice thought. It means that the solution to the revolting bullshit people (mostly women) deal with online is neither to “just ignore it” nor to lash back out or ridicule or petition social media platforms for better moderation. It’s just to talk to them and figure out what’s making them hurt so bad.

You can probably see why this is unacceptable as far as general advice goes. As West said, women can’t take responsibility for healing all these strangers’ hurts. People in my field get paid good money to do that, and I’m not about to do it for free for someone I’ve never met who just called me a fucking cunt.

Moreover, though, I’m not sure that most trolls are “redeemable.” Buzzfeed writer Tabatha Leggett, who got rape and death threats after writing about watching The Simpsons (yes, really), recently described her experience contacting her trolls, and seems to have had a rather different one than West did:

The first guy was a stand-up comedian from Chicago. He’d left a meme that said “kill yourself” in the comments section. He insisted that leaving a meme was different to typing out the words “kill yourself”. “Anyone who knows the meme wouldn’t take it seriously,” he told me. “I just wanted to tell you to shut the fuck up.”

I told him that his comment, underneath the hundreds of other abusive ones I’d received, came across as threatening. He told me I was an idiot for feeling that way. I asked him why he felt the need to comment at all. Why not just avoid reading my stuff in the future?

“You might have other really good stuff that you write about,” he replied. “I just didn’t want you to write about The Simpsons again. I was like, shut up.”

Another man that she spoke to did apologize, but it’s unclear which of these reactions is more typical. Point is, sometimes no amount of emotional labor will extract an apology (let alone genuine regret). And even if it did, what difference does it make? The damage has been done, and there always seem to be more trolls willing to take the place of those who realize the error of their ways.

If there’s anything to take away from Lindy West’s interview with her troll, it’s that trolling is more about the troll than the target. However, note that many people are miserable and full of self-hatred and do not make accounts impersonating a writer’s dead father that they use to harass her. The ex-troll’s misogyny and our society’s tolerance of it probably played as big a role in his behavior as did his personal problems.

Unfortunately, we can’t magically heal everyone’s misery. We can stop blaming victims of harassment for that harassment, and we can institute some better social norms and institutional policies that help prevent harassment. People like Lindy West are part of the reason we’re finally having that conversation on any sort of scale, but it’s embarrassing how much we had to put up with before that conversation finally got started.


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The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not “Just Trolling”

This past year, Oberlin College, generally known for being liberal and inclusive, had a series of bias incidents–or, more specifically, hate crimes. Notes with swastikas were left in mailboxes, flyers advertising minority groups were defaced, signs were put up with ethnic slurs on them, and several students were physically assaulted or chased by people making derogatory ethnic comments. It all culminated when someone was seen on campus wearing, I kid you not, a KKK costume.

Recently, it’s come to light that the two students who did it were supposedly quite liberal. One worked on the Obama campaign and was apparently involved with some local anti-racist group. Some conservatives have seized on this as evidence that the bias incidents were just “a hoax.” Angus Johnson writes:

The Daily Caller cites Bleier’s support for Obama and his membership in an anti-racism organization as evidence that the hate crimes were false-flag hoaxes, but the student allegedly told campus police that he was simply trolling — that he performed the acts as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”

He concludes:

A sustained campaign of bigoted vandalism that has the intent and effect of provoking fear and panic among the members of your community may be a hoax, but it’s also something else.

It’s a bias crime.

Oberlin’s official response to the speculation about the perpetrators’ motives is excellent:

These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real. While Oberlin College takes great pride in its historic and ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respectful discussion of ideas, we draw the line at threats and harassment of any kind.

We will not tolerate acts of hatred and threats of violence regardless of motivation. We are proud of the way our community came together to respond to these incidents with education, discussion, and reflection. As Oberlin’s people have since our founding in 1833, we will continue striving to make the world better for all through education and discourse based on reason, facts, and respect.

At first, I was a little surprised that people think it matters whether or not the perpetrators were “joking” or “trolling.” The harm was done, right? But then I wasn’t surprised anymore, because I realized something.

These “trolls,” and everyone who complains about “political correctness,” are misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about hate speech. They think we’re trying to tell them that certain words are Just Bad, the way social conservatives think that premarital sex or masturbation are Just Bad. They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it.

They think that we believe that shouting the n-word in a forest where nobody hears it as just as bad as shouting the n-word in the lobby of the Black Student Union.

What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

We had a bunch of racist incidents at my undergrad school while I was there. Nothing quite as serious as the Oberlin incidents, but enough to rile the campus up and provoke administrative response. I saw the toll that it took on my classmates who were targeted. I watched them go from feeling like a part of the campus community to feeling like nobody wanted them there. I watched as their peaceful, powerful demonstrations against campus racism were deemed “divisive,” while wearing blackface (yes, that happened) to a Halloween party was apparently not “divisive.”

Hate speech is ethically wrong because it hurts people needlessly and accomplishes no good, not because the words are Bad and you just shouldn’t use them.

Likewise, as funny as you might think it is when university administrations respond strongly to hate speech (and as ineffective as their methods might be, which is a worthwhile aspect to critique), they’re not doing it because they’re Holier Than Thou Liberals; they’re doing it because it’s their job to ensure that they have a campus where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where everyone can devote their attention to learning and enjoying themselves and not to scrubbing racist graffiti off their doors.

That’s why it doesn’t matter why the students who blanketed their campus with hate speech did it. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were trying to make some Brilliant Point About the Human Condition. It doesn’t matter that they seem to have contributed to progressive causes in the past, or that they were trying to make fun of the administration rather than harass their fellow students.

It doesn’t matter, because you don’t know why someone wrote “No N*****s” on your bathroom door. It doesn’t matter, because no matter what the intent was, you and your identity have been used without your consent to make a joke or a statement. You have become a football lobbed by bored white boys at a university administration that they take issue with but can’t be bothered to address in a responsible, mature way.

Your painful history–the enslavement and abuse of your ancestors, or their internment and murder in concentration camps–are just a prop in a skit that you never auditioned to act in. The words that were invented specifically to make people like you seem less than human are now used to make some sort of grand statement about how we “overreact” to things.

When it comes to hate speech, I really don’t care how you feel in your heart of hearts. Maybe you really, really love women and Blacks and gays and Jews but just think it’s soooo funny when everyone gets up in arms about a swastika in a professor’s mailbox.

I’d encourage you, then, to find a way to indulge your idiosyncratic taste for humor in some way that doesn’t involve hurting and terrorizing others.

[blogathon] What I’ve Learned From Blogging

This is the fourth post in my SSA blogathon, and another reader request. Don’t forget to donate!

I’ve been blogging in some form or another for ten years. Since I was 12. Did they even have blogs back then? Apparently!

But I only started this blog a little less than four years ago, and it took about a year or two for it to really start to pick up readers. I’ve always written primarily for myself–because it’s fun, because I wanted to work out my ideas–otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep it up for 7 or 8 years before starting to really get readers. But having an audience and interacting with it is a big part of what blogging’s all about, or else there would be a lot fewer blogs in the world.

That makes blogging very different from other kinds of writing, and even though I’ve been writing and one way or another since early childhood, blogging has taught me a few unique lessons.

1. Do it for yourself.

I mentioned this already, but I’ll expand on it. Blogging and writing in general can be very thankless things to do. While I get plenty of lovely comments and emails from people about how my blog has helped them and influenced their opinions, most people who read this blog and like it will not tell me so. And nor should they feel obligated to. But that means that in order for someone to keep up blogging and not get burned out, they have to do it primarily for themselves–because it’s good for them, because they love it. The feeling I get from finally working out in writing an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for hours or days doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve ever done.

But this is important because it applies to many things one does in life. I learned to love working out because I learned to do it for me, not for the approval of people who tell me I need to work out. I learned to love going to parties because I found a way to do it in a way that I actually enjoyed rather than doing it because it’s what college students “ought” to do (and I avoid the kinds of parties that I would not enjoy). And I predict that I’ll love my career not (just) because I want to “help people,” but because I enjoy the process of working through someone’s patterns of thinking with them.

Of course, sometimes you have to do things for other people and not for yourself. That’s a fact of life. But it’ll go better if you find a way to do it for yourself, too.

2. Your worth is not based on how many people agree with you.

Let me tell you this: no matter how confident you are, no matter how many compliments you’ve gotten, even the kindest and most polite criticism will sting. (And when it’s not polite at all, it stings even more.) I’ve come to realize that feeling stung by criticism is not a bad thing in and of itself; once the feeling passes, you can evaluate the criticism on its own merits and hopefully improve and clarify your own position.

But regardless of whether criticism is fair or not, it doesn’t have anything to do with one’s worth as a person. I could write something that every single person who reads it disagrees with and I’d still be a generally decent person who tries to be a good friend and partner and who tries to contribute to the causes and communities I care about. Even if I happen to write the stupidest fucking post that has ever graced this blog, those things are still true.

3. Don’t expect to make a huge difference immediately (or ever).

This also comes back to doing it for yourself. But I think that the more you expect your blogging/activism to Change All The Things!, the easier it’ll be for you to get burned out when you inevitably find that you’re not living up to your own expectations.

Blogging is even less likely to make Big Concrete Change than other forms of activism. If you participate in a march or rally, you’ll get a huge amount of visibility for your cause. If you lobby your congressperson, they may vote the way you wanted them to and help pass important legislation or block terrible legislation. If you participate in a boycott of a company, the company may cave and stop doing whatever shitty thing it was doing.

What does blogging do? Someone, somewhere out there, might read a post and feel like they’re not alone. They may write to you and tell you, but they may not. Someone, somewhere out there, might start questioning beliefs they’d previously held sacred. Someone, somewhere out there, might find a good new argument to use next time they have to debate with someone about religion or politics or social justice.

Sometimes blogging does make a huge visible difference. A good example is something Jessica Valenti discusses in her book The Purity Myth–in 2005, a Virginia lawmaker named John Cosgrove proposed a bill that would’ve made it illegal for a woman to fail to report a miscarriage to the police within 12 hours. But citing Internet backlash, he later withdrew the bill.

But I think that’s rare. Most of the time you will not see huge changes from your blogging, though you may occasionally see small ones. They still matter.

4. You get to decide how to blog. Not your commenters. You.

I have a pretty detailed and specific comment policy. Some of it’s the usual stuff, but some of it is pretty specific to my style of blogging and moderating. For instance, if you use a nasty tone, I get to respond to you with a nasty tone. If you disagree and don’t back up your disagreement with any evidence or reasoning, you’ll get deleted. If you’re a bigot, you get deleted. Plenty of people dislike my style of moderation, and I frankly don’t care.

I decided early on that what would be up for debate on this blog would be ideas, not how I choose to blog. Nobody gets to tell me they don’t like my tone. Nobody gets to tell me not to feed the trolls if that’s what I want to do. Nobody gets to tell me to write about something other than what I want to write about. Nobody gets to tell me that FREEZE PEEEEACH.

My blog, my rules!

5. People will assume that who you are when you’re blogging is Who You Are.

This is one I’ve had a lot of trouble with. To some extent, my blog is a good approximation of who I am and what I care about. But to some extent it’s not. My response to commenters prattling on about false rape accusations is not the same as my response to people in meatspace prattling on about false rape accusations. My argumentation online is not the same as my argumentation in meatspace. Having now met many bloggers I follow offline, I know I’m far from alone in this.

But people don’t always know or consider this, so I think people often assume I’m really snarky and argumentative in meatspace, too. I’m actually not. I much prefer listening to talking, and in fact, I read a lot more than I write. I read dozens of articles a day and dozens of books a year. What I write is a fraction of what I think about as I read all these things.

Sometimes this means I make an effort to be extra friendly, smiley, and easy-going in public. But I think the most important thing for me is to remember that my personality, like everyone else’s, has multiple facets, and that I make good decisions about which sides to deploy in given situations.

Actually, I have a lot more to say about things I’ve learned from blogging, so I’ll probably have to write a follow-up post since this one’s super-long. Stay tuned!


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The Circular Logic of Internet Misogynists

Yesterday–the same day, incidentally, that I discovered that I’ve inspired my first pathetic little hate club–a blogger I respect announced that she’s taking a hiatus from blogging after enduring constant abuse and harassment for daring to be a woman with opinions on the internet.

Jen McCreight wrote:

I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few). If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter). This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life. In the past, multiple people have threatened to contact my employer with “evidence” that I’m a bad scientist (because I’m a feminist) to try to destroy my job.

[…]I don’t want to let them win, but I’m human. The stress is getting to me. I’ve dealt with chronic depression since elementary school, and receiving a daily flood of hatred triggers it. I’ve been miserable….I spend most of my precious free time angry, on the verge of tears, or sobbing as I have to moderate comments or read what new terrible things people have said about me. And the only solution I see is to unplug.


In case you don’t follow Jen’s blog and aren’t familiar with what’s been going on, here’s an example, and here’s a post she wrote about it once. I don’t really have the words for how awful and unconscionable this is, so I’ll just quote JT Eberhard: “the people who have harassed her into quitting are inhuman shitbags.  As the atheism movement gets bigger, the tiny percentage of just rotten folks will continue to be comprised of more and more people who would sooner destroy a person than an idea. Those people don’t deserve this community.”

But what I really wanted to talk about was these misogynists’ reactions to Jen’s decision to quit blogging (for the time being). Sure, some of them made the typical “good riddance” comments, but others actually blamed her for being “unable to take the heat” and claimed that the only reason she quit was to get sympathy.

The interesting thing is, these people purposefully harassed Jen–you know, to make her feel like shit–and then blamed her for being too “weak” to take the harassment without quitting.

This sort of circular logic completely baffles me.

(It’s not the first time I’ve seen this convoluted reasoning in a community that prides itself on its supposed ability reason clearly. An idiot once saw fit to inform Greta Christina that he had lost all respect for her after she released a naked photo of herself for a good causea photo that he masturbates to. Somebody explain this.)

What many of these misogynists seem to be saying is that the fact that Jen quit retroactively justifies their treatment of her. Because she wasn’t able to “deal” with their harassment, the harassment was justified. Ridiculous.

Also, it disgusts me how clueless these people seem to be about mental illness. People who stop doing something because that thing is giving them a mental illness are not being “weak.” They aren’t “letting the trolls win.” They aren’t “flouncing.” They aren’t “looking for sympathy.” They’re taking care of their own health.

And that comes first, even if their mental illness was caused by something that seems like no big deal to healthy folks. For instance, if dating makes you depressed, you’re completely justified in staying away from dating for a while. If your job is making you depressed, you’re completely justified in finding a new job. But what happened to Jen, by the way, is not something that should seem like “no big deal” to any halfway-decent person.

I likewise take issue with people who refer to what Jen went through as “trolling.” There’s a difference between trolling and harassment. When I make a blog post and someone comments “lol your an idiot, go fuck yourself and stop writing,” that’s trolling. When someone continually harasses someone on various internet channels (email, Twitter, the target’s blog), recruits more people to help with that, writes their own blog posts trashing the target, impersonates them in a derogatory way, that’s not trolling anymore. That is harassment.

Trolling is usually mindless and casual, something done by an immature, inconsequential person who’s bored and wants to mess with someone. Harassment is calculated, targeted, and done with a purpose. Trolling is annoying and stupid; harassment is harmful and can be scarring.

Trolling is something we all run the risk of when we put our work out there on the internet. Serious political posts get trolled; silly YouTube videos get trolled. Delete the comments and move on.

Harassment is not something we all run the risk of. Harassment is targeted at people who are being “uppity,” who don’t “know their place.” A feminist on the internet–and especially a feminist in the atheist blogosphere–is one such person.

I don’t care how strongly you disagree with someone’s ideas–harassment is unacceptable no matter what. There is no justification. The fact that your target developed a serious mental illness and had to quit is certainly not a justification. The fact that you disagree with their vision for atheism is not a justification, either. If you think harassment is an appropriate response to ideas you disagree with, then guess what–you’re a terrible excuse for a human being.

I rarely make statements as categorical as that one, so you know I really mean it when I do.