Jul 04 2011

So you think you might be a troll…

There’s a video that has been running through the feminist segment of the atheism community from popular atheist, skeptic and feminist Rebecca Watson from The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepchick:

The video describes an interaction that Rebecca had with an attendee of an atheist/skeptic conference. She had been hanging out int he hotel bar with some of the people at the conference. It was late, and she said goodnight to everyone and went to head back to her room. One of the people who had been at the bar followed her onto the elevator and asked Rebecca if she wanted to go back to his hotel room with him, which she didn’t. Rebecca thought this was a clear-cut example of behaviour that men should avoid when attending conferences – don’t assume that just because a woman is out drinking that she wants to have sex with you. It was particularly on the nose for her, since she was there to talk about how to make these conferences more woman-friendly.

I had a difficult time getting on board with Rebecca on this one, because I couldn’t really see where the offense was. When I read Jen McCreight’s response, I was even more baffled. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that atheists ought not to proposition each other for casual sex – that’s really much more puritanical than the general atheist community tends to be. Was she suggesting that we don’t do it when we’re drunk? Or when it’s that late at night? Or when you don’t know the person well? I was sincerely confused.

Also, there’s Elevator Guy to consider. It seemed as though he was being passed off as a clueless lout that made sexual advances at someone and should have known better. But how? How could he have known his interests were unwanted? We don’t know if they’d spoken before, or if he was just a random creeper. We don’t know if he was drunk we don’t know how he asked the question (it might have been super-awkward, or it might have been with Don Draper-like poise and suaveness). As a guy who’s been rejected for making the first move, and also rejected for taking too long to make the first move, I wanted to make sure I understood what was going on so I didn’t make the same mistake.

So I posted a comment:

“cornering a woman in an elevator at 4AM and asking her up to your hotel room, after not having said two words to her the whole night, is about a 9.0 on the creepy scale.”

And here’s my problem with this whole discussion. Even from Rebecca’s video, we don’t know that he “cornered” her except insofar as there isn’t much besides corners in an elevator. We don’t know that they hadn’t spoken before. We don’t know what his reaction was when she said “no” – he might have just said “okay, cool.” It’s entirely conceivable to me that he was waiting for the crowd to thin out before making his proposition, but when she went for the elevator he threw a last-ditch “Hail Mary” pass, got shot down, and went on his merry way.

I can understand feeling threatened by an unwelcome advance in an elevator, but why are we assuming that this guy was physically threatening her, or that he was particularly creepy about it? There are some salient details missing from this story that we should have before we pass judgment on this guy for being a 9.0 creep.

The response to what I thought was a totally innocuous comment was… less than friendly. I suddenly realized that, to all eyes, I was trolling the comment threads trying to pick a fight, or to make some stupid statement about “men’s rights”, standing up for every guy’s right to sexually harass whomever he wants. Having dealt with trolls before, I knew immediately what would and wouldn’t work, and so I thought I would share some of those insights with you.

If you ever find yourself commenting on a forum where your opinion is in the strong minority (especially if it is diametrically opposed to the position of the author of the forum/blog post), here are some important lessons to keep in mind if you don’t want to get written off as a troll.

1. Listen

The hallmark of a troll, in fact the defining characteristic of a troll, is that she/he is not posting to gain information or change a perspective – she/he is there to propagate conflict. If you are sincerely interested in offering a dissenting opinion, make sure you actually listen to the responses that come back your way.

2. Relax

You will accomplish nothing besides looking silly if you lose your temper. You’re going to need to maintain a level of zen-like calm to avoid being drawn into a flame war. Since you are surrounded by people that disagree with you, they will be ready to dismiss your perspective if you look like a raving lunatic.

3. Realize there’s a good chance that you’re wrong

It’s far more likely that your disagreement is due to misunderstanding some point or nuance of the argument than it is that everyone (including the author) is a moron.

4. Assume they’ve already heard your arguments

When dealing with a group of people who are passionately defending a position, it’s reasonable to assume that they’ve already heard what you have to say. If it’s a topic you’re very unfamiliar with, it’s not a bad idea to point that out. Some websites are “101 level” websites, meaning they are populated by people who are willing to explain basic concepts to newcomers. Others assume that you have a certain level of knowledge. Asking “how come there are still monkeys” on a biology blog won’t go over well. (Note: I like to consider this a 101-level blog, although sometimes I forget).

5. Prepare to be Insulted

It’s going to happen. Learn to deal with it. If your self-esteem gets tied up in what people on the internet think about you, then you’ve got to stay away from forums.

6. Don’t respond to insults

The knee-jerk reaction to being attacked is to fight back. Avoid this temptation. You’re only hurting yourself (see #2). A tactic I like to use is to agree with the person insulting you (‘I must be as stupid as you say, but please try to show me where I’m wrong anyway’) – it pivots you away from emotional reactions and shows people that you’re not going to get stuck in the mud.

7. Point out areas of agreement

This one is major. If you can identify where you agree, it’s easier for both sides to tone things down a bit. It may also help you to realize where the other side is coming from (see #1).

8. Admit your mistakes

If you take a statement out of context, get called on a fallacy, or are proven to be incorrect in one or more assertions, acknowledge it. “Yeah, but…” isn’t an acknowledgment, it’s a dodge. It’s a sign of maturity when you can say “You’re right, and I shouldn’t have said that” or “You’re right, and I should have made that more clear.”

9. Prepare to walk away

If after all the talk you still think you’re right and they’re wrong, there’s no shame in just walking away. Don’t burn the bridge (“I’m done with you idiots”) or try to get the last word (“I guess you’ll never understand X”), just bow out gracefully (“I guess I’m just not getting it. I’ll take some time to think about what you said”). Many people will prefer to communicate through e-mail rather than continue spam on a forum. I myself have received e-mails from people who want to talk about an issue outside the context of a public forum – sometimes the venue inhibits the conversation. Be the bigger person genuinely – don’t try to win by walking away.

10. Be honest

This is probably the most important of these points. Don’t go in trying to win, don’t go in trying to score points or shove it in someone’s face. Be honest about your intentions, be honest in your words. Part of honesty is logical consistency – don’t twist or distort facts or others’ statements. This is where every troll fails – if you want to not be seen as trolling then you need to obey this scrupulously.

Keep in mind, of course, that none of this will save you from being seen as a troll, or being called a troll, but then the problem is with your accuser, not you. If you’re not trolling, then hopefully your audience will pick up on that and extend you the benefit of the doubt. Of course, if you’re not willing to do these steps then you probably are trolling, in which case you deserve whatever treatment you get :P

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  1. 1

    I agree very much with the above. Also I take issue with Rebecca’s sweeping “word to the wise.” If she would like to set herself up as the arbiter of what men may or may not do, I would like a stronger rationale to back up her advice than what was offered – it seems she thinks her reasons are so obvious an explanation isn’t even needed, and this is usually a clue that unexamined assumptions are kicking around which need to be examined. Clearly the approach made her uncomfortable – but that’s hardly the standard for setting social policy. Her discomfort in and of itself does not imply inappropriateness on the part of the man in question (though he may have been very inappropriate – with the limited information we have it’s difficult to reach useful conclusions about their particular interaction).

  2. 2

    I haven’t thrown myself into the maelstrom of comments on this issue yet, so you should feel privileged to hear my thoughts on the matter first.


    Ahem. Now that I’ve got my tongue out of my cheek, I can see where you’re coming from, Ian, and even agree with you to a large extent. Random Guy was probably harmless and we have know way of knowing the salient details of his reaction with Rebecca. But where most people disagree with you (including me, at least a bit) is that it isn’t about Random Guy.

    Let’s take all of the assumptions you pointed out and grant them in RG’s favour in two scenarios:

    1) He isn’t unknown to Rebecca, and in fact talked casually with her off and on at least a few times throughout the night. He *didn’t* follow her to the elevator, but was either there or was heading there independently. When he made the innocuous-sounding proposition and was rejected, he accepted with little to no ill-grace and at least mentally wished her well.

    2) He was a bit less self-assured and shy around crowds, possibly followed her to the elevator just to be alone but couldn’t muster up the courage to ask in a venue more amenable to her escape, and still managed to take her rejection in some sort of stride.

    Even granting either of those two scenarios, Rebecca’s (and Jen’s) reactions are completely justified–because, even in both of them, Rebecca had *no way* of knowing what he would do if he got her alone in his room. The point is that she *felt* threatened, regardless of the Random Guy’s intentions. It doesn’t matter if he was a family friend, relative or co-worker, or even a fanboy who fell in love with her talk(s) and wanted to get closer to her…she wasn’t willing to take the risk of getting assaulted, and she wasn’t interested in having sex.

    That doesn’t apply to all women and all situations. I certainly disagree with many of the commenters (and bloggers) who imply that we should have a witch-hunt out on skeptic men because one dared to proposition a woman where her friends couldn’t see, but sexual assault is a fear that most women live with every day, subconsciously or not. I know men get raped, too, even sometimes by women…but it’s part of our privilege that most of us don’t have to worry about it most of the time (unless we’ve been incarcerated, but that’s a subtopic of the rape conversation few people are willing to have). We don’t have to worry that when we’re alone with a woman in an elevator that they’ll hit the emergency stop button and want to get ‘more comfortable’ whether we like it or not. It’s just not something that crosses our minds.

    Asking that we men take some measure of action to alleviate that fear isn’t too much to ask, even if you personally would never even *think* about taking advantage of a woman without her consent. She wasn’t suggesting that we hunt RG down and castrate him–but she was using it as a ‘teachable moment’ to try and suggest how many men might make many women feel more at home at skeptic conferences.

    I think she (and Jen) should have done more to point out what sorts of advances *would* have been more welcome (instead of leaving it to PZ, who meant well but missed the mark–not every woman wants to develop a personal connection before having sex, and it doesn’t render them (or their sexual partners) off the Decent Human Being list). They should have publicly recognized that many guys *do* have confidence issues and aren’t willing to get shot-down in front of a big group of people. But all in all Rebecca acquitted herself very well and we can all take this as a lesson which directly applies to her message of being more welcome to women.

    (Hopefully that didn’t come off as too troll-y.)

  3. 3

    I have to admit, after looking at a number of blogs that hosted talks on this subject I’ve managed to learn quite a bit today. I’ve learned exactly what privilege is and how it applies to everyone in some fashion. I’ve learned what Schrodinger’s Rapist is and that even though this concept isn’t my fault and may not apply to all women, I don’t ever want to cause another human being any unnecessary anxiety. And I’ve learned that as a large, bearded, young, white male these are things I should really make sure that I am aware of.

    When I first watched Rebecca’s video I was also under the impression that she was being overly sensitive, now I think I can say that I get it.

  4. 4

    And there’s where I was confused, because if you want to have a “teachable moment”, someone has to say what the lesson is. If the lesson is “don’t corner” then that’s a valuable lesson/reminder – I was just really unclear on what I was supposed to take away from that story. Even the way she told it made her sound more irritated than threatened, and I was really uncertain what message I was supposed to take away.

    At any rate, it has been explained to me now, and I am on board.

  5. 5

    From watching Watson’s video I got the following:
    1. She was more annoyed than threatened — at least not the “O my god, my life is on the line” threatened.
    2. The annoyance was amplified by the fact that she was at an athestist conference to speak on making women more comfortable in the atheist community.
    3. She expressed this discomfort in the video and urged men in the community not to behave this way because it caused discomfort in women and some women would feel threatened.
    4. In asking men not to be dicks, she was variously interpretted to be puritanican, anit-sex, anti-men, etc. etc. etc.

    I read the threads at PZ’s site and couldn’t believe how she was misread. All you have to do is watch the video. And not be a dick.

  6. 6

    I too read about Schrodinger’s Rapist today…. And it was definitely a conciousness raising moment for me (probably because it was framed in terms of quantum theory). The idea that women, on some level, have to assume that any random guy who approaches them could be out to sexually assault them was definitely not something I had considered – I guess I’ll have to add that to the list of other moments where I realize that being a young, white, heterosexual, middle-class-and-certainly-not-poor male has certain implicit advantages that I never really noticed before.

    As for the whole uproar around Rebecca’s video….. Reading people’s comments, one could easily assume that she had gone on a tirade about most men at atheist conventions being misogynistic douchebags. Then I actually watched the video and found her to be quite calm and reasonable. My response? It’s sad that it is necessary but, yes – someone should probably tell guys to put themselves in a woman’s shoes before approaching them (especially when they are alone in an elevator at 4AM).

  7. 7
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Yep. Good Liszt there.


    Cheers for that Crommunist. :-)

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