#TriggeringTrolls and Freeing Speech

So this piece deals with PTSD and trigger warnings, which is fairly good indicator of its content. Whether you are comfortable reading this is, of course, entirely your call. Meanwhile, this piece also deals with the politics of free speech, which, while not exactly traumatic, can be a real fucking headache at times. If this aspect makes you uncomfortable, I’m sure you’ll let me know somehow.

Free Speech

A sampling of image search results for “free speech meme”.

There is some kind of event happening right now on your internet. It involves the sharing of droll anti-PC sentiments, indexed with a particular hashtag, to raise awareness about… What, exactly? Free speech? Feminism? The rights of men? The rights of women who aren’t feminists? The rights of men who are feminists but can’t seem to own up to the label, haven’t quite figured out the right words to get themselves back into the fold, can’t understand why there’s just so many words now, babe, and I thought we were talking about class struggle anyways?

The hashtag in question recalls the idea of the “trigger” – a quick googling of which will either turn up Trigger Bros Surfboards (a surf shop in Frankston, Victoria) or, with the addendum “warning wiki”, a link to the Vietnam Veterans of Australia Association site, specifically a page on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The latter link explains that PTSD is

caused by exposure to trauma in which the person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of that person or others. The person’s response involves intense fear, helplessness or horror.

In studies of PTSD, triggers take on many forms, but there is always an element of re-exposure at stake – whether by physical response (fear, helplessness or horror) or simply recalling past trauma, the triggered subject is re-exposed to certain significant events, often with a shocking intensity. The Veteran’s Association website provides a number of symptoms, including “intrusive memories and feelings”, “alcohol and other drug abuse” and, most frightening for me at least, “sleep disturbance including dreams and nightmares”. Cases of PTSD have been reported as early as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders I in 1952, which describes a “gross stress reaction” brought on by exposure to conflict and “civilian catastrophe”. First named in the DSM-III, and finally hyphenated in the DSM-IV, post-traumatic stress disorder became well-known in the wake of the Vietnam war, and continues to be an issue of concern for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq today. Symptoms of PTSD are also commonly diagnosed in survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault; the connections are well-documented.

While complex, the idea is simple enough to grasp right away: traumatic things have happened, they have had an impact, and the person experiencing that impact has and will have a particular (often anxious) relationship to things which remind them of the past events in question. More often than not, this is what I think of when I think of “trigger warnings” – labels usually, mostly appended to the beginnings of articles or blog posts, alerting their reader to any graphic or potentially trauma-inducing subjects in the piece to follow. It’s a bit of common sense, and a courtesy, most of the time.

search: trigger warning meme
Sampling of image search results: “trigger warning meme”

Other times, it can be a bit of a minefield, especially when journalists like Paul Sheehan are running unsubstantiated stories about “Arabic-speaking” men with the aid of a former Reclaimer, and bloggers like Andrew Bolt are opining the death of Australian free speech all at once. Our speech, they assure us, is not free – its fate rests in the hands of an unenlightened few, unlike Nick Cater’s real Australians, who would of course “never succumb to the voodoo fatalism that disempowers the people of some cultures from changing their lives for better or worse”. What the fuck is voodoo fatalism, you might ask? I don’t know, because I haven’t Cater’s book, but that’s a sample quote, from Guy Rundle’s astonishing review of the book The Lucky Culture.

This quote goes on a little bit further, singling out something especially fatalistic: “Australians (at least until recently) were not allowed to wallow in the mire of victimhood, which becomes a permanent excuse for failure.” If that’s what Cater says about what he believes – I mean if that’s how he chooses to put it – then we’re in for a bit of a rough ride, especially if we want to talk about things like triggers and warnings. These guys seem to still be smarting over the failure to repeal section 18C, that is, a law which prohibits (within a reasonable margin of error) the publication of offensive or insulting materials in today’s big newspapers, and everywhere else in fact – if a court can deem that you reasonably intended to offend a particular race or person of that race, and did so outside the limits of journalistic propriety, then you can face penalty in the court of law. Their concern, I think, is the idea of a court proving someone’s intentions, beyond reasonable or journalistic doubt.

But how hard is it to prove ignorance, dipshittery and outright troll-ness? Hard to say, especially since two of those words I think I made up. But being a dipshit on the internet – vaguely suggesting, for example, that Australians are “wallow[ing] in the mire of victimhood” – is an OK place to start. Because we are dealing with the same sorts of rhetoric that motivate crowds upon crowds of men to huddle together in typographically-cramped sub-reddits, vigorously opining about women on the internet, women in contemporary culture, women in politics, women who will date them, women who won’t date them, women who sort of seem to want to date them but also no, and, most importantly, their own right to their own free speech.

Men have built themselves castles with this kind of speech. Today, though, we have something like the website Return of Kings, whose URL I do not know. But I know about trolls because I know about trolling – the art of the anti-commenter, the trickster, the social media provocateur. They think they’re being funny, even when they’re also deadly serious. That’s an important point to remember about trolls, especially when someone doesn’t realise they’re trolling, or isn’t aware of its effects on other people. More often than not, when a troll is called out on the internet, they will exclaim something to the effect of “dance, puppets, dance” – I knew you’d react that way, you dancing puppet, that’s why I said what I said in the first place!

search: puppet master meme
Sampling of search results for “puppet master meme”

But this is also a defensive formation, pretty basic, sort of displacing doubt back onto the person who has called them out. Virtually, everybody’s response is typical, whether you’re a Labour or Liberal voter, an SJW or an MRA, or anyone else in between. That’s part of what the troll plays to – the typology of the internet, its various made-up words for things (neologisms), and its unique indexing mechanisms for our daily thought (like hashtags). But it’s all about deflecting doubt, getting away with the joke, doing it for the lulz and such. The result is games: puppets dancing to designs, as reported in like a paranoid or psychotic episode, but all dressed up in irony and memes and stuff. Throughout it all, the troll kind of screams out “I know you are, but” – and he probably means this when he says it – “what am I?”

So when it comes to an idea like social justice, or the term “social justice warrior” (which appears mainly propagated by their counterpart, the “men’s rights activist”, and vice versa) the troll goes apeshit random ironic. If trolling is a kind of anti-social speech, this is because it intentionally does damage to the spaces in which it appears, resisting what it sees as “PC” culture gone mad by posting pornography, quoting star wars, belittling critics and, at its worst, endangering people’s lives by posting their addresses and private information online.

Of course, crowds can engage in trolling too – usually when they’ve discovered a ‘lone’ troll in their midst, someone who can stand in for virtually everything they hate about the other side, etc etc. This happened as recently as yesterday on Clementine Ford’s Facebook page, when an 18-year-old man (subsequent comments made sure to remind me that he was totally a culpable adult in a public space) dropped a tactless, offensive, dipshit joke on a post which was mourning the suicide of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl. The dipshit was a repeat offender, mostly playing covers like the aforementioned “you totally fell for my joke” and “feminists are gross and hairy”, “feminists can’t take jokes” et al. But after Ford shared the offending joke (along with a few pictures of the adult man in question [I think from his high school formal]) there was a bit a public shaming, in which legitimate sentiment got mixed in with some reflexive commentary on what exactly should happen to the offender. Eventually, the adult man’s mother had to intervene, more or less pleading for Ford to take down the name and shame post:


And to her credit, Ford elected to remove the post soon after. In its place is this message, outlining what went down and hitting out against another troll – this latter troll had actually been impersonating Clementine Ford online, and advocating that the 18-year-old man kill himself. The responses to this message have been pretty balanced, I think, thanking Ford for raising awareness about hateful speech and for removing the post at the man’s mother’s behest. Given the success of the strategy in the past, Ford must now know that sharing the details of someone online will now inevitably result in that person’s mother receiving an unprecedented shit-tonne of social media attention. It also produces doubles, like the vile impersonator troll (a double of the vaunted art form that is the parody account).

I mean, just try and translate that entire scenario from social media back into real life. The expulsion of protesters from a Donald Trump rally seems somewhat close – protesters are of course trolls, from the perspective of your average rally attendee. And then there is the fact that comparisons to Trump are like comparisons to Hitler – they rarely win arguments. But even this (extraordinarily reductive) analogy would depend on like a Trump doppelganger, who would, while the crowd was distracted by their expulsions, replace the candidate onstage and start cheering on that same crowd. Trolling is a series of reversals – I am not part of your crowd, well then you are not welcome here, how dare you exclude me, but you just said, aha but then you’ve proved my point, haven’t you? And so on and so on.

Search: troll meme
Sampling of image search results: “troll meme”

If that account seems a little broad, consider how broadly we invoke the term ‘troll’ today, as a noun or as a verb. Politicians troll each other, and the people who trawl their pre-election events can be trolls as well – but then again, people troll under their real name every day on Facebook, usually by just speaking their mind in a particularly dipshit kind of way. You’ll know it when you see it, especially if you tend to follow politics or journalism closely. Just dipshits, far as the eye can see, saying troll things and espousing troll vices as virtue. Doesn’t really matter where you fall on the political spectrum – you’re getting trolled by these dipshits every day, even – no, especially – when they aren’t even talking directly at you, but to their own dipshit mates on the other side. So you think you’ll go wreak havoc with their conversation, drop some truth bombs and break up the party. Suddenly you’re the troll, trolling along. Isn’t that usually how it plays out?

Well, not always. Sometimes the party rallies around you. For better or worse, they rally around this kind of stuff. The current United States presidential election will either be fought on worker’s wages and some generalist Tea Party shit, or will more likely feature a clash between two of the most politically-polarising (or at least polarised) individuals the world has ever seen. This election will matter for all kinds of reasons, including (probably) the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice, the future of healthcare in America, and the enfranchisement or otherwise of American citizens in years to come. But it will also matter for its impact on social media in the weeks and months ahead, as the universe struggles to cope with a former First Lady and Secretary of State going head-to-head with a man who won’t stay quiet about the cock of a real estate developer.

search: election meme
A sampling of image search results for “election meme”.

Where are the kinds of people behind hashtag “TheTriggering” going to go after they finish celebrating International Women’s Day? I wouldn’t bother to place a bet. Right now, they are opting to post statements denouncing ideas like rape culture – specifically, that the literal objectification of women perpetuates real violence – whilst repeating the most potentially-traumatic materials they can find, or at least insinuating that they totally could if they wanted to. To see the machinery of the internet harnessed in this way is almost laughable, except it impacts real people. It’s exactly like hearing that someone has experienced a trauma, perhaps in a conflict overseas, and opting to show that person another graphic beheading video, “clogging their newsfeed” with the stuff as a celebration of your own right to free speech.

If that’s how you get your kicks, or if that’s what you see as an adequate vehicle for debating a point, then I probably can’t help you. Again, if someone told you that certain words, acts or events tend to trigger an overwhelming fear response in them, what would you do? Post a warning? Respectfully decline to? Would you actually make the choice to trigger that person (knowing full well that, even if you don’t believe in the mechanics of triggering, that they sure as hell do, and they’ve already informed you what’s likely to happen)? If you opt for the latter – as a significant portion of your internet has just ham-fistedly elected to do – how on earth do you justify that choice?

Mitch C


P.S. I know full well that the hashtag in question is protesting the treatment of a journalist and commentator named Lauren Southern, who was reportedly subjected to some pretty fucked up abuse at a protest event in Vancouver. For the record, I don’t even condone carrying a bottle of urine, much less using one. But outside of plausible rhetorical deniability, I don’t see the connection between that event and the dipshit culture war shenanigans being prosecuted online right now. The Infowars website tried to explain it to me, and I got about as far as the claim that “If the media dares to even cover this, they will ignore the 99.99% of smart #TheTriggering tweets and instead focus on the tiny fraction of tweets from white supremacists that are actually racist.” We are the company that keeps us, I suppose.