“[…] and what if I said it happened to me? Would that make a difference? You that are all full of knee-jerk politics about ideas about victims? Does it have to be a woman? […] Like if it wasn’t Jewish people in the Holocaust if it was just me in the Holocaust? Who do you think would care then? Do you think anyone cared about Victor Frankl or admired his humanity until he gave them Man’s Search for Meaning? I’m not saying it happened to me or him or my wife or even if it happened but what if it did?”
David Foster Wallace, ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men [#46]’ (1999: 105)
Is it worth feeding the trolls? If so, what should we feed them? I’ve spent the better part of this afternoon testing a premise – that there are some online trolls that can be reasoned with, provided you know which ones to look for.
I’m not talking about the actually troglodytic bastards who think that death threats and harassment belong in a civil society – if that’s you, kindly fuck off, this is a club for older kids.
Rather, I’m talking about the New (Gender) Atheists, the folks for whom a hashtag like #notallmen signals some kind of extraordinarily relevant and sophisticated anxiety about feminism, feminists, social justice warriors et al.
The smart ones, or at least the ones that want you to know, first and foremost, that they are being ‘the smart one’ in the conversation.
The ones who can’t quite square themselves with privilege theory, even though they willingly and loudly accept the fact that, you know, women have had it worse than men for actual millennia.
The ones who seem almost genuinely disappointed when someone won’t ‘debate’ them on a feminist social media page, a comments section, a blog. The ones willing to offer their own artful ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ of a feminism which is both ‘too extreme’ and ‘too mainstream’ at once. The rambunctiously-pointless thing that is #gamergate.
I didn’t have to travel far to find one. In fact, there is still a very reasonable case to be put that I am one, because goddamn do I have opinions about identity politics.
When I’m not writing about the troll-ier aspects of David Foster Wallace (who definitely had a thing or two to say on the ‘subject’ of women), I consume copious amounts of political media, Australian and American. Chief symptoms of this addiction include on-the-spot evaluations of a person’s rhetoric, often freely given, and the assumption that people around you think and speak like politicians.
Point is I’m borderline. I get the thrill of arguing with people, especially on the internet. But I’ve never actually done it that much. I didn’t get a twitter account until this year. Suddenly I’m all “hey pal, boost my signal why dontcha, #auspol, #qanda, #auspol, #qanda” but I barely even considered doing that before. Am I, a twenty-seven year old man, finally reaching internet puberty?
As it happens, my voice did not exactly deepen when I read the following comment on Clementine Ford’s facebook page. To protect the identities of those involved, we’ll go with this guy’s fake name, Jon Tan:
This comment was in response to a very compelling video about online abuse, which didn’t exactly do justice to the video:
But there was something hypnotic about the typo ‘saying the hope’, and there were twenty-odd replies and a flurry of ‘read mores’. So I cracked out the proverbial popcorn, and the show did not disappoint. If I’m borderline, this guy was full-blown:
It’s about here that I paused, because it suddenly occurred to me that MRAs are really forthcoming about their own experiences with domestic abuse, especially at the hands of women. I could be off-base about Jon Tan – he may have just been slapped outside of a bar somewhere – but there was another hypnotic and closed sentence: “I’ve never seen a man hit a woman but have seen many women hit men including myself.” The trouble, as far as I could see, was all the bullshit that had accrued itself to this potentially relevant point
Maybe not relevant beneath the video, though, as numerous smart commenters pointed out. But I can only get so far with “That’s not what the article/video was about? Christ, why can’t we just talk about what it’s about?” And I wanted to test whether my nascent troll powers could be put to use in service of a good cause. So I stepped in:
This intervention was calculated. I wanted to throw him a Captain Kirk-style logic puzzle, to see whether he was sentient or just a sophisticated bot. Like a rhetorical CAPTCHA: how come you’re doing the thing you say you shouldn’t do, with your words? You’ll notice the absence of any prominently feminist terms – I didn’t accuse him of mansplaining the male experience or anything. But I might as well have, because old mate typed the wrong letters into the CAPTCHA box:
Because I am avoiding some minor copy-editing work on my PhD, I decided to run the challenge again, based on the new data that Jon Tan had helpfully provided. Same puzzle, more clarity:
Coincidentally, this is more or less what I would say to David Foster Wallace if I’d ever been able to meet him. More to the point, I think I cracked a code, because a little while later (this all ended up happening over 24 hours or so) I got this:
That’s an improvement, right? Still full of bad ideas, but at least Jon Tan had taken the hint and dropped the “bad boy of gender politics” act. I could actually clarify what he meant from what he said; I didn’t have to parse all of the Richard Dawkins bullshit anymore.
And once I knew what he wanted to mean, the circuit began to work on me as well:
I am such a wanker for writing all this, especially given that it, too, is a retread of my basic point about David Foster Wallace. Also, I’m a straight up troll, because I love pretending to read minds – or rather, I like watching Wallace pretend to in famous short stories like ‘Octet’ (Cunningham, 2016), and I have read more about Freudian psychoanalysis than anyone really should.
But still, where are all these weird parallels between Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and #gamergate coming from? Was it actually worthwhile for Salon.com to run like a billion articles on whether David Foster Wallace was a “bro” or not? Is it too late to just rewrite the dissertation from scratch, about Jon Tan instead?
But these questions don’t really matter right this second, and I’m actually more or less on schedule with the thesis. And I know a little more about why I am, in fact, a feminist, and what my own personal stake in the feminist project might be.
This is good, because it’s something I can tether my troll powers to, like a kind of troll ronin, wandering the digital countryside to occasionally dispatch bandits for good causes.
Alas, some habits die hard:
Identity isn’t everything in politics, but it sure is something – it’s like watching a million team sports play out all at once, except all of the teams are locked in expensive bureaucratic and legal stoushes to decide what game we’re all playing, what the rules and rankings might be, who can play and who can’t, etc etc.
Soccer, then? Tennis maybe? I’m not a sports guy.
But why’s this troll giving me the benefit of the doubt? Is this like the scene between the Velociraptor and the T-Rex in Jurassic World? How are we communicating?