PBS Idea Channel Tackles Trolling, Opens with the Greatest Line Basically Ever

January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

My friend Mike Rugnetta, host of PBS’ Idea Channel, opens the above episode by stating that this episode will be a bit different than normal. “I got most of the way through writing it before realizing that I didn’t agree at all with what I was saying,” he admits, which for me anyway is the ultimate “you had me at hello” moment. Mike goes on to say that, instead of rewriting the episode, he decided to do a little good cop bad cop (well, red shirt/blue shirt), except instead of there being two cops (or two different guys in two color-coded shirts), it’s just him disagreeing with himself.

He starts with his original script, which asserts that perhaps there is a positive side to trolling, for example through compelling someone to strengthen their argument, or by reminding a person to take themselves less seriously. I’ll let Mike explain what happened next:

And it was after writing that line, about why you would take strangers on the internet sooo seriously, that I had a moment of crushing doubt, followed by crushing self-awareness, followed by crushing my own head between my hands.

Indeed, because in order to argue that there exists a positive side to trolling, Mike had to take two basic points for granted. The first has to do with the legitimacy of the old “don’t feed the trolls” adage, which in a nutshell suggests that a person chooses to be trolled simply by responding (I hate that phrase, as I explain here). The second assumption is that there exists some sort of natural and necessary distinction between trolls who troll (i.e. simply want to waste people’s time), and trolls who harass (i.e. want to threaten and genuinely harm).

The problem, Mike explains, is those two assumptions are false. Not everyone has the luxury (read: privilege) to ignore trollish taunting. Some people are exposed and vulnerable in ways that others are not, so much so that “simply having a presence online is treated as grounds for harassment.” You know, like being a woman, or being a trans person, or being anything other than a straight white cis male. These groups put up with so much shit on such a regular basis that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, for their members to remain emotionally neutral when confronted by even the lowest-level forms of trolling. Regardless of the trolls’ intentions, then, certain people might be genuinely harmed even when the trolling is “just” disruptive, as opposed to explicitly threatening.

To return to Mike’s original premise: in a vacuum, certain forms of trolling may indeed be positive, or at least value-neutral. But no culture exists in a vacuum [and then he cites my TEDx talk which is nice], meaning that we can’t and in fact SHOULDN’T try to talk about trolling without also talking about the cultural context out of which trolling emerges (that is basically the argument in my book). And that, Mike says, is where his argument broke down. He didn’t take context into account, and as a result his reasoning was flawed at best and dangerous at worst.

This conclusion resonated with me in ways that I’m almost reluctant to admit. I have been so guilty of this at different moments throughout my research that I could literally start crying right now if I thought about it hard enough. Like here, for example; I am deeply embarrassed by my own myopia and political…..just fucking stupidity, really…..and have kept this post on my blog solely to remind myself that I can be a real asshole if I’m not careful.

And that’s what I like about this video. It’s about trolling, yes. But it’s also a reminder that privilege is as blinding as it is toxic, in that it allows those of us who are privileged enough not to have to think about that privilege to remain confident in our own assumptions about the world — because we have no reason not to be, the result of which is that we get shit wrong, and accidentally end up making things worse for others. It would be better if we didn’t do that, so these kinds of moments –moments of “crushing doubt, followed by crushing self-awareness, followed by crushing my own head between my hands”– are important. Really, profoundly uncomfortable, but important. They force us to acknowledge that ours are not the only set of eyes in the world, and that in fact, ours might not see very much, or very well.  And that changes everything.

Good job, Mike.


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