I met a real troll once. Not suprisingly, I came upon her in a toilet.
Actually, it was at the Parents Room at Melbourne Central, a place where parents may change nappies and feed in peace (and also go to the toilet). This woman did not have a baby with her, I noted. But you know, no harm there. But then she started hurling invectives at me, my younger sister and my five-month old son (whose language skills, thankfully, were yet to develop). The rant was mostly along the lines of ‘bloody foreign mongrels’.
I was too perplexed to do nothing more than tow my sister toward a feeding cubicle and hope the woman left us alone. It was clear that she was Not Quite Right in her cerebrum.
Which has become my attitude to trolls in general. I realise there has been some debate over the technical definition of trolls online (specifically Twitter) and my example probably doesn’t fit the consensus. But that’s how I see people who launch random and/or sustained verbal attacks on strangers. Not Quite Right.
This helped me get some distance straight away from that disturbing encounter. It had nothing to do with us. We got rattled but it became quite clear that something else was going on, something that hadn’t required anything from us to provoke or sustain or even to resolve.
Of course we had not expected to feel unsafe in a public space. But I wasn’t sure what would have kept that incident from happening. Did I really want a guard at the door, doing a character check, not just there but at every parents room or toilet? We were fortunate that it was just verbal. But that’s par for the trolls, isn’t it?
I’m not really sure what I’m saying at this point, except that trolls seem to be getting a lot more attention than they merit. How much have we (inadvertently) legitimised or validated their behaviour with this intense opprobrium? I say this remembering a scene from the 1998 Merlin miniseries which starred Sam Neill.
Merlin and fey Queen Mab battle fiercely, seemingly equal in their magical power, until Merlin literally turns his back on her. He turns his back and says everyone will soon forget her. That’s what it finally took to vanquish her. I totally buy this. People might get something out of it, too.
In any case, perhaps I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of online trolls. I’ve received a few high-strung comments, but since they contain no useful idea for me to engage with, I’ve left them alone. (This is distinct from having a proper disagreement with someone, where arguments are offered instead of characterisations).
Most importantly, despite the froth being churned by the moral panic over trolls, I still find Twitter an edifying place.
To me, it is not a place made hazardous by trolls and spambots, to be navigated gingerly. It is a place I seek out because it is where the parts of myself that don’t often find expression elsewhere (the politics and pop culture nerd, the bleeding heart lefty Catholic) get to thrive.
It is a public square in the best sense, where ideas are tested and refined. (By extension, it refines my writing, which matters considerably). But I also get to be curious about people and what they think and do, and these encounters expand my worldview. I’ve learned to pay attention to what angers or delights people while holding my own against the herd. When I look at my timeline, I do not see disembodied tweets, but real people with real lives, engaging with the world and with each other. Even the pseudonymous ones.
It is a life-giving place to be. It still is, no matter what the moral police say and despite the trolls.