The Internet is a wondrous world of transformation, or maybe it’s not. It’s certainly great for exchanging information, expanding horizons and fostering new possibilities. But it’s also a cesspool, and wading through it successfully demands a new vision of civility from all of us that is both personal and political.
Transforming anything necessarily requires participation - people putting their collective shoulders to the wheel to challenge the status quo and push for alternatives. Noam Chomsky once said that “the Internet could be a very positive step towards education, organization and participation in a meaningful society.” Oh really? While the web has literally brought us a world of global news and awareness, vast access to knowledge and information, and the ability to join with others quickly and seamlessly to make change, the dark corners of the Internet have spawned new forms of harassment, vitriol and hate speech.
Chief among the offenders are so-called Internet trolls.
Anyone who has written anything vaguely controversial online has been introduced to this unique species of nastiness. The traditional dictionary definition of a troll is “a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance.” But the 21st century web definition is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community… with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
For the uninitiated, there are two debates about these creatures. The first is which “side does it worse,” or whether conservatives or liberals are most likely to spew racist, sexist, homophobic or just plain mean speech all over the digital universe. Personally I try to avoid this argument, but have frequently been dragged into it by conservatives who attempt to argue that communities who have been most vigorous in their pursuit of racial and gender justice are also the ones who are hurling the majority of racist and sexist insults online. While this argument contorts the confines of normal logic, I just find it irrelevant. Who cares which side is worse? The fact is that nasty taunts from offensive trolls litter every ideological corner of the Internet. It’s a universal problem, evenly spread or otherwise.
The other debate, which has resurfaced again just recently, is what to do about the problem. A general truism about dealing with Internet hate says “don’t feed the trolls.” That is, don’t give them the attention and validation they crave by dignifying their attacks with any sort of response.
But recently in The Nation, Jessica Valenti wrote an essay arguing for the opposite strategy. Valenti writes:
“[T]he high road is overrated. It requires silence in the face of violent misogyny, and a turn-the-other cheek mentality that society has long demanded of women. A vibrant feminist movement has ensured women don’t take injustices laying down offline - so why would we acquiesce on the Internet?”
Valenti notes that, for her and other feminists who are often subject to misogynistic hate online, responding is not only cathartic but a way to be unafraid and not silenced - while revealing just how much nastiness women online are subject to and demonstrating a range of coping tools that other women can use.
The always on-point Jay Smooth has made similar arguments in his latest Ill Doctrine video, “Why I Will Feed The Trolls If I Damn Well Want".
Nowhere is the feminist movement’s truism that “the personal is political” more apparent than in online speech. We now have “online identities” in the midst of “online communities”, a nod to the way in which the Internet and social media simultaneously occupy public and private space. As one illustration, take efforts to combat bullying and other forms of incivility in schools, which no longer take place just in classrooms but in chat-rooms online as well, a recognition that incivility online feeds incivility in person and vice-versa.
Together, Valenti, Smooth and others make the case for responding to incivility online - and, by extension, throughout society - not by turning the other cheek but by engaging; not allowing the unfettered megaphone of the Internet to drown us out with negativity and hate but seizing the megaphone to make even more noise for respectful and civil discourse.
In this vision, the Internet isn’t a murky under-bridge of incivility that threatens democracy and which the rest of us polite folks ignore, but a constantly-contested space. And in that space, civility isn’t a victim but a tool, one to be wielded with wit and abandon to slay the trolls that would undermine a decent culture and society.