Trolls have been on my mind ever since last month, when I wrote an article about sexism in sports. I received a lot of negative feedback, some in the comments section and quite a bit in my inbox, too. I forwarded one of the lengthier and more livid emails to a friend, who responded almost immediately and in a typically millennial fashion: with an email containing no text and two large gifs. The first was a chubby little cartoon Darth Vader, walking jauntily below a thought bubble reading “Haters gonna hate.” The second was Taylor Swift, dancing in the video for “Shake It Off.”
The thing is, it’s hard to shake it off. Being yelled at by strangers on the Internet is rather similar to being yelled at by strangers in real life: It’s deeply unpleasant, and it gets under your skin. It eats at you. The trolls—are they right? Are you indeed a hideous, unfuckable cow? The haters— do they have a point about your weird nose, your flabby upper arms, your grating voice? Over time, I’ve found a way to shake it off, because it’s incessant, and if I didn’t find ways, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. And I like my job.
Hater are always gonna hate. But when should we listen?
Not all haters and trolls are crass and cruel. There are Refined Trolls out there, ones who don’t belong in Ann Friedman’s pyramid of haters, and they don’t quite have a place in her Disapproval Matrix, either. Unlike genuine trolls and haters, they appear rational and articulate, but like genuine trolls and haters, they don’t know you, and they probably don’t care about you or your ideas that much, except in the abstract: as something to oppose. The best kinds of critics, Friedman writes, “are taking a hard look at your work and are not loving it.” They have expertise in your field and whose criticisms of your work (not of you) are thoughtful, and deserve thoughtful engagement. This is not the category into which Refined Trolls fall.
These guys—and I use that word in a gender-neutral sense, but when you write about gender issues, a lot of them do seem to be men—are harder to shake off than the abusive, pro-profanity, anti-grammar types who delight in composing racist, misogynistic, threatening or otherwise vile emails and sending them to complete strangers who have the temerity to have ideas and the gall to voice them. I’m not talking about the people who send an email saying “I’m interested in having a dialogue with you” but give it the subject line “Feminazism” (that’s verbatim, from two weeks ago). I’m talking about the ones who pick your argument apart, but without calling you a fat cunt. I’m talking about the smart ones. The ones with accurate data. The ones who, on the surface, at least, seem interested in a dialogue.
With those haters, the roly-poly Darth Vader doesn’t help much. Because there’s a chance—a good chance, if we’re honest with ourselves—they might be at least partially right. And if they’re not right, they’re at least arguing coherently, more or less respectfully, and in good faith. These aren’t haters hating just for the sake of hating. So is this a “shake it off” situation?
It’s a question I ask myself often. I’ve spent so much of the last six years hearing from those at the fetid end of the troll gene pool and ignoring them that when the possibility arises of engaging with strangers who email me out of the blue, I find myself somewhat paralyzed.
Because this isn’t only about whether to respond to any one particular email. It’s about what kind of public discourse we want to have. It’s about how we fulfill the promise of the Internet, where information is no longer delivered top-down by the select few, but by anyone with wifi—and where recipients of that information no longer sit passively and receive it, but can instantly interact with the source. That new configuration was supposed to improve the public discourse, and in some ways, it has. The barriers to entry are lower and fewer for those who want to have their voices heard in the public square.
But as is so often the case with new technology, it has also reproduced and deepened existing hierarchies, particularly around gender and race. Women, and particularly women of color, are far more likely to be trolled or hated on, and it seems that we’re seen as easy targets for refined trolling, too. We are socialized to be nice and polite, to answer every question asked of us, to provide a response to every counterargument. We are used to doubly, triply reinforcing our arguments, knowing that they are doubly, triply likely to be questioned because of who is making them.
So we bear the burden of building the kind of public discourse we want to see in the world. We bear the burden of engaging with people who come armed with good data but unsoftened by any real interest in us or in helping us strengthen our ideas. When you hear people like Chait critique the current tone and pace of debate, it’s clear they’re concerned about how technology has changed things for the worse. But one also gets the sense that they’re somewhat taken aback by the new ways a more diverse readership can speak up—Twitter being a prime example.
Which brings me back to Husky Vader and Taylor Swift, and the desire that my friends and I have to wield those gifs when people disagree with us. There is so much ugliness thrown at us so often that it can be incredibly difficult to pick through the rough to find the diamonds, or even the cubic zirconia. It’s hard to resist the temptation of a blanket rule: All people who come at us, regardless of tone or apparent level of respect, are haters—and we don’t engage with haters.
But to do so would not only impoverish our own ideas, it’d also impoverish the larger conversation. Our echo chamber problem would intensify. When we engage with trolls, especially in public, we must consider that it’s not just about us and them, or even just about the ideas. It’s about the people who are watching and listening.
“I only engage trolls when I feel that those who follow me on Twitter would get something productive out of that engagement,” says Jamil Smith, a senior editor at The New Republic who has his share of haters. “If there’s nothing to be gained, I generally hit ‘mute’ and keep it moving.”
We must find the good ideas among the often abusive rabble, and we must engage with them. Like West, I learn things from my trolls: where the pain points are, where the line is between a palatable feminist idea and one that’s intolerably threatening to the status quo. Trolls are a good way to take the temperature of the unhealthiest parts of our body cultural. And I’ve learned from watching Chait, and the people who engage with him, too. Observing how The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates handled himself in his debates with Chait last year about racial inequity in America taught me a great deal about how to engage with Refined Trolls.
Still, it doesn’t seem fair to ask those of us who are most likely to be hated on, by both the more refined and the more revolting members of the species, to shoulder the overwhelming preponderance of that decision. It doesn’t seem fair to ask that we be better, more noble, more understanding, than those who seek to make our lives miserable. It doesn’t seem reasonable to ask us to be the model token minorities of the Internet.
This internal debate—with its stakes ranging from personal safety to mental health to the very nature of public discourse itself—rages every time my colleagues and I open our inboxes or check our Twitter mentions. It may not be fair that we need to the cooler heads that prevail – but we do. And with that responsibility comes great power. Most of the time, my friends and I make the right choices about engaging with trolls, Refined and otherwise. But every now and then, I give in to the instinct to respond with a gif and a roll of my eyes. Every now and then, the steady stream of rape threats, of insults, of condescending or even abusive rants sent under the subject line “Liked your article,” gets to me, and I can’t see the forest for the screeds. Just every now and then. Can you blame me?