Amidst certain troubling things I’ve lately read, I found welcome succor in Erin Kissane’s article “How to Kill a Troll”. It responds to the deeply disturbing harrassment of feminist game-and-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, and more specifically to the confusion and anger that overwhelms those engaging online hate head-on, only to spill over and stick to bystanders like me just trying to make sense of it.
I am so far from having an answer, but I have a suspicion that counterattacks are not working. It’s worthwhile to cover horrible things like the attacks on Sarkeesian and Penny Red and so many others because doing so can help uncommitted or passive readers understand and defend against this behavior. But as cathartic and entertaining as it might be, skewering trolls and attacking jerks is never going to change their minds. Putting people on the defensive only hardens their positions.
When it comes to actually changing minds, I think we’re stuck with love.
Recognizing the humanity of people who do awful things is one of the core challenges of being human. (We have enough trouble recognizing it even in people who are like us.) But it’s the only way out. Even when the worst trolls are beyond visible redemption, the way we handle them is visible to so many others who are still capable of feeling empathy or recognizing pain or changing their minds.
These chilling events have shone a light on a pervasive sickness within the enormous and important online culture around videogames, and I have read no article that more eloquently diagnoses this illness and begins to prescribe a medicine more subtle than mere shoveback. Please go read the whole thing.
I believe that our civilization continuously lurches, in fits and starts and occasional backslides, in an overall correct direction. Before Sarkeesian launched her Kickstarter project, I would observe the swollen comments sections in sites like Hacker News on every article dealing with online sexism, and think: well, the lines have now advanced that far. History rolls on, and those caught on the wrong side of it do tend to get pretty loud. But they’ll eventually come to the light — or get pushed to the sad, dim fringe of insistent ignorance — and we will all move on, once again.
But the volume and intensity of hate directed at this one particular critic and creator surprised me. Even though I take care to not usually identify as a “gamer”, this violence felt very close to home. Between the countless threatening comments and that disgusting game made in response to her work, I felt as if a mob had smashed up a business in my neighborhood in broad daylight, and then brashly signed their names to it, smug in their sureness that society tacitly agreed with them. Like something from the troubled past, something perhaps captured in a black-and-white newsreel during less enlightened times. Retrograde. Its audacity stunned me, and led me to question my confidence.
As Kissane writes, most of us don’t choose to to wade in and engage directly with the faceless hordes of online ignorance, and that’s OK. But it still behooves all of us to have a sober understanding of the problem, and feel a little more prepared to do what we can to help nudge our culture forward.