Friday, March 31, 2017

The Blurry Line Between Trolling and Hate

About ten years ago, a Yale fraternity - mine, as it happens -made its pledges stand outside the Women's Center and chant, "no means yes, yes means (fill in the blank)." Sorry, won't print the last word, but it was a graphic suggestion as to what consent might proffer.

It didn't go over very well.

Someone filmed the incident, it ended up as national news, and the fraternity was banned from campus for two years. Leaving aside the fact that any fraternity worth its salt gets banned at some point, what are we to make of the incident? Certainly, we know what feminists and the media thought: these were hateful misogynists who deserved any punishment coming their way, preferably expulsion. Further, it was emblematic of a deep river of misogyny running not just through society at large, but even through supposedly enlightened, liberal institutions like Yale. And, apparently, this well of hatred is everywhere...

Lately, for example, there's the uptick in swastika graffiti. Is there a deep reservoir of anti-Semitism in our country, too? And all the other "isms?" One look at the social media landscape, particularly Twitter, reveals what appears to be miasma of bias and hate. Name your "phobe," and you will find it. Homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. Are we truly a nation of "deplorables," as Hillary Clinton suggested at least half of us are? 

Maybe, or maybe it's a mixture of things. Sometimes - many times, actually - the more serious of these incidents turn out to be hoaxes perpetrated by those hoping to propel a narrative. The recent spate of bomb threats to synagogues turns out to have been perpetrated by an African-American Bernie Sanders supporter and a Jewish teenager. We all know about the UVA gang rape that never happened and same with the Duke lacrosse case. Same with many, many others...I wrote about this phenomenon here.

Then there's the people who just find it amusing to get a rise out of some other party. Please, the Yale kids were not misogynists, and they didn't mean their words literally. More accurately, they were trolls. The upperclassmen who sent those pledges on that assignment knew just what combination of words would rocket a group of feminists over the edge. Mission accomplished.

I won't accuse them of good judgment. In fact, if there's some award out there for bad judgment, this incident could be a contender. Given the political climate, particularly on campuses, the outcome of the affair was utterly predictable.

But what it was, was a troll. A troll is making a deliberately offensive or provocative comment, particularly online, with the aim of eliciting an angry response.

I don't condone or practice trolling, because I don't find it productive or particularly nice, but sometimes people make themselves easy targets. In a nutshell, the more self-serious you are, the more people will be tempted to give you a poke. Is there a more self-serious group than feminists? The last time one smiled was when Gloria Steinem was serving drinks at the Playboy Club...

(Okay, that was a minor troll...)

My point is, it's not always hate. As often as not, it's an idle attempt at self-amusement that comes with getting a rise out of someone else. Flame me if you want, but once in a while, I gotta admit it's kind of funny. When deeply earnest feminists picketed the Masters a few years back, some guy showed up with a sign that said, "Iron My Shirt." In the privacy of my closet, with the lights off, that made my chuckle.

Did I just say that? What I meant was, I was horrified by the man's insensitivity to the fact that women were, at that time, unable to join Augusta National. Yeah, that's what I meant.

Seriously, though, most of the time, trolling crosses lines that shouldn't be crossed. Some trollers are plain evil, plying their trade on Twitter, using the anonymity to harass others. Their malevolence stains all. This unfortunately perpetuates the false notion that we live in a country seething with undercurrents that are anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-Islam, etc., etc. I don't believe we do.

It needs to be said that we now seem to have a Troller-in-Chief:

Trump's tweets often seem precisely calibrated to make heads explode, usually among his detractors in the media. But viewed through the very contemporary lens of trolling culture, it all starts to make a bit of sense. The smartest thing anyone said during the campaign was, "The press takes Trump literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." Salena Zito at The Atlantic said this last summer, and things haven't changed much. The media parses every 5 a.m. tweet, vigilant watchdogs for the end of civilization.

I don't quite know what to think of this, frankly. In a perfect world, our Chief Executive is above such things. The aesthetics bother me. But, we don't live in a perfect world, not currently. And the thing is, it might actually be effective. While the press and their bedfellows on the left chase every new butterfly (Russia! Taxes returns! Wire tapping!), Trump continues to go about his agenda.

Is this a conscious strategy of Trump's, or is he operating on some savant-like level? I had this very conversation with a fellow conservative recently, and damned if we knew. But we agreed it's not hate. Trump's a quintessential New Yorker, which means he has a live and let live attitude towards everyone, even if the words to express those feelings sometimes sound like just the opposite. 

I am reminded of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a generally hapless, but beloved team, whose fans expressed their affection in a uniquely New York fashion:

I know, this isn't trolling. Most New Yorkers loved the Dodgers, while I'm sure the fraternity brothers at Yale had no such affection for campus feminists. But the point is, words sometimes conceal what's truly going on in someone's head or heart. There is legitimate hate out there, but we do not live in a nation suffused with it. We do, however, seem to live in a nation of provocateurs.