Assholes And Trolls|
I mentioned trolls the other day, and someone mentioned that a previous troll of mine had had some good points mixed in with their insults.
This is usually the case. If trolls didn’t have a gem of insight buried in the muck of their insults, why, you could almost ignore them! But a really good troll will have a point of view that could be really quite enlightening, if only they’d drop the trollish way they present it.
Trolls are nothing more than a variant on an asshole – and though we’re all loathe to admit it, we need our assholes. We don’t need trolls, but assholes? Absolutely vital to the flow of a free society.
“What’s the difference?” you may ask. And that’s a good question. And the answer is that assholes have at least some interest in changing people’s minds. Whereas the troll’s only goal is to make anyone who disagrees with them feel stupid.
Assholes are usually history’s greatest force for change — since in the absence of negative feedback, people tend to assume that they’re doing a great job and that everyone loves them. You can see this effect in amateur writers’ workshops across the country; people get together to “improve” their writing, and instead wind up pretty much agreeing that they have some darned fine stories here that could be gems with just a bit of work, you betcha. Instead of becoming more than the sum of their parts, these groups often degrade into a weak backslapping where the most wretched stories in the history of the world escape the workshop with a vague “Well, I didn’t like her second line of dialogue…”
It’s not that these people set out to delude themselves. But you get a group of people working together, and soon enough the urge to get along with other steps in. You don’t want to be engaging in pitched battles with the people you work with every day… So unless the consequences of staying silent are so dire that it’s going to cause, say, the instantaneous heat-death of the universe, you tone your critiques down a few notches.
Someone else will step in, you think. They’ll point out how bad this is.
But nobody does. And since nobody else is saying, “Wow, that’s a crap piece of poetry, Phil,” you start to think that you’re a freak.
If this is as bad as I think it is, you think, why isn’t anyone else saying anything? And so rather than make a fool of yourself, you figure maybe it’s not that bad.
Meanwhile, everyone else is either a) not paying attention, b) so enthusiastic that they’d explode in rapture if you showed them fresh pile of dogshit, or c) thinking exactly like you do, and they’re waiting for someone else to step in.
That’s why you wind up with these huge corporate misfires, where Coke wakes up one day and says, “You know what? Let’s dump a formula with seventy years of consumer love behind it!” That’s why slaveowners in the 19th century could say, with actual belief, that slaves everywhere were happy and pretty well-treated. That’s why the Bush administration is so dangerous – when they’re talking only to each other, you’re only going to get happy feedback.
It’s not that nobody noticed. Someone did. But everyone else seemed to think the ship design was just fine, so instead we’re going to rearrange these deck chairs over here on the bridge of the Titanic.
“But you can interject and be polite,” you might interject. “You don’t need to be an asshole!” And unfortunately, that’s not true. If a group becomes inbred enough, part of the rules of “politeness” involve agreeing tacitly that they are about 99% right. You’re just arguing over the fine details of their grand plan, is all. Anything else would be rude.
I’ve seen it happen. “I dunno,” you say kindly to a bunch of mediocre writers who have just waxed rhapsodic over a badly-written story that lacks characterization, plot, or interesting dialogue. You try to find a nice way to put them down. “That story really isn’t to my taste…”
“Well, I liked it,” one writer says, the kind of person who hates to make anyone feel bad.
“It’s good,” another writer says, who hates to have her own works critiqued in any mean way and so she automatically leaps in to defend anyone who’s being picked on.
“I worked really hard,” says the author, and you can see the defensiveness rising in his back.
It’s then that you’re left with an ugly choice: You can either be polite and talk in such a mealymouthed way that they’ll ignore you completely… Or you can be the asshole and have a chance at getting heard.
The asshole, however, is the guy who’s not afraid to look bad. It’s his job to come in and shatter those fragile illusions that people create when they talk only to people who agree with them. “Not everyone fucking cares about Star Wars!” the guy cries. “These books are shit! Your writing is crap! And you know what else? Jesus fucking Christ, racism and sexism and religious discrimination are still a problem in this country!”
Without the assholes to remind us that other people (and, more importantly, other points of view) exist, we can fall into an ugly rut. It’s the asshole’s job to remind the liberals that they are often just as intolerant as the jerks they’re whining about, and to remind the conservatives that Iraq was a trumped-up war that didn’t need to be fought, and to remind white men everywhere that you know, you get a lot of breaks that we minorities don’t.
The asshole keeps things flowing. The asshole encourages dialogue where there would be none. The asshole encourages other people in the group to step up and go, “You know, I hate to say it, but I’m with him.”
The troll, on the other hand, serves a reverse purpose. The asshole may get a lot of enjoyment out of fucking with people, but in the end he cares at least a little about building bridges. The troll has given up the hope of changing minds, and just wants to make everyone who disagrees with him feel like an idiot.
The troll also has a point. It’s just that he’s not going to listen to anyone else, or accept any feedback, or talk to anyone who disagrees with him in a way that’s not snide and insulting.
The problem with trolls is that they cause a reverse issue. Trolls are so irritating that they actually cause like-minded groups to retreat and harden. Assholes, when applied judiciously, shake things up, but trolls inevitably come in with such vitriol and force that people tend to circle the wagons just to shield themselves from the onslaught.
You can ignore a troll – which, in turn, causes people to start ignoring the troll’s points along with the troll. “That guy’s an idiot,” you say. “And if an idiot like that thinks we’re bad writers, then we must be doing something right!” And the next thing you know, they’re more convinced of their original viewpoint than ever.
The problem is, of course, that the line between a troll and an asshole is small, and varies from person to person. There are people who are so committed to a viewpoint that any dissension from the party line is considered an act of trolldom. And there are enclaves so inbred that there’s no hope of changing anyone’s mind with but a single argument.
But trolls convince nobody – assholes can sometimes do it. That’s the difference.
You need your assholes. Worship your assholes. They create freedom.
Trolls create havoc for the sake of havoc. Them, you can flush.