The injunction against feeding trolls is one part logical and one part rhetorical.
The logical part consists in the implication that feeding the troll misrepresents the troll's contributions. In addressing a troll's view one implies that it strongly represents the dialetical situation, when, in fact, it doesn't (largely because the troll doesn't himself believe his on view)–Iron manning, in other words (making the troll appear stronger than he is). This is a variation on the injunction against weak manning: picking on trolls is nut picking,
Rhetorically, addressing trollish criticism puts one on the defensive. One isn't making one's argument so much as defending oneself against criticism. The public mind can only listen for so long, so chances are your responding to trolls diminishes your ability to make your own arguments.
Advantage trolls. The advantage is especially acute nowadays, because the intellectual side of one of the two parties in our lovely two-party system consists almost entirely in trolls. Someone ought to explain this to this guy:
Of course, not all right-wing pundits spew hate. But the ones who do are the ones we liberals dependably aggrandize. Consider the recent debate over whether employers must cover contraception in their health plans. The underlying question — should American women receive help in protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancies? — is part of a serious and necessary national conversation.
Any hope of that conversation happening was dashed the moment Rush Limbaugh began his attacks on Sandra Fluke, the young contraceptive advocate. The left took enormous pleasure in seeing Limbaugh pilloried. To what end, though? Industry experts noted that his ratings actually went up during the flap. In effect, the firestorm helped Limbaugh do his job, at least in the short term.
But the real problem isn’t Limbaugh. He’s just a businessman who is paid to reduce complex cultural issues to ad hominem assaults. The real problem is that liberals, both on an institutional and a personal level, have chosen to treat for-profit propaganda as news. In so doing, we have helped redefine liberalism as an essentially reactionary movement. Rather than initiating discussion, or advocating for more humane policy, we react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right.
He's right on the rhetorical points, but on the logical point, Limbaugh and his ilk represent current Republican thinking in both style and substance. Being high-minded about them, I think, just leaves their arguments unanswered. Answering their arguments cedes rhetorical ground.
It's a trap. Anyone know a way out?
3 thoughts on “Troll feeding”
Hi John, I wonder if it's worth, instead noting the dialectical situation. Something like: it's ridiculous that this line of thought is the main view, but it is. So here's the response… You iron man with one hand, but also show that *it's your dialectical charity* that makes it as good as it is.
I think of Rush Limbaugh as more of a breeder and feeder of trolls. "Here's the set up, here's the serve… the rest is up to the Dittoheads." Perhaps if we switch allusion from "troll" to "gremlin" – the movie version. Once set loose, the gremlins are tireless in their attacks, but people like Limbaugh are off to the side, pouring water on Mogwais, enjoying (and getting richer and more powerful from) the chaos that ensues.
One of the hallmarks of a troll, at least online, is that they won't give up the fight. It doesn't much matter if they understand the responses they receive or if they are wedded to beliefs that are objectively false, they are tireless and have to have the last word. If they feel like they can keep eliciting responses from you or your readers, they will likely return at a later date to see if they can again stir things up. You'll see this online at times – you'll see an article or blog post followed by a usually far more verbose comment along the lines of, "Six months ago you said X and you were wrong."
It is difficult to dispute that the label, "troll" fits the kind of person who would interrupt the President at the State of the Union Address to yell, "You like!", then act as if their childish and inappropriate conduct is a badge of distinction. But I think the deliberate spread of misinformation for profit or to excite "the base" is different from being a troll. The line can blur – George Will spends a great deal of time constructing arguments he knows aren't sound. I think he knows he's relying on the hollow man. But he fell, hook, line and sinker, for anti-climate change misinformation and, as far as I know, has never stepped back from his embarrassing columns on that subject.
That piece has been dissected far and wide on the liberal blogosphere. You ask a good question, and the hallmark of liberals is that they wrestle with being fair, even to lying assholes. Because of Fox News and even legitimate news organizations repeating so much right-wing crap, it's necessary to fight back against at least some of it. The media has elevated propaganda to the level of news, despite the constant objections of liberals. Limbaugh lost many sponsors over his foul attacks on Sandra Fluke (and not incidentally, he lied outrageously, but that's not what cost him the sponsors). As several folks have pointed out, letting the Swift Boat Veterans go largely unchallenged didn't work out, and letting the Kochs have free rein isn't working well either (or Pete Peterson, or Paul Ryan, or…). Here's what I'd suggest, although I continue to mull over this one: not "descending to their level" means we tell the truth, we fact-check, we don't lie, and so on. It's fine to make fun of them, too, since mockery is highly effective, although it should be truth-based comedy versus appearance-bashing and similar crap. (That's a style choice, though – whether one wants to use snark along with the substance or do the polite debunk. They both have their place.) Regardless, "not descending to their level" doesn't mean we don't fight back. These are funny notions we keep seeing from concern trolls – somehow, conservatives are not to blame for lying, insanity (e.g. banning mention of climate change), for bad policies, hostility to responsible governance, etc. and liberals are to blame for objecting to all of this. Somehow, the reasonable people who recognize how harmful Limbaugh and his ilk can be are supposed to disengage from politics and cede the field to the most dishonest, selfish and destructive people in politics, and somehow this will make things better. Huh. Yeah, that's the method that was used to end slavery, get women the vote, end Jim Crow, win (some) gay rights, create Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid… Concern trolls of the centrism festishist variety generally do not study policy or want to discuss even the most blatant consequences of policy. They are extremely uncomfortable with anyone making qualitative judgments about politics, despite that being a central aim of political discourse (ideally) and essential for good governance. (See the reception Ornstein and his colleague are getting for their book.) It's good to know what works and what doesn't, and what specific policies accomplish, who they benefit and who they don't, and to what degree. The concern trolls react to tone and do not want to assess whether harsh things said about one party are true and evidence-based; they think anyone who says harsh things about one party (as long as it's the Republicans, at least) is hyperpartisan, when the truth is most liberals really want two responsible, honest parties, but wishing doesn't making it so – which really sums up the entire myopia of that column. (Clap your hands if you think that Tinkerbell can convince Limbaugh to grow a conscience and stop Republican lawmakers – who put a bust of him in the Missouri statehouse – from heeding him.) Ultimately, I think how and when to respond comes down to one's own judgment/conscience, and we need to just accept that occasionally we might flub it, but then we admit it and move on. Anyway, sorry, that roamed a bit a field… /rant
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