When Ordinary People Turn Into Trolls

Image by Call4beach

Image by Call4beach

For the past few months now, I’ve been contributing guest columns on Dear Wendy. By no means do I consider myself a relationship expert, but I do believe I’ve been through enough personal drama that I can offer some pretty good insights. Plus, helping people gives me a warm, gooey feeling that’s way more slimming than hot fudge.

Of course, my dry sense of humor tends to seep through in my responses, and I often end up somewhat mocking these letter writers. But really, I do try to be helpful. One thing I respect about Wendy is her ability to tease out the important details in a letter and respond accordingly. Sometimes, she’ll rail on a letter writer, but only because she realizes that they need a kick in the ass. It’s clear that she’s here to help, though. And help she does, even when she’s doling out the tough love.

And this is where the problem arises. You see, tough love is tougher to dole out than most people think….

In the most recent letter that I answered, the letter writer described a nasty fight that she and her boyfriend got into at a bar, in front of all his friends—a fight that resulted in her “throwing a couple knees towards his manhood.”

Yikes! Definitely inappropriate behavior, right?

She went on to clarify that she and her boyfriend had made up, but all his friends now thought she was crazy. She asked how she could possibly fix things with his friends.

I explained how childish both she and her boyfriend had acted, and that they might want to consider taking anger management classes together. I also expressed my shock at her kneeing her boyfriend in the balls. I knew she had a tough road ahead of her, but I offered what tips I could hock up to help her come to an eventual understanding with his friends. As a joke, I even suggested that she let his buddy punch her in the ovary as restitution.

I thought I was pretty harsh, but I also believed that I answered her questions fairly.

Boy, was I mistaken.

Apparently, I wasn’t harsh enough. According to several commenters, the letter writer was clearly abusive and needed to be told (off) accordingly. Many suggested that the police should’ve been called and that she needed to end the relationship immediately, because she’s obviously guilty of domestic violence.

Combative that I am, I decided to respond. And that’s when our online standoff coalesced into a serious storm of shit….

Even though I had devoted the majority of my original reply to chiding the letter writer, all of a sudden, I found myself defending her. And in doing so, I derailed myself with some not-so-stellar debating, which only fanned the flaming. Bad move on my part there.

Soon, I lost sight of my own argument, which was that, based on the way the letter writer described the situation, I read it as 1) an isolated incident that she felt awful about, 2) the knees were more for show than an actual attack, and 3) he was humiliated, but not physically injured. Even though it was possible that the letter writer was abusive by nature, there simply weren’t enough indicators, in my opinion, to start accusing her of domestic violence.

The flame war dragged on for days, and both sides (that is to say, me on one side, and maybe three people on the other) refused to back down. Finally, the letter writer herself responded, and her explanation validated my suspicions: She had never been violent before, she felt horrible about what she did, and she’s definitely not an abusive person.

Unfortunately, by this point, pretty much everyone had moved on from the discussion, so I have no idea how many people actually saw her comment. In the aftermath, I was glad that I stood behind my original response, but it bothered me that many of those who attacked her probably went on their haughty way, confident in the knowledge that they had made the right call about this woman’s abusive tendencies.

And that, to me, is pretty messed up.

While it can be fun to judge, I have to remember that I’m supposed to help these people, not tell them how they’re horrible human beings and don’t deserve to be in relationships and in fact should be arrested.

Yes, I’m also supposed to entertain an internet audience. And yes, drama is always entertaining. I’m well aware that controversy leads to unadulterated discussion, which generates traffic to the site. Even on Musings, the temptation to post incendiary articles constantly looms over me.

I also understand that I can’t change the nature of internet commenting. If people want to verbally annihilate each other, that’s their prerogative (well, within legal limits). It just bothers me that some people seem to think they’re helping, when all they’re doing is judging—and basing these judgments on false assumptions, no less.

Yes, sometimes people do need some sense figuratively beaten into them. But there’s a fine line between blunt (but helpful) advice and unwarranted attacks. One requires that we read critically and glean the truth from the details given. The other? Well, all the other requires is an inflated sense of self-righteousness.

And that’s where I go into hypocrisy mode and turn into a judger myself.

If we really do want to help people, then attacking them is not the way to do it. And if we instead want to attack people, then we have to acknowledge what we are, plain and simple:

Internet trolls.

By John Gabriel

Every time we feel inclined to tear into someone on the internet, every time we’re compelled to fry up some tough love of our own, we should probably force ourselves to pause for a minute. Are we really trying to help? Or are we just stroking our own ego?

Because ego sure does blurry up that fine line.

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  • Awesome article! Thanks for writing this Dennis!

  • Nice article. Extra points for the Penny Arcade reference.

  • “It just bothers me that some people seem to think they’re helping, when all they’re doing is judging—and basing these judgments on false assumptions, no less.”

    I doubt that the majority of the people you’re discussing actually think they’re helping – or care if they are. They just want to throw their two cents in and be acknowledged for it, even (or especially) if the acknowledgment is negative attention.

    • I don’t know. Sometimes it seems like, on the internet in general, people throw in their incredibly negative two cents just so they’ll get a ton of positive feedback, and think that they’re imparting so much knowledge in the process.

      “You’re so witty with your misplaced rant and unfounded anger!”

    • I suppose you’re right. The thing is, I wasn’t talking about run-of-the-mill anonymous internet trolls. Everyone knows they’re only trying to get a rise out of people.

      No, I’m talking about people who really seem to believe they’re being helpful or insightful, but in reality, are just tearing others down unnecessarily.

      I dunno. Maybe I’m too idealistic about the internet…. :-p

  • This article sucked! Oh wait, you can see my name, can’t you. Nevermind.

    Good job, Dennis!

  • I try not to engage the trolls. No good seems to come of it. I like to let their dumb-ass comments speak for themselves. But it’s perfectly OK with me if other readers stand up and fight my battles for me.

  • Ugh. What you mentioned here is the worst part – it’s not always that you are arguing back and forth (which at least suggests there is dialogue), often times people post their harsh opinions and then move on their happy way. They don’t read your response. Or any other responses that might point out where they are wrong. They just leave this crappy comment that ruins your day and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    Not that I know anything about this… haha 🙂

  • Brilliant as usual, D!! I’m so on board with the argument against an isolated, regrettable (albeit totally inappropriate!) one-time loss of self control, leading to an accusation of “Domestic Violence” and labels such as “abuser”. C’MON?!! WTF…seriously, some people practically beg to be slapped, or kneed, or you know….handled roughly! Right? I mean, don’t they?? :-)~~

  • Great article, Dennis! I love that you are venturing into advice. Your deliberate tone is thoughtful, helpful and reflects your (I’m guessing) rich experiences.

    I think a lot of people are just arrogant, or self-absorbed. Maybe they’ve had limited life experiences, which makes them lack depth. There really IS no sane or right way to deal with these people- they don’t want to listen anyway. I’m (intermittenly!) loving lemonvibe; at least I love the idea of Lemonvibe and that you created it. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes as more people find it. Good job! And thanks.

    • Thanks, Jesse! I have to admit, a lot of the inspiration for setting up LemonVibe’s comment rating system came from the drama that I saw at Dear Wendy. Glad you like the site!

  • I’ve noticed this for years – and not just at advice sites. There are people with no lives who have nothing better to do then sit back, point a finger at someone, and judge. It’s easier with the internet, but it happens enough in the workplace and in schools. It’s a shame people behave this way, but it does give you a thick skin.

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