This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, by Whitney Phillips


This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is an interesting and stimulating examination of the subculture of online “trolls.”

Author Whitney Phillips is an academic, and the book comes from the various graduate-level papers she wrote on the topic over the course of several years. It is not simply clumsily cobbled together from these papers though; the material is significantly reworked to be appropriate for a more general readership.

In the end I’d say it’s mostly accessible. You can occasionally sense more of an academic style or structure to it, but this is at least as much a positive as a negative. It’s a positive in the sense that more than in the average book key terms are defined, premises and conclusions are stated, and efforts are made to go beyond describing a phenomenon to analyzing it, evaluating it, and relating it to other phenomena.

The downside is that it can get a little jargony (though believe me, it’s only about 10% as bad in this regard as some things I’ve read), or presume certain things that have attained the level of dogma in certain corners of academia but frankly are far from self-evident. Example: She claims early in the book that “The act of trolling replicate[s] gendered notions of dominance and success,” without explaining what it is for a “notion” to be “gendered.” (Later in the book she returns to the topic and says more by way of explanation.) Aside from the merits of the claim—and I’ll have some things to say about that below—I mention it here only to illustrate that the writing at times contains these sorts of sentences that you’ll almost never see outside of academia.

One of the sections of a book I’m least likely to comment on is the acknowledgements, but in This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things it’s a section that gave me a warm first impression of Phillips. She comes across as genuine, appreciative, and likable, as her comments feel much more sincere than generic. Not to mention, her remarks are at times quite cute or funny. (She thanks David Phillips for “giving the best wedding toast in the history of recorded marriage (‘I’ve only met Whitney once, in 1986, in Miami,’ he began, despite the fact that he grew up with me, has never been to Miami, and was born in 1989).”)

There are elements of the book that are a bit off-putting and hostile in the way certain strains of feminism and leftist dogma can be, but I think that was softened by her feeling more fun and human to me in the Acknowledgments.

There’s really a lot to think about in this book as far as what’s objectionable about trolling. I mean, in a broad or simple sense it’s painfully obvious that these people are complete jerks and that what they’re doing is reprehensible. But it gets a lot more complicated trying to be specific about exactly what’s wrong about trolling, whether it’s one or multiple things, whether the bad stuff is always present in trolling by definition or there can be unobjectionable trolling, etc.

I found myself at times approaching the matter in sort of a Rawlsian “reflective equilibrium” way.

According to Rawls, moral reasoning is a process of principles and judgments about individual cases modifying each other. So perhaps you start with at least a tentative commitment to certain principles, but then as you think about them in terms of specific cases you see that sometimes they commit you to assessments you intuitively rebel against. So you make the principles just a little more complex so as to in effect allow certain exceptions. Then you consider individual cases in light of the new version of your principles, and if some of them still don’t “work,” you again make modifications. But the idea is to avoid either rigidly applying simplistic principles no matter how monstrous the result, or relying so heavily on your intuitive response to individual cases that the principles become meaningless in that they’re just built in an ad hoc fashion to be consistent with the intuitions. Ideally you want to achieve a state of “reflective equilibrium” where you are giving significant weight both to principles and to intuitions about individual cases.

So in this case it would be a matter of something like: OK, I think trolling is wrong because it violates such-and-such principle of how as people we should treat each other. But as I think about it—and as I read the author’s opinions—I see that there are these various other phenomena that seem to similarly violate that principle that I have not previously been inclined to condemn. So maybe that principle is too broad and condemns too much and I need to think more about what’s really objectionable about trolling and come up with a different or more narrow principle. Or maybe these other phenomena are more objectionable than I previously realized and I should retain the principle more or less as it is and apply it to these other things and condemn them just as I condemn trolling.

And on and on.

Anyway, a lot of interesting stuff like that to consider.

I suppose the first thing to do before assessing trolling is to define it. What counts as trolling and what does not?

For a lot of people, as the author acknowledges, trolling is a vague but very broad term, encompassing all or most objectionable online behavior.

And I’m sure that’s pretty much how I thought of it when I picked up this book. I have long been struck by just what total pricks so many people become in the anonymity of the Internet, and I was curious to read a book that perhaps could help me better understand who such people are, why they do what they do, how best to respond to them, etc., etc.

I mostly was thinking of trolling in terms of some form of online community where people come together to share ideas, educate each other, support each other, or just shoot the shit and socialize or whatever, and then someone comes along seeking to somehow destroy this space or harm or exploit the people in it, i.e., to completely violate the written rules or unwritten spirit of why this community exists just to cruelly fuck with people or gain some unearned benefit.

I’m not an active member of any such community and haven’t been in a very long time, but much of my experience with what can be positive about such communities, and what damage trolls can do to them, came from several years I spent posting regularly on sportsbetting sites. These were posting forums on websites where people came together to talk about such things as their good and bad experiences betting at certain offshore sportsbooks, wise and unwise approaches to gambling, the pros and cons of various gambling systems, upcoming games and what bets they recommended and why, etc. There was also just joke telling and general socializing. At their best, such communities facilitated friendships, taught people things that helped them as far as the specific activity of sportsbetting, and gave members a relaxed, fun place to hang out.

But then there were always people adding negative energy to the community in one way or other. Perhaps it was a matter of those ubiquitous spam posts with links about making money on the Internet or increasing your penis size or whatever. Or someone would praise a certain sportsbook not because it deserved it but because they were secretly being paid to shill for it. Or someone would use deceptive “hard sell” techniques to encourage people to buy his “can’t lose” handicapping picks. Or someone would develop some kind of grudge against another poster and go on to constantly stalk and bully him in his posts. Or someone would ignore the subject matter of the community—sportsbetting—because it was more important to them to keep spamming the boards with their politics or religious dogma.

There were people there to help each other out, respect each other, and have a nice community, and there were people there to further some other agenda, insult, anger, turn everything into a joke, whatever. The more the former dominated, the more positive a space it was. The more the latter dominated the more unpleasant and useless a space it was.

Some of the negative could be controlled by firm and intelligent moderating, but only up to a point. It was impossible to get rid of all the bullshit by moderating, and then some of what you did get rid of could lead to further disputes and ugliness because it involved gray area cases where some people regarded what you’d deleted as objectionable and some did not.

A phrase like “this is why we can’t have nice things” speaks to me in this context, because I very much felt that communities like that never lived up to their potential because there were too many people bringing them down in this myriad of ways, and it bugged me that about 99% of it was that these people lacked really just basic human decency. They were assholes, pure and simple, either indifferent to hurting people and destroying the community, or actively seeking it. And it was a damn shame.

Like I say, I’m not an active member of any such online community now, but I see similar behavior on various sites, including comment sections for YouTube, sports sites, news sites, whatever.

That’s the kind of thing I thought of in connection with trolling. People posting things in interactive posting forums (the sportsbetting forums being the ones I had the most experience with) that were somehow deceptive, harmful, etc., and that made those forums much less valuable and enjoyable than they could have been without jerks behaving that way.

As I say, Phillips acknowledges that trolling is often thought of very broadly like this, as just ill behavior on the Internet in general. But she makes clear that what she is examining in this book is a small subset of such behavior.

I will not be focusing on online aggression generally, cyberbullying specifically, or antagonistic online commentary—all of which are sometimes described as trolling. There is much to say about these behaviors (and the definitional fuzziness they engender), but that is not my focus here. My focus here is trolls who actively and enthusiastically identify as trolls, and who partake in highly stylized subcultural practices.

Also excluded, then, would be the various spammers and shills who infect the Internet, seeking to separate people from their money on false pretenses.

So what’s left? What are the “highly stylized subcultural practices” that constitute what the author means by trolling?

It’s a kind of sadistic nihilism. It’s people who claim to believe that nothing online deserves to be taken seriously, and who thus seek through their posting to disrupt anyone from achieving any serious goal. If you wish to disseminate or receive information, a troll will try to trick you into falsehood. If you express serious emotion, a troll will seek to humiliate you for it. If you offer assistance or compassion, a troll will hoax you into wasting your time on a fake person of need. If you’re just trying to do your job, a troll will come up with some ruse to make that harder. If there is any form of humor, porn, whatever that you are inclined to take seriously or be offended by rather than laugh at, a troll will seek to stick it in your face at every opportunity.

And it only counts as trolling, in this narrow sense, if there is no motive behind it beyond enjoying being hurtful and destructive. It’s not trolling if you’re somehow making money from your ill behavior, for instance. I think it’s probably not trolling if you have some pre-existing beef with a person and are trying to hurt them for that reason. (That would be cyberstalking, cyberbullying, or something like that.) It’s more a matter of not knowing or caring who the person or people are that you’re hurting, but enjoying hurting them as an end it itself.

So what are some examples of such sadistic nihilism that would count as trolling?

The first case Phillips discusses at length is that of a seventh grader who committed suicide in 2006. After his death, family and friends posted memories of him, messages of condolence, etc. on his MySpace page.

Trolls then invaded the page, laughing about his suicide, posting gag photoshopped images, jokes, insults, rumors, etc.—anything to cause pain and anger to the family or anyone who cared about him. They hacked into his parents’ account and made public their contact information so that the harassment could be extended offline.

In another case, trolls decided to torture the GameStop company. They flooded their website with inquiries about a non-existent video game, and then shared all the local GameStop retail outlet phone numbers with each other and called them nonstop all day every day inquiring about that same game, trying to get the employees to lose their temper in an entertaining way.

In another case, a troll pretended to be a pedophile on an Oprah Winfrey posting forum, and succeeded in getting an indignant Winfrey to issue an on-air warning against the network of pedophiles he claimed to represent, even reading from his posts, which contained “inside jokes,” or at least special gag lingo that other trolls would recognize.

For most trolls, their motivation is summed up by the simple phrase “I did it for the lulz.” “Lulz” is a fanciful plural for “LOL,” or “laugh out loud.” So basically it means “I did it for laughs.” Specifically the idea is to provoke people into some kind of visible anger or pain. The more out of control they get, the more flustered they get, the more time and effort they devote to responding to the trolls and the trouble the trolls have caused, the more hilarious it is. The most beloved incidents in troll history tend to be instances of victims sputtering in incoherent, inarticulate, ineffectual rage.

As I alluded to above, according to troll philosophy, or at least a common justification offered by trolls, nothing online is to be taken seriously. So if you respond with any kind of serious emotion like that to a troll’s antics, you’re the one who is in the wrong and you deserve to be laughed at. In effect, they’re educating you as to the proper use of the Internet, punishing you if you violate the principle that nothing online is to be taken seriously.

I very much agree with what Phillips presents as the conventional view of trolling: “Trolls take perverse joy in ruining complete strangers’ days. They will do and say absolutely anything to accomplish this objective, and in the service of these nefarious ends deliberately target the most vulnerable—or as the trolls would say, exploitable—targets. Consequently, and understandably, trolls are widely regarded as the primary obstacle to a kinder, gentler, and more equitable Internet.”

That is, they are “why we can’t have nice things” online.

Phillips does not disagree that trolls are mostly assholes in this sense, but her position is that what’s objectionable about them is really the same kind of thing that can be found on a larger, more damaging, scale in society as a whole, and so we should be at least as outraged by and eager to oppose that: “While trolling behaviors might fall on the extreme end of the cultural spectrum, the most exceptional thing about trolling is that it’s not very exceptional. It’s built from the same stuff as mainstream behaviors; the difference is that trolling is condemned, while ostensibly ‘normal’ behaviors are accepted as a given, if not actively celebrated.”

But before I address whether she succeeds in making that case, I want to say some more about this form of trolling. Certainly I find it generally to be horrible behavior, but is there anything that can be said in its favor? Are there times it’s justified? Are their instances of trolling that I myself have appreciated and laughed at?

To take the last question first, I admit I’ve found some things that I believe would fit into this category of trolling to be entertaining—mostly pranks on the media and such.

It’s juvenile I know, but I’ve laughed at the Jack Mehoffer stuff (where people try to trick news shows and such into saying Jack Mehoffer like it’s a real person’s name, kind of like Bart making crank calls to Moe on The Simpsons), the highlight being when the repellant Bill O’Reilly was tricked into reading a letter (a rant about how Fox News was becoming too liberal) attributed to Jack Mehoffer on the air, and then initiating his commentary with, “Right you are, Mr. Mehoffer!”

I’ve even chuckled a bit at the antics of the “fuck her right in the pussy” guy and the efforts of him and his copycats to sneak the phrase into live media.

But I’m not fully comfortable even with the pranks like that. Like practical jokes and hoaxes in general, they walk a fine line between being funny and being hurtful.

Of course the kind of trolling Phillips mostly focuses on in this book is more unambiguously bad because it celebrates crossing that line as far as possible in the wrong direction. Its philosophy is that being hurtful is precisely what makes trolling funny, so it consists of pranks and hoaxes and such that have to hurt people to count as successful.

There are sites where trolls congregate, which give rise to mob behavior. However bad some of these people would be as individuals, once they start egging each other on and trying to top each other, they get a lot worse.

Some of their bullshit goes way, way beyond causing momentary embarrassment to some media figure or whatever. I mentioned earlier the case of the family of the kid who committed suicide being harassed and humiliated relentlessly after turning his MySpace page into a sort of memorial site. That kind of trolling later became a big thing on Facebook.

Called Facebook RIP trolling, trolls look for Facebook pages memorializing dead people—young suicides, victims of violence, etc.) and seek to hurt as much as they can any emotionally vulnerable people they find there. Like in the MySpace case, they hack into people’s accounts to try to get contact information to extend the harassment and damage offline where possible.

Which is all utterly reprehensible.

Probably the best defense of trolling—and it would apply to only a very small minority of cases—would be when it’s directed at targets deserving of some ridicule or of being taken down a peg, and where what’s being disrupted is itself objectionable in some way.

Phillips, for example, counts the exposure of the Scientology cult’s secrets online as a case of trolling. That’s something that almost certainly has had positive consequences overall, decreasing the credibility of that criminal enterprise. I won’t say I endorse it unreservedly—I assume deception was used to obtain the material in the first place, for instance—but if I knew all the details about that case I suspect I’d say it was something like 80% positive and 20% negative, which is astronomically higher than I’d assess virtually any other instance of trolling.

So there’s that. Maybe punking O’Reilly with the Jack Meoffer stunt is defensible, since he’s a nasty son of a bitch actively and intentionally adding negative energy to the world to further his own enrichment. But maybe not. There’s still an element of countering evil with evil to that, and my moral philosophy runs in a different direction.

So most trolling I hate, a little is kind of a guilty pleasure that I’m ambivalent about, and a little I think is, or probably is, fine.

The exceptions are the potentially interesting cases, because run-of-the-mill trolling is so self-evidently awful. Why? Well, to put it as simply as possible, I think there should be a strong presumption in favor of being nice to each other, and trolling is the opposite of this.

A strong presumption doesn’t mean one that cannot be overridden. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other relevant factors besides niceness that need to be taken into account in evaluating behavior. There are plenty of inconvenient truths that make people uncomfortable, and I certainly wouldn’t say they should therefore never be expressed.

There is also plenty of value in free expression, regardless of the merits of what’s being expressed. Being in an environment where you feel free to say whatever you are inclined to say is itself a positive thing. (This is a point that seems largely lost on the politically correct crowd. Their analysis rarely goes beyond: X is something we’d prefer not be said, therefore we’re justified in using whatever means are necessary to prevent its being said.)

But come on. Going out of your way to cause as much pain as you can to people—especially children, people who are mentally unstable, people who are grieving, etc.—and then laughing at the damage you do is typically not a close call ethically. It’s shitty behavior, pure and simple.

The situation would be different if we were talking about a space that is understood to be fake or some kind of game, like if trolling were limited to trying to defeat or somehow harm make-believe people on some simulation site like Second Life. Then it would be legitimate, like practicing deception at the poker table.

By “legitimate” I don’t just mean “possible” or “to be expected,” because then you could justify car theft by saying anyone who parks their car on the street knows it could be stolen. I mean where hostile behavior and deception and such are part of a make believe reality or game situation that you enter voluntarily, understanding what’s involved.

I know some trolls attempt to defend their behavior with a superficially similar rationalization—that claim that the Internet is a location where nothing should be taken seriously, and that therefore anyone who enters it is fair game—but who gave them the authority to decide that that’s to be the rule of the Internet, and then to enforce that philosophy coercively on others? (Not to mention their aggression sometimes extends offline to “real life.”)

Using Facebook RIP trolling as an example, Phillips notes that trolling and the media sometimes end up in a mutually beneficial relationship, despite their antagonism for each other on the surface.

Both the media and trolls are drawn to the Facebook memorial sites that get the most attention and posts from strangers, which tend to be things like photogenic white girls murdered in some gruesome or sexual way. Trolls want their antics seen by the most people, so they flock to sites like that, ridiculing and provoking the people posting there. The media then responds with outrage, real or faux, running stories on local news and such about how these awful trolls are spitting on the memory of this dead girl. These stories increase traffic to the page, which makes the trolls happy because more people are there to see what they’re up to and to expend their energy in futilely condemning it. So the trolling increases, which increases the chances of it being further noted in the media.

Trolls benefit by causing more damage to more people, the media benefits by running sensationalist stories about awful behavior that their viewers will eat up, and even Facebook benefits from having more traffic driven to certain pages on its site.

Phillips even sees an implied media criticism by the trolls in this phenomenon. By choosing the pages they do to infiltrate, they are attacking the disproportionate interest the public shows in some deaths over others, and they are attacking the hypocritical media that exploits this tendency in the public.

That’s a bit of a stretch, though not without merit. She herself admits that few trolls probably have this sort of social critique as a conscious motive. As I described above, they’re mostly just flocking to the pages that will bring the most attention to their sadistic provocations, which means the pages that get the most traffic regardless of the reason.

But even if it were motivated as some kind of social commentary, I don’t know that that adds much if any justification to it. Maybe it’s considerate, maybe it’s vaguely tacky, for strangers to leave messages of condolence for the family of a child who committed suicide. And maybe there is indeed something criticizable about their tendency to do so disproportionately often in cases that have gotten the most media attention and cases of people who look like them or whom society has subtly trained them to value more because of their skin color or whatever. But so what? Given all the horrible things people do to each other, is it really worth singling out for your wrath folks guilty of some allegedly imperfect way of expressing support and compassion toward grieving people?

OK, so maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s those who exploit their tendencies and behavior for profit—i.e., the mainstream media that run stories on “popular” deaths and trollish behavior concerning them, and Facebook or other sites that provide a platform for such memorial pages—who are rightly getting their comeuppance from trolls.

Two problems with this. One, basically all such companies are guilty of is engaging in capitalism. I’m not completely unsympathetic to the notion that that’s enough for someone to deserve condemnation, but unless you really are going to broaden the critique to that extreme, I don’t see much merit in going after just these entities for just this behavior. Congregating at a few memorial pages to express condolences may be a nice thing to do, a neutral thing to do, or a mildly distasteful thing to do, which means that those who sell services that facilitate such behavior are encouraging good, neutral, or mildly bad actions. Certainly there are entities profiting from enormously worse behavior than this, so I don’t see these folks as particularly worthy of attack.

Two, more importantly, the trolls aren’t even hurting those media and Internet businesses. As noted above, if anything their behavior helps them. It gives them fodder for more sensationalist stories about trolls making light of the most tragic occasions, which draws more media consumers and generates more profit.

Trolls aren’t hurting big bad corporations when they engage in behavior like Facebook RIP trolling. They’re hurting real flesh-and-blood people, like those who have had a loved one die as a victim of violence.

Not that Phillips doesn’t recognize this. I don’t mean to give the impression that she somehow defends Facebook RIP trolling and such as political or social protest or commentary, just that she sees that as one aspect of it. As she puts it, “Whether friend or family member or sympathetic stranger to some unlucky victim, real people were really affected—in real time, no less—by RIP trolling, complicating any analysis that focused exclusively on context.”

As a final point about whether some versions of trolling are defensible, I’m generally very much in favor of tasteless humor. I think we’ve gotten way, way too uptight about such things in this politically correct era. As far I’m concerned, there’s little if anything that can’t be mined for humor.

But that’s in private, or in contexts with willing participants and observers. That’s buddies shooting the shit, joking around as a way to deal with the discomfort of a certain topic, to let off steam, to give their offensive side its least harmful airing so as not to keep it bottled up inside to come out later in a lot worse ways, or to enjoy the pleasure of violating taboos in the least harmful way. Or it’s a stand-up comedy routine at an adults-only comedy club.

I once saw such a comedian introduce a joke with, “You know the funniest thing about kiddie porn?,” a line that in itself scored points with me regardless of how good or bad the ensuing joke was.

But there’s a difference between that and forcing it on other people. There’s a difference between that and purposely seeking out people you know have a painful history with kiddie porn, getting in their face, and insulting and ridiculing them about it incessantly until you get them to break down. That’s not, needless to say, funny to anyone who isn’t seriously mentally ill.

Anyway, as you read this stuff, it’s hard not to wonder “Who are these evil, vicious people, and why do they do what they do?” Unfortunately, as Phillips points out, the available evidence is quite limited, given that they invariably post anonymously and lie constantly.

You can, she says, take some educated guesses as to their demographics by observing their behavior, but you can’t then verify that with precision. From the types of insults they favor, the pop culture references they use, etc., you can infer that trolls are very likely disproportionately male, white, straight, and young. Also, the very fact that they spend significant time online and are well-versed with the use of computers and how to post online and hide their identity and such indicates that they’re mostly at least well off enough to have plenty of experience with computer technology.

These aren’t absolutes of course. I know a young man who has spent a significant portion of his adult life homeless and who has never from birth been in what could reasonably be described as economically advantaged circumstances, and he is online all the time (from his phone and from public computers) and on the whole is a lot more conversant with all the latest technology than I am. But the idea is that the picture of the troll as some mean-spirited white male teenager or young adult holed up in his parents’ suburban basement is probably pretty accurate as a rule of thumb.

But there’s not much more specific than that that you can say about trolls in general, and rarely will you have the opportunity to analyze a troll individually (in a way that you can at all trust isn’t a put-on). “What kind of sick people do this kind of evil shit?” is a perfectly legitimate and interesting question, but not one that can be answered with any confidence. “What kind of sick society gives rise to this kind of evil shit?” is potentially more answerable. As Phillips explains, out of necessity she focused more on “cultural pathologies” than “individual pathologies.”

So I’ll turn now to the sections of the book more explicitly tying trolling to racism and sexism. At the outset I’ll say that I did not find these sections fully convincing. They come from a certain ideological, leftist, feminist framework that I agree with in part, disagree with in part, and am undecided about in part. Some of those ideological assumptions are stated and some are unstated, but unless you are from that same academic world that pretty much takes these things as well-established, you’ll probably experience a few “Hey, wait a minute” moments reading this material.

Her argument, as I understand it, can be paraphrased thusly: Trolls manifest racism and sexism and behave like assholes in general. The general population (at least the “privileged” straight white male portion of it) manifests racism and sexism and behaves like assholes in general, and while this is typically more subtle than trolling it also does a lot more damage. Therefore trolling is a natural outgrowth of straight white male-dominated mainstream culture, and while it’s correct to condemn trolling we need to also condemn at least as vigorously the aspects of mainstream culture that it mirrors.

At a very general level, the argument form is one I myself have used. That is, “People are all up in arms about X. It’s true that X is bad, but there are many behaviors relevantly similar to X that people condemn less or not at all because they are so subtle and ubiquitous as to be too familiar to generate outrage, or because we’ve internalized a certain ideology that tends to blind us to just how bad certain things are.” So I by no means think there is something off base about Phillips trying to alert us to how certain broader phenomenon are equally or more problematic than some of the specific types of objectionable behavior that periodically happen to get the most attention and condemnation. But I have my quibbles with some of the specifics in this section of the book.

Too often, it seems to me, she doesn’t provide much of an argument connecting mainstream racism and sexism with trolling racism and sexism causally except to cite instances of each and assume that therefore they’re connected. Further, some of her examples of racism and sexism are at least open to question.

Consider, for instance, the oft-cited example of the opposition to Barack Obama as president. Certainly there has been a great deal in it that has been indefensible, ill-motivated, insulting, outrageous, and all the rest. There’s the birth certificate controversy, the often blatantly dishonest opposition to health care reform (e.g., condemning it for instituting “death panels” to decide which Americans don’t deserve to have health care dollars spent on them to save their lives), the nonstop obstruction and scorched earth tactics to make sure that as little as possible gets done while he is president (knowing that a president is routinely given disproportionate blame when things go poorly), and on and on and on and on.

Many people, including the author, see that as clear evidence of racism: The opposition is so bitter and so unreasonable because it’s based on hatred of the very idea that there is an African American president.

I think there’s something to this, but I also think it’s hard to prove and easy to exaggerate.

Unfortunately we can’t rerun the eight years of his presidency with a white Democrat in office instead, to see if the Republicans, right wing talk radio, Fox News, etc. would have behaved just as viciously and irresponsibly toward him or her.

But as a thought experiment, let’s imagine a parallel reality (though it happens to be one of potential sexism rather than potential racism).

Imagine that in 1988, instead of Bill Clinton being elected president, Hillary Clinton was. Imagine that she was attacked by the right wingers in all the ways that Bill was in real life. Imagine that she engaged in some sort of hanky panky with a staffer or volunteer, that she at least fudged the truth about it initially, that a massive amount of money was spent investigating her, that the investigation was a blatantly partisan fishing expedition with all kinds of highly questionable tactics, that it was all designed to be maximally embarrassing and damaging to her politically, and that it was even pushed to where she had to undergo the indignity of an impeachment trial on the issue.

OK, how would the left have reacted to this, especially feminists? Surely all this nonsense would have been condemned as blatant sexism. “Never would this have happened with a man as president. There has always been an unwritten rule that the press and the opposition party ignore this kind of thing and let ‘boys be boys.’ Look at JFK and countless other examples. This is a total double standard. It has nothing to do with infidelity or lying about infidelity or any of that; it has to do with the fact that these people simply will not accept a woman as president and will do anything they can to destroy her, however unreasonable.”

And this would not have been at all an implausible reaction. Of course the problem, though, is that exactly this did happen with a male president; it all happened with Bill Clinton.

Is there some racism in how President Obama has been treated? My guess is yes, but not to the extent that many think is so obvious. I suspect it’s more a matter that certain accusations and such are slightly more likely to stick if a significant portion of the audience for them is predisposed to oppose someone due to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

That is, I doubt Fox News and their ilk decided to attack an African American Democrat more than they would have a white Democrat due to their racism. More likely they would have been equally hostile regardless of race. But it may be that racism in general society affected how receptive people were to the hostility.

If instead of Barack Obama, the president had been Dick Gephardt or John Kerry or Joe Biden or whomever, the right wingers probably would have ginned up something just as unjustified as the birth certificate thing as a controversy, but maybe instead of 40% of the population buying into some aspect of it, it would have been 35%, or 30%, or 28%. The Republicans in the Senate would still have very likely refused to even vote on a Supreme Court nominee with almost a full year left in the Democrat’s presidency, but maybe the number of people in the general population agreeing with this tactic would have been 10% or 20% or whatever lower.

That’s just a guess. Knowing that there is still plenty of racism and sexism in society it’s hard to believe it doesn’t have at least a small impact—mostly not even conscious—on how people react to what presidents do and how their opponents attack them. But I’ll bet it is dwarfed by other factors. I don’t think it’s self-evident that birtherism and all the rest comes from people who hate African Americans; I think it comes much more from the fact that Republicans tend to be even more corrupt and unprincipled than politicians in general, that Fox News and right wing hate radio and such consists of dishonest, unscrupulous ideologues and con artists, and that there are unlimited funds available from wealthy individuals and corporations who would be disadvantaged economically by certain liberal policies. Therefore a Democratic president will be opposed in any and all ways, fair and unfair, that have any chance of success.

I’m in no way saying that leftists are just imagining that racism and sexism remain serious problems. But I do think that it’s possible to become so obsessed with these issues of the “privileged” and “unprivileged” groups in society that you see such discrimination everywhere you look, exaggerating its frequency and severity, and convincing yourself that the fight against evil in the world can wholly or almost wholly be subsumed under the fight against your white, male, straight, “abled” enemies.

Racism and sexism (and homophobia, etc.) exist. They surely have some causal connection to some trolling. But I suspect the degree to which these things are true is less than what Phillips believes.

Here’s another point if you want to talk about causal connections between racism, et al, and trolling: A large number of people feel—and set aside for now whether they’re justified or not in feeling it—like they’re constantly being judged and censored by the political correctness in mainstream culture, like one way or another anything they express in an area like race or sex will be the wrong thing and they’ll be attacked.

Their opinions, their attitudes, don’t just go away because they become gun shy about expressing them in contexts where the politically correct folks hold sway. They just move from the light to the shadows and if anything become more extreme and uglier. They come out in the diminishing places where they can be manifested without getting you in trouble, e.g., in the secret ballot (conservatives by now are absolute masters at manipulating such people and their feelings, and encouraging them to see themselves as underdogs who must fight back against this oppression), and in the anonymity of online posting forums.

So maybe it’s not a matter of: “Society has so much remaining racism and sexism in its mainstream culture that it gives rise to trolling, so we need to be even more diligent, even more unforgiving, about shutting down all expressions that are even arguably racist or sexist in mainstream culture in order to combat trolling,” but instead, “Society has become so hyper-sensitive about anything that even might be interpretable as racism or sexism in mainstream culture, and has dealt with it so coercively, that it has generated an angry backlash, one manifestation of which is trolling.”

Even if that’s the case, it’s still possible that the present level, or even a greater level, of political correctness in mainstream culture is justified, but it wouldn’t be because (among other things) it lessens trolling, but in spite of its increasing trolling.

It’s a tough issue in general, beyond anything to do with online trolling. You certainly can’t stop fighting for social justice just because you might piss some people off and generate a backlash. But on the other hand, there may be alterations you can make here and there as far as choosing less coercive methods when possible, not going overboard on gray area cases, not being so quick to treat people as the enemy because they’re not quite as pure as you perceive yourself to be on these issues, being more humble, picking your battles based more on substance rather than the highest-profile symptoms and symbols, etc.

I don’t know. Maybe the same level of hate would be there regardless, but I have to think an awful of lot of “Reagan Democrat” types wouldn’t so consistently vote against their own interests if the politically correct types weren’t so often such total assholes accusing anyone and everyone of racism and sexism if they deviate in the slightest from their current doctrines.

I found the sexism chapter even more dogmatic, buzzword-laden, and unpersuasive than the racism chapter. I felt more defensive reading it. Justifiably? Or just because I happen to harbor more latent sexism than latent racism and I felt uncomfortable being confronted on this? Obviously I would say the former, but I’m not going to pretend I can completely rule out the latter. It’s no mystery how feminists would assess my case.

Part of what gives me pause is very basic stuff that I’m sure is covered in Feminism 101 and that maybe I would agree with if I were exposed to all the arguments pro and con. But for instance this whole notion of distinguishing sex and gender, and then the uses to which that distinction is put, still troubles me.

For example there’s apparently this notion that abusive, cruel, dominating behavior is “gendered” male, with the understanding that this doesn’t mean that all and only people who are anatomically male engage in it (which, as I understand it, would be to commit the fallacy of conflating sex and gender). What makes it male behavior isn’t that only males engage in it, but that it’s conventionally associated with males.

Evidently it’s also gendered male to value staying calm and collected, being rational, winning arguments—or conflicts in general—regardless of merit, etc., not to mention committing rape and stealing continents from Indians. Traditional philosophy is gendered male, as evidenced by the fact that one of its heroes and sort of founder Socrates delighted in humiliating people for his amusement by defeating them in arguments.

So look, Phillips says, at troll behavior and you’ll see how it manifests just these kinds of inconsiderate, aggressive, dominating, sadistic traits. Heck, some trolls even cite Socrates as a role model. So regardless of whether in the sex sense they’re male (though likely an overwhelming majority of them are), in the gender sense what they’re doing is male.

OK, my response to this kind of thing is always: how is this not objectionable stereotyping? How is this helpful? What is gained by identifying certain behaviors in terms of gender?

Are violent street crimes “black” behaviors (and corporate crimes “white” behaviors) because they are disproportionately committed by one race or the other, and because people tend to “associate” muggings and shooting convenience store clerks and such with black people (and violating environmental laws or lobbying laws with white people)? Is eating watermelon a “black” behavior, in some sense analogous to gender but not analogous to sex?

Even if these are accurate descriptions of stereotypes, aren’t we just reinforcing them and justifying them by labeling such behaviors as “male” or “female” (or “black” or “white”)?

Not to mention, some of these “gendered” male (or “androcentric”) traits strike me as good, some as bad, and some as in between, whereas they’re all presented in a condemnatory way. Plus, some even contradict each other. If you favor winning arguments over truth, then you are decidedly not rational. If you’re a slave to your emotions—and unhealthy, unjustifiable ones at that, like enjoying making people suffer—then there again you are not rational.

Let’s not even talk about the gross misrepresentation of Socrates. (Though in her defense, Phillips could plausibly say that she is merely reporting how trolls see him, and how that matches their own ill behavior.)

But in general, how about we praise or criticize these various traits based on their merits? If it’s wrong to be sadistic, or to value winning an argument more than truth, or to steal land from Indians, then say so and defend your position. Surely what makes them wrong (or right) is not that they are committed disproportionately by people with penises, or that they are conventionally associated in the minds of the masses with males.

For one thing, this labeling generates defensiveness. If you have a problem with a certain type of aggressive behavior, make your case and I might well agree with you. But if you call it “androcentric” behavior, then I have to either be a traitor and confess my unworthiness and that of others of my gender and plead forgiveness, or if instead I contest the label, this orneriness is cited as further evidence of my sexism and denial in that I am defending my privilege and aggressively trying to win an argument on the matter.

My values are my values. I favor rationality, nonviolence, love, empathy, freedom, open communication, etc. In deciding what to value and how to balance those values with each other, it is a matter of indifference to me if they are “androcentric” or not. What I care about is whether they are justified, so if you have something relevant to say about that then I’m all ears. The rest is just accusations and buzzwords.

Phillips is ambivalent about whether it’s OK to use trolling tactics for feminist and other good ends. One phrase that initially stood out to me as appalling is “The political and ethical implications of which hinge on who’s doing the antagonizing and who’s on the receiving end of those antagonisms,” which certainly seems a blatant double standard and “end justifies the means” kind of thing.

I know, though, that that’s not the only way to look at it. To embrace a double standard doesn’t have to be hypocrisy. Moral consistency only requires applying the same principle when cases are relevantly similar. The argument here would be that tactics used by oppressors to gain and keep control are not relevantly similar to the same tactics used by the oppressed to throw off their oppression.

But to me, as a Gandhian, they are relevantly similar. The end doesn’t justify the means. Being a victim of violence doesn’t give you the right to use violence. Being of a group that is disproportionately victimized by trolling doesn’t give you the right to troll people of “privileged” groups.

Not to mention, we aren’t exactly talking about a clear-cut case like Nazis and Jews here. Almost everyone in contemporary America is “privileged” in some ways and not in others. If we say it’s justified for blacks, women, gays, transgendered, immigrants, the poor, non-English speakers, the mentally handicapped, the physically handicapped, the unemployed, the overweight, etc., etc. to take off the gloves and strike back at their oppressors without worrying about sticking to “clean” tactics, then what is the middle class, dyslexic, bisexual, employed, heavyset, white woman to do? Is she to come up with some approximate score for everyone in her life on the privilege scale, and then release herself from moral obligations in how she stands up for herself against those with higher scores, while recognizing that those with lower scores are justified in treating her similarly?

I have a lot more respect for people, including “oppressed” people, who continue to hold themselves up to high moral standards in how they treat others. And, as Gandhi taught, this is not synonymous with passively accepting oppression. Truth and nonviolence, especially as practiced by imperfect folks like us, aren’t guaranteed to work, especially not in the short term, but do untruth and violence really have such better track records in bringing about desirable results? Even judging purely pragmatically—which I’m not advocating—are you really more likely to advance goals worthy of advancement by stooping to the level of trolls?

By the way, based on this book, “don’t feed the trolls” really is sound advice. Phillips wavers a bit on this, speculating about ways to possibly confront them and drive them away, but given the way they feed on any kind of antagonistic response, it sure seems like the vast majority of the time your best bet is to not respond to them at all.

I’m not excluding things like closely moderating forums and quickly deleting troll posts, but generally that should be done without comment, not as part of a fight with the troll. Heed the words of George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

There’s a lot more I could say about This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, and as I look over my remarks, I realize I left a lot unargued for, didn’t fully explain everything I meant, and left much of what I say refutable if someone were of a mind to pick it apart for weaknesses. To really deal with these topics I’d need to write a much longer essay—preferably a book—and be a lot more meticulous about organizing it and arguing each point. But this isn’t that. This is a place to set down some of my immediate reactions after reading a book.

I obviously don’t agree with everything Phillips has to say in This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, but it is for the most part an intelligent, reasonable, informative discussion of its topic. Of the last hundred books I’ve read, it’s probably one of the ten most thought-provoking.

I will say, though, speaking of getting dirty, that this is the kind of book that made me want to take a shower after reading it. I’d say that’s 85% disgust at the descriptions of the shitty things trolls do, and 15% distaste with some of the ways the feminist ideology made me feel attacked and disvalued.


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