The Monsters We Raised
As curious children, we experiment. We clash pans with no understanding of music, but are fascinated with the unusual, discordant sounds and the exciting reactions they draw from our caretakers. We touch things we are specifically told not to because the mystery becomes unbearable and our impulse control is non-existent. It’s not surprising to hear “I don’t know.” as a common response from toddlers after scoldingly asking them “Why on Earth did you do that!?” A more nuanced response might be “Sorry Mom, I just wanted to see what would happen…”, but toddlers are anything but ‘nuanced’.
An exhausted parent addresses the results of the behavior: a noisy home, a broken glass, scribbled walls, and a very irate pet cat. Yet the curiosity remains unchanged. Sometimes the child will experience guilt after seeing the results of their behavior, other times confusion, or even glee. He or she is establishing a cause-and-effect understanding of their environment that slowly intertwines rudimentary physics, morality, sensation, and human emotion as it develops.
Eventually, we move past that phase. We develop impulse control, we realize its not fun to need to clean up messes or have those we love be disappointed in us. Sooner or later we’re at the receiving end of someone else’s experiment on bodily autonomy and we don’t very much like it. We gradually stop doing things out of sheer curiosity that we would not like done to ourselves or our property. We empathize.
This ability is a strength for ourselves, and society at large.
Unfortunately, it’s not shared equally.
My theory on trolls is that they possess a stunted sense of curiosity combined with a lust for brief but addicting sensations of power resulting in an inability to conceptualize the results of their behavior on another person. Hearing a young troll discuss his exploits sheds light on some things: Instead of gushing at length in aimless vitriol, many of them first express absolute fascination with just how much of a reaction they can extract from people en masse with a word, a symbol, or even the suggestion of an action. That ability to create emotion in others, even emotions they don’t understand, is a sense of power. Creating a bridge to empathy falls short, since they maintain that they are immune to having an equivalent emotional response to something so intangible. This lack of emotion is seen as a strength their victims lack.
What I’m talking about is the difference between a child doing something impolite and saying “I’m sorry!” once they’ve perceived others dissatisfaction, versus a child who stares blankly at the faces of those offended and thinks “That’s weird…” Something is missing in this scenario. A critical step was skipped in development.
Just as a child has a one-dimensional cause-and-effect view of the world, trolls embrace an equally flat and un-dynamic view of their endeavors. The statement “free speech” trumps all, no need to tie in the complex issues of morality and ethics, or to acknowledge the libel, slander, harassment and hate speech exceptions to the law.
Unfortunately, troll logic flourishes in a world we created. We have devalued our own overwhelming ability to empathize with strangers from a national strength to a “burden” of politeness. We’ve written out of our history the great, powerful things that have happened for the greater good because we all felt something; we all experienced a certain sensitivity together. By using the catch-all term “politically correct” in reference to being conscious about our words we remove the other human our words may reach from the equation and focus only on the inconvenience of having to think about someone else for a minute. We make empathy sound like a chore for the independent thinking, and a hobby for the weak, the “soft”, caring folks amongst us. The oddest thing is the separation of these two mindsets; the idea that someone who is independent and of strong mental fiber would never also be the same person who experiences vulnerability, or concern. This is a huge misunderstanding. We don’t live in a binary world of people with “sensitive feelings” and those without, we live in a world of complex and evolving people with ever-varying levels of energy and emotion. We live in a world where something may be offensive to one person yet inconsequential to another, but on a different subject the roles reverse. We live in a world where we sometimes say “It doesn’t matter to me” only to realize later that yes, it did. We avoid offending others with words that might not matter to us, because we know how bad the words that do matter to us, can feel. This is not a world of the sensitive vs the strong; this is a world of humans.
And yet, we have created an environment where the only wisdom we value is the analytical sort. Wisdom unquantifiable and intangible, which is right about where morality, ethics, philosophy, and social science lay, have all slipped to a lower school of knowledge. The result is that the behaviors they would otherwise inspire in us, abstract thinking (“How would I feel if I were ____ “) suffers a loss of reputation as well. Potential trolls growing up won’t be quick to desire the skills of abstract and emotional thought, if they’ve been groomed to believe they are stronger and smarter without them.
In short, a troll is a person running on a empathy-deficit which they’re lauded for right up until the moment they actually start trolling.