Don’t Feed the Trolls

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Just-a-quick-Peak-troll-dolls-32896106-500-332Like most things in life, the Internet is a mixed bag. Sometimes, online discussion is very, very good. And sometimes, online argument can go very badly, and there is a name for those who embrace a deleterious argumentative practice that is made possible by the Internet. We are speaking of the trolls.

Thinking one's way into Internet trolling isn't very difficult. There are news stories, blog postings, and opinion pages. With these, there are comment threads for critical discussion. Sometimes on these threads, there are hundreds or even thousands of comments. Now, when there are many people talking in a room, sometimes the best way to be heard is to raise one's voice. But, alas, there's no volume on the internet. To be sure, there is the practice of writing in ALLCAPS, which is the written equivalent of shouting. But anyone can do that, and on the Internet, all such shouting is rendered equally “loud.” So the only way to be heard on the Internet is to have content that captures the eye of readers, and in a comment thread, few things attract attention better than comments which are rude and abusive. Thus a troll is born.

We should note that Internet trolls come in many shapes and forms. There are some who post unflattering pictures of their exes online, there are others who bully classmates on Facebook, and there are those who intentionally post false information in the midst of natural disasters. We are not talking about these trolls here, but much of what we say will likely be relevant to them. The trolls we are concerned with are those that dominate discussions with overblown objections and personal attacks, who seem immune to criticism, and who thereby derail Internet argument. A further feature of trolls of this kind is that they seem to thrive on the negative reactions they elicit. Responding to them and defending your view causes them to become even more unhinged. It seems that the best thing you can do is simply ignore them.

But here's the trouble. It seems clear that engaging with critics is a good thing. In fact, it is not merely a good thing; it is what one ought to do. This is an old thought, and one exceedingly well-articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, with the observation that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The thought is that even if you're right and have excellent reasons to believe so, if you have no reasons that address the other side of an issue, you have no ground to make the comparative judgment that your side is better. The consequence is that those who have critical things to say should be of great interest to us, and we should feel deeply obligated to take up with them. That's a really important reason for why argument matters – even if you're right in a disagreement, you need the grounds for preferring your own side, which requires knowing the other.

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Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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