What do we do with the trolls? It is one of the questions of the age. There are those who argue that we have a social responsibility to confront them.
The more established wisdom about trolls, at this point, is to disengage. …in everyday digital life engaging with the trolls “is like trying to drown a vampire with your own blood,” as the comedian Andy Richter put it.
Ultimately, neither solution — confrontation or avoidance — satisfies. Even if confrontation were the correct strategy, those who are hounded by trolls do not have the time to confront them. To leave the faceless to their facelessness is also unacceptable — why should they own the digital space simply because of the anonymity of their cruelty?
There is a third way, distinct from confrontation or avoidance: compassion. The original trolls, Scandinavian monsters who haunted the Vikings, inhabited graveyards or mountains, which is why adventurers would always run into them on the road or at night. They were dull. They possessed monstrous force but only a dim sense of the reality of others. They were mystical nature-forces that lived in the distant, dark places between human habitations. The problem of contemporary trolls is a subset of a larger crisis, which is itself a consequence of the transformation of our modes of communication. Trolls breed under the shadows of the bridges we build.
In a world without faces, compassion is a practice that requires discipline, even imagination. Social media seems so easy; the whole point of its pleasure is its sense of casual familiarity. But we need a new art of conversation for the new conversations we are having — and the first rule of that art must be to remember that we are talking to human beings: “Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” But also: “Don’t listen to what people wouldn’t say to your face.”
The neurological research demonstrates that empathy, far from being an artificial construct of civilization, is integral to our biology. And when biological intersubjectivity disappears, when the face is removed from life, empathy and compassion can no longer be taken for granted.
The new facelessness hides the humanity of monsters and of victims both. Behind the angry tangles of wires, the question is, how do we see their faces again?
Stephen Marche, “The Epidemic of Facelessness”, The New York Times (15 February 2015), SR7.