26 March 2011

Don't Feed The Trolls


It's a continual source of frustration to me that commenters on blogs and message boards have not figured out to not feed the trolls.  We're talking about smart people, many of whom seem to have been on the internet for a long time, and have not figured out this basic lesson.  It's a rare reply to a troll that is that combination of razor wit with a complete and utter dissemblance of the idiot's position that people are always shooting for, but almost never achieve.  The vast majority of the time, it just allows a discussion to devolve into either a flame out or else spending a bunch of wasted time arguing about something so stupid that it should never even be an issue to a sentient being.  Click on the link to TPM over on the right there, and read the comments section of a story.  There's usually a troll who ends up being the subject of nearly half of the comments.  Troll Mission Accomplished.

And yet, ironically, I spend a large amount of time reading political blogs and news sources on the internet where the subject of the story itself is a writer pointing out something ridiculous that some well-known conservative personality has done or said, and then either making fun of it, or taking apart the position point by point.  It's very entertaining, and it validates your worldview to see idiots who hold a radically different worldview put in their place by an intelligent and witty writer.  But really, it's just feeding the trolls in real life.

Yesterday, I read a diary on Daily Kos that really blew my mind and put this in perspective for me.  It's long, but if you are frustrated with the state of political discourse today, I highly recommend you read the whole thing (a "long" diary on DK takes maybe 10 minutes to read, so it's not like I'm asking you to read a book).

Ignore the Hard Right: Hit The Mainstream Right Hard

I generally think that the people on the left who document the ravings, lies, hypocrisy, hate,and general cognitive dissonance of the American right are doing the world a great service.  I know that I can't stand more than about 45 seconds of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News before my bullshit alarm is making me feel physically ill, but there are people who listen to their shows every day and publicize their venom to the wider world so that they can know how batshit these people are.

But has it ever really helped anything?  Really?  In the grand scheme of things, does it help to be able to easily find an example of something idiotic that Newt Gingrich said a few weeks ago that totally contradicts something equally as idiotic that he said yesterday?  Is it good for the world to know what paranoid nonsense Bryan Fischer said on his radio show the other day?  Or does it just help to lend legitimacy to people who in any kind of sane world should be relegated to the fringes, standing on boxes in a park with a megaphone, if not screaming at the padded walls of their cell.

In martial arts, it is very important to stay focused on your opponent, and not become distracted by the motions of their weapons (i.e., hands and feet): Those are just extensions of their core, and their entire purpose is to create both a barrier and a distraction away from that core.  If you allow yourself to become overly focused on the opponent's weapons, then they are safe while you are left desperately moving your core in response to movements that are trivial for them.  This quickly becomes exhausting and unsustainable, and you either get knocked down or are forced to take a step backward to increase your safety zone.  Pretty soon, all you're doing is retreating.

This is more than an apt analogy for the various radical "movements" that have defined Republican politics since Reagan - it's practically an identical phenomenon.  From Reagan himself, to the emergence of Hate Radio, to the bellicose Gingrich Congress, to the Buscists, and now teabaggers, they are essentially all convenient tentacles of the main body whose purpose is to grab our attention and divert our actions away from the GOP core.  And so far, they have succeeded completely: They cause the energetic, activist left to become obsessed with debunking irrelevant noise-makers; mainstream Democrats to become afraid of being targeted by them; and the two halves of the Democratic community to become estranged and mutually suspicious as a result.  Those of us who remain focused on achieving substantive results are thereby diminished in number, and our efforts dampened rather than magnified by the rest.
The author proceeds to present an amazingly simple and yet complete dissection of how an economic debate circa 1970s about whether to raise taxes for education reforms could have devolved into an argument today about whether the government should have any role in providing public services at all.  That's really how far we've come in the modern debate with the Republican Party.  It's sheer madness.  It's past the point of going back to the roots of our country.  They're practically advocating feudalism and serfdom at this point.

But reality-based intellectual liberals are suckers, and we just can't help ourselves.

Making a logically specious argument to a liberal - especially when it's dressed up in the shallow accoutrements of intellectual theorizing - is like waving a red cape in front of a bull, and we just cannot help ourselves: We must correct it, dissect its fallacies, and illustrate in detail how it fails to validly reflect reality.  But all the public sees is that both sides are talking about this "new idea," and that means - regardless of the content of one side's arguments - it has become "debatable" rather than the plainly false kookery of some fringe headcase.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because I had found that I just couldn't take the "debate" anymore on the messageboard that I had frequented and moderated for many years.  I had lost interest in playing whack-a-troll, and the impossibility of ever truly "winning" the game disheartened me to the point that I no longer even had interest in educating the willing and open-minded.  Of course, my favorite tactic was to post snarky commentary or links to other snarky commentary that belittled the absurdity of the modern "conservative" movement.  So, as you can see, I was being part of the problem.

I realize that it's very entertaining to just react to craziness: It's such an easy, satisfying target for mockery and intellectual dissection.  But ultimately there comes a point where self-discipline is necessary, and where you have to decide that your attention is more responsibly employed generating and proposing real solutions to real problems rather than arguing with lunatics.  This was one of the biggest reasons for the success of the Obama campaign: While some pundits on the left insisted that he was "losing the message war," and that he was being weak on the hard right, in fact he was consciously ignoring the GOP's meat-puppet crazies and instead attacked the core of the Republican edifice.

Here is the truly amazing thing: If we employ this principle on a broad, grass-roots basis, we have a real chance to restore the window of public perception toward reasoned debate and sane priorities.  The media would resist tooth-and-nail, but its efforts would be in vain: People just stop paying attention to what it says when coverage loses touch with them, and they end up losing viewer share, ad revenue, and everything else that supports them as an institution.

Sooner or later, much as happened toward the right after Reagan, the media must follow the public, even if only in the most superficial ways - it cannot do otherwise and remain viable as a business.  So ignore them too: They are merely echoes, and it does not matter whether they portray a newfound Eisenhower-era liberalism as Kommunist Radikalism - direct experience of it will immediately debunk such lunatic portrayals without ever having to legitimize them by arguing with them.

The whole point of political extremism is to get public attention, so rationally the way to deal with it is to deny public attention while dealing with the phenomenon on a grass-roots level (i.e., by talking to individuals).  By doing this, you treat political craziness as what it is: Not something to be argued with, persuaded, or even really opposed, just dismissed and people not closely affiliated with it made to understand that it's illegitimate and will cause them to be ostracized in the public space.

This is basically how societies function: Common values and common perceptions are upheld because deviating too greatly from them will cause you to be viewed as a weirdo who doesn't belong.

It's "Don't Feed The Trolls", in REAL LIFE.

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