Ever since starting to engage in the blogosphere (and Facebook, and anywhere on the Internet, really), I have frequently encountered the phenomenon of "trolling." Wikipedia's definition of an Internet troll is "someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community...with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion." I think this is a fairly adequate description of what so many of us have experienced with disdain. I am not sure though that these frustrating people who like to antagonistically comment on everything are always doing so entirely intentionally. Sometimes, I think people actually think they are responding intelligently to something or engaging in a legitimate discussion when in fact they are not at all.

Now, I'm not claiming that I am completely immune to this, just to be clear. I could easily see somebody "trolling" this very post and accusing me of at times doing the exact same thing. So let me try to address this exceedingly widespread and destructive problem without pointing fingers necessarily away from myself. That is why this post is entitled "Responding to Things You Hate" rather than "Please Don't Feed the Trolls." Let's try to evaluate ourselves honestly instead of thinking only of others' faults, with the ultimate goal of doing our part to clean up Internet discussions as much as we can.

The Proud Troll
These are the people who consider themselves experts on everything because they read the article about it on Wikipedia. They are the standard of perfect knowledge and argument, and therefore anybody they disagree with or who points out a flaw in their logic is quickly and soundly treated with wicked sarcasm in the form of ironically illogical intellectual put-downs. These are our friends who love to maliciously point out our fallacious arguments, and aggravatingly do so fallaciously. I recently tried to avoid this kind of interaction by simply not responding to an individual in a comment thread. This individual eventually proceeded to accuse me of arguing ad hominem (attacking his character instead of his arguments) because I had said I wished not to respond. The irony of course is that by accusing me of arguing fallaciously (and subsequently calling me "immature"), even though I had not made any argument at all, he actually attacked my personal character and committed his own fallacy. Going into "attack" mode is very simply never helpful in any discussion and more often than not, my problem is going into "defensive" mode once engaged by one of these people. What concerns me the most is that I don't think these people are always doing this intentionally - they actually think they know what they are talking about! 

My recommendation for those who are prone to this kind of commenting would be to practice humility. Especially if your primary source of information is Wikipedia or YouTube documentaries, try to recognize that you are going to run into a lot of people who both disagree with you and have more knowledge than you about some things. The two are not mutually exclusive. You could maybe learn something from those who you disagree with if you approached each interaction from a perspective of learning and seeking truth together rather than attacking.

The Defensive Troll
Since I cited this as one that I myself struggle with often, let's talk about it next. These are the people who respond to any difference of opinion from their own like you just threatened the life of their first child. There is no room for being challenged or for others to disagree with you, and anyone who does has just attacked you and everything you stand for. Often, this is because the person who made the comment is a proud troll, so you feel the instinctive need to fight back (the "flighters" probably don't post very much on the Internet in the first place to avoid controversy). Now, there is a range to this - I would say that I don't go quite as far as not being open to challenge at all, but for example, when I am engaged by a proud troll, I do feel the need to respond and defend myself, or else to go on the counter-attack and show him his folly, even though I know it is probably not worth it and just feeds the hostility. I wonder if this is actually how many proud trolls feel, thinking that they are the ones being attacked.

For those of us who struggle with going on the defensive or counter-offensive, we need to learn self-control and again humility. We need to practice refraining from responding to things immediately, first of all. That never goes well. We need to sit back and have a few moments (or better, hours!) of clear thought and questioning ourselves before responding. We hate this because we don't want to have to think about the dissenting commenters all day, especially if they're trolling. But we must resist the temptation. And then when we do respond, we need to do so with humility, no matter how wrong or how much of a jerk the other person is. It's hard. Really, really hard. But it's the only way you'll get anywhere. Who knows? It is even conceivable that by responding with humility and gentleness, the other person might (eventually, over time) begin to see that having a calm, humble conversation is actually best. And sometimes, if you or the other person is incapable of having that humble conversation, it is actually best not to respond at all.

The "Tolerance" Troll
These are those of us who are so outraged by something we read that we immediately respond in emotion and decry the poster as intolerant and hateful. This has never been helpful, even if it is something that is actually promoting hatred (which, many times, it is not). A recent study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrated that regardless of a person's viewpoint, they are more likely to be "more certain of their own stance and less open-minded about the other side of the debate" after reading a thread of rude or hostile comments. Responding to something you hate in a hostile or emotional fashion only pits yourself against the poster in a hostile and emotional way. Things just get worse, not better. Minds become more closed, not more open to discussion. Even though you may think you are standing up for what is right, you are actually creating a hostile environment for yourself, the poster, and others.

The next time you come across something you hate, my humble suggestion would be to exercise self-control and take a few hours to yourself to really calm down and think about what has been posted and why before responding to it. Again, don't go off the emotional deep end. Even if you are right, you are not helping anybody, including yourself, that way. I would also suggest, as with all of these cases, humility. You know what? Just because you think the implications of what has been posted are hateful, that doesn't actually necessarily mean that they are. If somebody offends you by posting something that questions homosexuality or abortion (since these two come up a lot!), that doesn't inherently make them hateful people, believe it or not! What ironically happens so often is that the Tolerance Troll expresses intolerance towards the viewpoints of others who they are offended by. Tolerance means loving and treating others with genuine respect even when you adamantly disagree with them. If tolerance is really what you want to promote, you can start by discussing issues gently, calmly and humbly, honestly trying to understand the other perspective rather than assuming that the poster is a terrible human being with a terrible perspective. As best-selling author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" Stephen Covey writes, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Try rephrasing what you hear the other person saying before responding at all to them.

The Misinterpretation Troll
This person frequently either does not demonstrate a high level of reading comprehension or they only skim enough of what you've posted to decide you're wrong, responding to you by lumping you into a stereotypical category of worldview that does not accurately reflect what you've posted. To be fair, online interactions are the source of a myriad of misunderstandings and mistaken interpretations. For this reason alone, we need to be exceedingly careful about bringing assumptions and misinterpretations into our comments. Often, we can find ourselves talking past each other because both sides have misunderstood the other's position. 

Having said this, there are some people who just very clearly do not carefully read. Personally, this is the most frustrating thing as a blogger. I spend quite a bit of time choosing my words very carefully to reflect what I actually want to say and to avoid misinterpretations as much as possible. However, almost every single comment I receive (at least from those who disagree with me) reflects that they have made assumptions about my perspective that are a) often not true and b) definitely are not mentioned anywhere in the post. Alternatively, they inventively misinterpret what I've written to mean something it very clearly does not. Simple Internet misunderstandings aside, I am honestly shocked at how regularly and carelessly people read and respond to posts in this fashion. It sometimes makes me wonder whether it's worth writing anything at all.

If you find yourself accused of this regularly, you need to do one of two things. First, in the case of reading assumptions into somebody's perspective, you need to actually read and digest what has actually been said and dissociate it from the stereotypical worldview you have constructed in your mind. For example, if somebody writes or posts something about an extremely controversial topic such as homosexuality or abortion, your tendency will be to immediately assume that if somebody does not think homosexuality is awesome or if they are pro-life (assuming you come down on the other side of these things), then they are therefore just like every other person who has drawn the same conclusions. You will read into their motives and words what you are actually importing from others instead of actually reading and understanding their perspective fairly and humbly. This is both incredibly unfair and prejudiced. If you are going to comment, make sure you are actually responding to what the author has explicitly said and not your own ideas of what you think they mean. If you are unclear on something, then ask them!

Secondly, don't be overconfident that you have perfectly understood something even if you think it is explicit. Even for those who do read more carefully, misinterpretations still occur frequently. Err on the side of caution and again, clarify what you think you are reading or hearing before responding. Even if it turns out that you are correct in your interpretations, as has already been mentioned, do not comment in a hostile manner. Doing so makes you an enemy of healthy discussion and of humbly seeking truth, even if you are right.

 As author John Piper once wrote: "Unsympathetic readers could jump to conclusions about practical implications that are not implied. I would simply plead for the application of that great principle of good criticism: Before assessing an author’s position, express an understanding of it in a way the author would approve." 

The "Assumes-the-Worst" Troll
This person often posts comments in the form of sarcastic one-liners that assume the worst about whatever was originally posted. These comments are just simply annoying and often unfair. A good rule of thumb is actually never to assume the worst about anything or anyone. In fact, assume the best! Plus, you are just making enemies by doing this, not friends. 

The "Interference" Troll
These are the people I would like to put in the penalty box for interfering with play on the ice. They have literally nothing to contribute to the conversation; they only want to make somebody look like a fool by taunting them like a schoolyard bully. This person epitomizes the Wikipedia definition of a troll. I would like to show restraint and humility here...so I will not describe this type of commenter further.

These people don't care that they are not helping the conversation; in fact that is their intent, so there isn't much I can suggest to them. For those dealing with them, don't respond. Just don't.

So How Should We Respond to Things We Hate?

It would seem that the common threads here are humility, understanding, gentleness and self-control. Productive responses are never negative, hostile, assuming or attack others personally. Misinterpretations will happen unless we ask clarifying questions, and seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. We will get nowhere by trying to win an argument or by putting others down. We will get many places by earnestly and humbly seeking truth together, as a team. Remember, tolerance is loving and respecting those who you adamantly disagree with.

So which kind of trolling are you most prone to fall into? 

How will you become more aware of this in your own life? How will you take action to grow in this area personally? 

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