International Herald Tribune letter re “trolling” and “bullying” on the Internet

Edward G. Nilges
Lamma Island
Hong Kong
1 Dec 2010
International Herald Tribune

To whom it may concern:

While I found Julie Zhuo’s thoughts (in “Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt”, IHT 1 Dec 2010) interesting and generally spot-on, I don’t think Internet abuse should be labeled “trolling”.

“Troll” is somewhat racist, since it appears to have been used originally to refer to indigenous inhabitants of northern and western Europe by their conquerors, in what became fairy stories. It also conceals the basic evil of Internet abuse, the victimization, anonymous or otherwise, of others.

“Troll” is in fact used by Internet abusers and the merely ignorant quite freely. For example, in my experience, my literacy (often confused with verbosity), gets me labeled a troll even though I’m not anonymous, in a world in which in-group membership is often displayed in making grammatical errors. The fact that I sometimes reply to bullies in metrical verse does not help.

“Troll” is a catchphrase of abuse used by Internet bullies, anonymous or not. While it is used properly by Ms. Zhuo and elsewhere in the New York Times, it is on the Internet street used typically with a sneer, like “Jew” in Hitler’s Germany. Therefore, “troll” should be retired.

“Bully” is a more accurate term, for it’s not Internet abuse unless a person is harmed; system administrators are about the only sort of people to actually complain about harm to computers other than viruses. Merely taking up server space is not, in itself, a crime, save to a geek.

Furthermore, bullying is not a childhood phenomenon. It starts in the adult world; Phillip Roth, growing up on the mean streets of New York in the 1940s, noted how bullying followed international politics, with Italian kids whaling on Jews because the Fascist grownups back home did so.

Bullying has increased in recent years as a result of American aggression in Iraq, Russian aggression in central Asia, and the smash and grab bailout of the wealthy in 2008, followed by today’s assault on the middle class, all of which have relegitimated brutality towards the apparent weak.

Unfortunately, to label all or most Internet abuse “bullying” might make some people and some institutions uncomfortable, insofar as the latter can be comfortable or not. This is because bullying is a vector of power, the fear of which causes conventional behavior as opposed to speaking out. Like rape as an institution for the subordination of women, bullying doesn’t have to occur in an adult office as long as the threat exists of humiliation.

Kudos to Ms Zhuo’s Facebook for developing a safe way to meet your friends, which for the most part forces its users to take responsibility for their online conduct. But let’s call the major form of Internet abuse by its proper name.

Edward G. Nilges

George Tooker, “Subway”, 1950

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One Response to “International Herald Tribune letter re “trolling” and “bullying” on the Internet”

  1. Re “Subway” Her dismay and fear of becoming a mere compartmentalized component of and an automaton in the concrete jungle that is the modern technopolis really cries through her expression. I see doubt and despair expressed for the lack of possibility to be more than a flea in this world which is dehumanizing as individuals have diminishing value as themselves or even part of the whole. The artist is 50 years ahead of his time in illustrating the agony of the present day. It is Orwellian in portrait of the urban gulag.

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