Saturday, April 24, 2010

You Might Be a Troll If... (A Long Essay on Trolls and Trollery)

By Bloggingdino

We use the term “troll” gleefully across the Cybertubes, so how about some reflection on that concept? A while back, Octo brought to our attention a fine pair of April, 2008 essays by Interrobang (apparently an old student of rhetoric) entitled How to Argue Like a Right-Winger, Part 1 and Part 2. What I write below is loosely inspired by those essays, and in some cases I’ve borrowed or adapted from IB’s categorizations; but on the whole, I’ve tried to respect the uniqueness of IB’s work and have rearranged and added categories, etc. Please have a look at the originals – they’re excellent and they offer concrete examples. I’ve also stepped back from making this all about right-wingety deviousness, although obviously I don’t think we “Marxist sociopaths” do as much troll-work as the right.

First of all, let’s just say that no matter who engages in Das Tröllerei,* none of the tactics detailed below would be necessary if the people self-consciously using them were interested in the truth or had the slightest chance of prevailing by means of sound argumentation. If you do this stuff on purpose, you’re just being a jerk and trying for some nefarious purpose (or maybe even no purpose at all), to frustrate the conversation amongst well-intentioned, well-informed, intelligent people. If that’s you, John Milton has you pegged – the man had a way of tracing everything back to its grand origins. Okay Belial, thou raiser-up to bad eminence of bogus persuasive speech, read it and weep, straight from Paradise Lost 2:110-17):
A fairer person lost not Heav’n; he seemd
For dignity compos’d and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas’d the ear ….
Get thee behind me! You know the work of civilization is hard, with its demand that we rise above our sordid selves by means of artifice; by an insistence, that is, on civility, decorum, and reason. Proper treatment of language is a big part of all this. Just maintaining our ability to think clearly, to concentrate, is the product of great care and persistence, and everyone knows how easily our minds wander, how easily we are swallowed up by triviality, linguistic abuse and wrangling, egotism, and anger. But always to set this care to naught is your perpetual task. You would bring our noblest ideals and designs to nothing, replacing them with the fruits of evil, fear, and confusion. I’d call you a stage villain, but that would be giving you too much credit.

I don’t write any of this material in the naïve expectation that we will arrive at some discursive utopia wherein people who disagree profoundly can all be good friends. In fact, I suggest that it’s hardly worth bothering with the old model of writing to win over those who identify with a perspective inimical to our own. I’m kind of with Wilde’s Lord Harry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray on that one: “I never argue. Only the intellectually lost ever argue.” A minute spent trying to win over a fool is probably a minute wasted, one that I could have used to read some Italian or French, or whatever. Heck, staring into space would be more productive than trying to convince some jackass that 2 + 2 = 4 and not “2+ 2 = 7 times 3 divided by Barack Obama is Hitler.”

One thing I really like about IB’s essays is that they often counsel calling attention to the devious tactic itself – rhetorical outing, so to speak. That can come across as a bit rude (almost like correcting someone’s grammar, however much that someone may deserve a whole can of syntactical whoopass right in the beak), but I think it’s true that it’s effective because it calls attention to the metadramatics of the argument; people in general don’t like being taken for suckers, so if you point out that somebody’s using a slick rhetorical tactic because he or she thinks we’re all too dumb to notice, the audience may well sympathize with the pointer-outer, not the slickster.

Still, a word of caution on all this is in order before I roll out my whimsical and incomplete slickster categories. The word “troll” itself is an easy categorization that shouldn’t escape scrutiny. The tactics described below aren’t all necessarily extrinsic to or mutually exclusive of genuine means of persuasion, i.e. “rhetoric.” Maybe the worst of them are, but at some level, even those trying to be honest may end up engaging in some amount of categorization, word-play, and so forth: the work of interpretation isn’t easy, and thinking relies on categorizations. Anybody who’s read Nietzsche should know that “concepts” and “categories” are in themselves sort of an essentialist sham that can trick us into thinking we know things we really don’t. So there! Also sprach Zarathustra. And then there’s the fact that many people may ignorantly, but in good faith, proceed in a manner that is indistinguishable from self-conscious trollery. As with obscenity, “I know it when I see it” is fun to say and worth something, but it’s hardly an absolute standard. I don’t know that there’s a solid way to make a universal-assentworthy judgment about troll-speak the way Uncle Manny Kant says there is for making a judgment about a beautiful shape or object. I may be able to say, “this rose is beautiful” and insist that y’all agree, but I’m not so sure I can say, “this writer is a troll” and insist that y’all agree.

And who among us has not sinned? Who hasn’t called an opponent an ass, or gotten snippy, or been presumptuous about what others “must” think, and so forth? Reflection on our own tendencies is in order, too: with me, for instance, it’s erudition – I can bedazzle people with book larnin’ – quotes in half a dozen languages, references to literary authors both canonical and obscure, etc. But that sort of thing can easily degenerate to the level of the cheap pun, and it shouldn’t take the place of sound reasoning. Ultimately, it’s impossible to know with certainty the intentions of another, so let those who are perfect be quick to cast the first e-stones. And may our own minds be as free as possible from temptation as we lay up our rhetorical edifices from one day to the next, for Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum, in vanum laboraverunt qui ædificant eam. (Psalm 126, Vulgate Bible; KJV: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” The Lord really ought to do something about those sub-prime mortgages, though. Okay, so here goes:


1. You make big claims and sweeping philosophical statements based on no discernible evidence or justification, and simply expect others to grant you this initial point. Your opponent is in trouble now because you control the argument’s initial premise and should be able to steer them towards your own conclusion. (Bullying Assent to First Premise)

2. You make bald and even grandiose assertions (as stated in 1) and then put the burden of disproof on others. When they provide the necessary disproof, you insatiably demand still more evidence. This tactic turns your opponent into a servant who can never please you or meet your demands. (Moving the Goalposts)

3. You don’t even try to make a coherent argument but instead toss out incoherent assertions, premises, facts, questions, and whatnot either in toto or on the fly, as you respond to others’ criticisms of what you’ve said. The point is to confuse and frustrate your opponents until they give up, at which point you will seem to have won the argument. It takes time to refute even one false claim or logical fallacy – hit them with twenty and you’ll drive them to distraction. You’re still a bad person. (Gish Gallop)

4. You have a Belial-like love of word wrangling and contextual confusion-mongering that would put the Medieval Schoolmen to shame. At some point in many of your exchanges with those wicked people who dare to disagree with you, your comments start to sound pretty much like this: “If only you would pay attention to my words! I didn't say what you said I said because you didn't say you said she said I claimed you said x and I never said y in the first place even if you persist in saying I said z. So there!” You do this even when your honorable opponent is manifestly quoting what you’ve just written, verbatim. (The Maze/Word-Wrangling & Quibbling)

5. You consistently and boorishly misuse words that have a long history of meaning a certain thing, or you use them as taunts. You almost always refer to your opponents as “Rethugs” or “The Democrat Party,” the latter even though you know damn well that the proper adjective is “Democratic.” You sling around terms like “socialism” and “fascism” with abandon either without knowing what they mean or without caring even though you actually have a pretty good idea how to delimit them properly. The power to choose the terms by which we proceed with an argument or define our opponents is immense. But in a more sordid vein, the point of this tacky and abusive exercise is to annoy others, to get under their skin and waste their time. You know they’re right and you’re brazenly misusing language, but you don't care because you’re with Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass:
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.

“Of course you don’t -- till I tell you. I meant ‘there's a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master -- that's all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. . . .
6. You state your opponents’ philosophy and arguments in a preposterously extreme manner so you can demolish them with ease. The resulting viewpoint is well beyond the level of caricature since the latter, after all, is based upon an accurate conception of its original,* while the strawman argument need not be. Caricature has been the instrument of great artists; strawmen are for triflers. (Strawman)

7. You attack the character and integrity of your opponent. We all know how common this is in political campaigns, and it works online, too: no matter how patently false the charge, a percentage of hearers will believe it to their dying breath. (Nothing is easier to destroy than a person’s reputation.) A variety of the ad hominem tactic is to attack the opponent for his or her very erudition and literacy. Any three- or – gasp! – four-syllable words in there? Just ignore the annoyingly precise and correct substance, call the writer “arrogant” and “elitist,” and then shore up solidarity with those who agree with your own stupid-ox, monosyllabic point of view. Smarty-pants eggheads! You’ll fix them! (Argumentum ad hominem)

8. When somebody is getting the better of you in an argument, you change the subject and get upset if anybody points out what you’ve done. Ever try to have a conversation with a person who blocks all attempts to pursue any one topic? Immensely frustrating and, therefore, effective if your rhetorical goal is to evade capture by a more powerful, wiser opponent. (Changing the Subject/Scatterbrain)

9. You persistently associate things that really have no connection: one key purpose here is to devalue or condemn a given idea, term, practice, or person by asserting a link with another that people don’t like. Want to invade Iraq? Easy -- Saddam: al Qaeda | Saddam: al Qaeda, | Saddam: al Qaeda (and/or WMD) | Saddam: al Qaeda (and/or WMD), etc. Result: Oh, alright already – bring it on! We might even call this a species of The Big Lie™: “nobody would keep making that connection if it weren’t true! They dare not, for shame!” – except, of course, dear blogger, that you have no shame. (Conflation)

10. You assert that two phenomena are equivalent – equally outrageous, prevalent, important, or problematic – when they clearly aren’t. If a piecemeal army of right-wing militiamen is running around in the nation’s forests preparing in deadly earnest for Armageddon, you simply compare their activities to a couple of rude words offered up by lefties at some town hall meeting, or dredge up an account of the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weathermen from decades ago. See? Everybody’s doing the Extremist! Trouble is, they’re not. At present, violence-tending radicalism is almost entirely the province of the far right. (False Comparison/False Equivalence)

11. You do unpleasant things such as lie, distort, misquote, harp, carp, nitpick, accuse, slander, insult, heckle, engage in angry outbursts, fail to appreciate irony and humor, etc., all the while accusing your opponents of precisely such behavior even though they’ve exhibited no more than understandable frustration with your incivility and incoherence. Freudian stuff to the core: deflect contemplation of your own anxiety, guilt, dishonesty, bad faith, and bad conduct by projecting them onto others. This allows you to externalize your inner demons and completely derail the argumentative process because now the other person – who actually does care about honesty and good faith -- is busy responding to your false accusations rather than advancing a claim or view. (Projection)

12. You make ridiculous, obviously false, or hateful comments and then act wounded when somebody on the other side bluntly says your statements are ridiculous, false, or hateful. Oh Lord, where is civility to be found in this naughty world? Then, since your nicey-nicey opponents don’t like to hurt others’ feelings, you can take maximum advantage of that weakness on their part. But you’re an outrageous provocateur and an extremist – ’tis your own incivility that has tried the patience of others. And now you want them to feel guilty? (Tone, Plea for Civility)

13. Pretend to agree with your opponents’ policy/candidate suggestions or general outlook, but introduce some sham concern just to distract them and derail the argument, undermine the candidate they support, etc. You really like that Barrack Obumuh feller, but this or that (bogus) concern about something he did ten years ago, or, better yet, about what others less generous than yourself might opine, makes you anxious about his candidacy. Meaning that you really support some other Democrat anyhow but won’t admit it, or that you’re on the other side altogether and don’t want Obama to win the primaries because you are afraid he is the most likely Dem to get elected president over your guy. (Fellow Traveler/Concern Troll)

14. Instead of bothering to read your opponent’s nuanced argument – who has time to do that nowadays? – you pick a couple of key terms and fill in the rest, thereby turning the opponent’s complex thoughts into simplistic, third-rate hack work, parroting the party line, ideological twaddle, and so forth. It’s easy as apple pie to demolish such rubbish, no? Whenever you find yourself assuming, “the writer is a liberal or a conservative, and therefore thinks x, y, and z,” bingo! (Keyword Fallacy/Instant Categorization)

*Whatever Aristotle may imply in his Rhetoric or Nicomachean Ethics or Politics (I forget which—I am getting lazy these days!) about how we kaloi androi or honest, good people may be free to wield certain devices without bringing ourselves down to the level of knaves; and whatever Plato may say about how it’s perhaps okay for the rulers to tell a fib or two for the people’s good.

*Dickens’ phony ultracapitalist Mr. Bounderby in Hard Times is an example of a caricature that strikes home. His absurd “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” posturing mocks laissez-faire ideological abstractionism.


  1. Fantastic, Dino -- an instant classic. Should be featured permanently as "Must read before ye enter The Zone."

    I'm waiting for a client, so don't have as much time to comment now as I'd like (later perhaps), but I have to add that when everything else fails, there is always argumentum ad baculum.

    P.S. I have never called any conversational opponent an ass. (Yes, I'm that polite. ;)

  2. Dino. Marvelous. The only trouble is that you write so elequently the trolls, righties, can't begin to comprehend what you're saying.

  3. And don't let us forget the ones who use Youtube as a source.

  4. Elizabeth, thanks. And I know you would never call a visitor an ass. "Ape-headed, mouse-eared mother-trucker," sure, but "ass"? Never! :)

    Tnlib, thanks. There be some that have earholes but hear not. Stegosaurs in particular. You gotta make it real plain for them. Hadn't thought of the YouTube propagandists, but I'm sure there are a zillion of them.

  5. Excellent. All points that I frequently fail to keep in mind, when riled. I am too often troll sucker bait. I attribute this to my Irish antecedents. Perhaps I need to print this out, and keep it by my computer when I go acommenting.

  6. jadedj,

    Much appreciated. Yes, they are irritating rascals, and apt to draw us beyond our proper selves.

  7. I was called a troll on my own blog once. I mean, really, does it get any better than that?

  8. Will H,

    Ha! That's awesome! I'm tempted to ask, in the best troll-speak I can muster, "So how did that work out for ya?"

    I like the idea of it -- a troll setting up a blog. I guess maybe such a person could visit his own site and write scurrilous falsehoods about himself and obfuscate his own arguments. Sounds like good clean fun, no?

  9. By the way, Elizabeth, I think the argumentum ad baculum is underappreciated in its time (and ours). We dinosaurs still employ the argumentum ad dentes to startling effect.

  10. Outstanding, Bloggingdino. I agree with Elizabeth: An instant Internet classic and required reading before entering the Zone.

    One of Shaw's readers accused me once of being a troll, which I found laughable because I am listed on her site as a co-blogger. There is a Trollblog but the author is not a troll, just another cynic who has been been trying to kick the habit (without the Novice inside).

  11. Oh to be a dinosaur!
    All of the above
    I'd loudly roar
    And nothing more.

    Actually I wish I hadn't read it since I'd keep trying to say something like it and now when I do, I'll come out second rate in comparison.

    None the less, Zarathustra never spake as incisively or with such incisors!

    I tend not to call anyone an ass either -- I'd rather send them to look up Gaandu or Arschloch or μαλάκας.

  12. Capt. Fogg,

    Muchibus thankibus and welcome back to the ZONE. It's true that most of the time I just roar pointlessly, the way I've heard people on the roads in some countries honk for the hell of it. But once in a while I concentrate the old walnut brain and churn out something almost human. I'm flattered that you think my writing is anywhere near as good as yours.

  13. Dino - quite a comprehensive discussion of all things Troll!

  14. tnlib told me to come check this out.
    IMO: All decent, respectful trolls should be treated with kindness, and nurtured. They are the ones that need to be enlightened.
    Blatant, rude, offensive, disrespectful trolls should be as George Carlin once said about rethugs. "I do not like to be cute with them, I like to CRUSH THEM."

    I like your blog, now I will go back the the other ZONE. LOL.
    Thnaks tnlib for the tip.

  15. Well, ahem, ahem - - - after 20+ years of working with and hanging out with media types, I'm not so erudite. Of course, the minute I call someone an ass, or worse, I know it was the wrong tactic and that I didn't accomplish nearly as much as you do. Too old to change course, I guess - or too hot a temper.

  16. It strikes me that this list could also apply to most of Glenn Beck's broadcasting. I refer you to my recent video about the way he conflates entirely unrelated items under some scary rubric.

  17. There is a fine article on epistemic closure , which is defined as a complete refusal to look at evidence that doesn’t come from like-minded sources:

    The accusation isn't that conservatives all reach the same conclusions about everything, nor is it that conservatives are excessively politically correct, nor is it that conservatives demand strict adherence to a set of ideas if one is to remain a conservative in good standing. It's rather about information, and what counts as evidence about the real world … that if one only gets information from a narrow set of sources that feed back into each other but do not engage beyond themselves, that one will have a closed mind … regardless of what one does with that information.

    Or to put it more succinctly, there cannot be another valid and sensible worldview ... end of discussion.

    As long as there will be human beings, there will always be chicanery, and as long as there are both, the catalogue of linguistic and logical abuses will continue to grow.

  18. Octo,

    Thanks, will have a look at the article. It sounds spot on -- I think all of us do that sometimes: we just filter out whatever comes from "the other side." The gesture is legitimate if we're talking about a cable-stable of propagandists, but of course there are authors like Edmund Burke and others of that caliber to reckon with, and they deserve a listen-up, if not necessarily a shout-out.

    Sir Francis Bacon laid out a fine theory in Novum Organum or The New Organon, Book 1 (Aphorisms 39-68), as I'm sure you know, about the several ways in which we distort everything around us; he refers to the Four Idols:

    Idols of the Tribe (Idola Tribus): human nature is just limited; people may misunderstand things, hear what they want to hear, be tricked by their senses, etc. (Bacon says nothing of the dinosaurs, I'm thankful.)

    Cave (Idola Specus): individual defects and peculiarities give a cast to our understanding and our observations. Hey, some people like their breakfast eggs "facing Jesus"; others like them scrambled. It isn't only the English who are eccentric....

    Idols of the Marketplace (Idola Fori): words from all walks of life, and I suppose language more generally, get in our way of seeing things as they are. Linguistic errors stem inevitably from the "intercourse and association of men with each other." That's just like intercourse -- always causing us problems, and yet we have it anyway. Oh intercourse -- ni avec toi, ni sans toi! Anyhow, Bacon's scientific desire is to get beyond Scholastic wrangling and go directly to observation of nature itself. He seems to have considered this possible because he hadn't read all those smarty-pants po-mo Frenchmen like Foo-Cow and Derridada and Gene-Francis Lyotards. Have always liked non-Frenchman but yes-po-mo author Fredric Jameson's phrase "the prison house of language." Of course, I like words, so I'm with Elvis on this one: words, "You the cutest little jailbird I ever did see, let's rock."

    Idols of the Theater (Idola Theatri): thought systems -- philosophy, theology,and traditional beliefs create their own isolated worlds that become "my story and I'm sticking to it" material for whole groups of people. And then they kill one another, more often than not.

    Finally, I think he left out the Idols of Hollywood (Idola Holliwoodi). But you can read all about them in the tabloids....

  19. Matt,

    Yes, I think G-Beck's schtick fits some of the tactics I describe, in that hokey "aw shucks" way. He's always giving people the impression that he wants them to think for themselves, connect the dots, and suchlike -- even as he serves up bowl after bowl of piping hot Cream of Bullshit (TM).

    Thanks to everyone for your fine comments in this thread.

  20. bloggindno - Foo-Cow and Derridada and Gene-Francis Lyotards



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