Free the trolls

You do not have a right not to be offended,  insulted or verbally abused. You do not have that right because it might be right to offend, insult or verbally abuse you. You might believe stupid things, or even sensible things, and take offence at any and all critiques, rebuttals and refutations. You might be a pompous prig, a sanctimonious sop, an officious orifice. Even if you are not these things, there would be very little wrong in telling you you are. After all, you are not a six-year old child: you’re an adult. You can take it.

What of someone expressing their detestation of you, their hatred of you, wishing you ill, wishing you dead?

No right here, either. Perhaps you deserve to be detested and hated, perhaps you deserve harm, even deserve to be dead. If you do, it may be entirely right to say horrible things of you. If you don’t deserve these things it may be wrong, perhaps very wrong, to speak to you like this. Or it might just be an instance of hyperbole.

The problem here is that these kinds of speech may be right or wrong and whether they are may depend on very subtle factors of context. For both these reasons these are not matters for the law but for civil society. Unfortunately the law is making an ass of itself over all this  and those calling for it to make an even greater ass over itself are making asses of themselves too. There is a very clear a bright line for where the law may impose on speech: speech that threatens or incites what is in some other way illegal, such as violence; or speech that conspires to commit what is in some other way illegal; or speech that defames an individual.

‘Troll’ is one of those vile concertina words through which sophists give themselves away. It’s condemnatory content is justified by claiming it means someone who says nasty things and then it is used to condemn people for disagreeing with you, for demanding you make logical sense, for showing you up for failing to make logical sense, for winning an argument against you, and so on  (for more on this kind of rhetorical trick see my post last month on Motte and Bailey Doctrines,  where I also discuss another trick I call a Troll’ s Truism).

By and large, trolls are not crossing that bright line. Unfortunately, many people are trying to blur that line to criminalize trolls. They are often doing so in a deliberate attempt to suppress opinions they detest  and arguments they are losing (e.g. see the Gamergate controversy). That is to say, they are doing it for Orwellian thought control reasons. Of course, they never put it like that. Bootleggers know very well how make use of Baptistry (see Yandle 1983). .

A recent instance of blurring is the article yesterday by a journalist, Andrew Critchlow. Critchlow contrasts the situation in a pub where someone interrupts your conversation abusively and then, having enlisted her friends, moves on to threats and incitement of violence. Obviously she should be arrested, charged and convicted. Critchlow then equates this to the situation on twitter when he says ‘the fact that this situation happened to me recently online makes it no less dangerous’. That’s obviously false. In the pub you are in immediate danger of being beaten up or worse. Not so on twitter. Nevertheless, I certainly agree that someone crossing that line on twitter should also be arrested, charged and convicted.

However, it is not clear that the case Critchlow is speaking of is one in which the line has been crossed. Critchlow reports being ‘verbally threatened on Twitter last week by a fellow journalist for a blog I had written about cycling’. One must wonder what work the modifier ‘verbally’ is doing here. We’re talking about twitter: you can’t deliver a non-verbal threat. A threat of violence would be the default in the context of his article so the modifier implies some other threat was in play.  Perhaps all it was was a threat to show Critchlow to be a fool for what he said.

Critchlow then goes on to say that ‘surely any behaviour, or language that is perceived by the recipient to be violently threatening and abusive is exactly what the police should be investigating as more of our public discourse and interaction shifts online’.  This is an almost perfect example of the way in which the bright line is blurred. First, he’s muddling behaviour and language. But what people call violent language may be merely nasty language that uses extreme terms, and that is not a concern of the police at all. Violent behaviour, of course, is. Second, he’s talking about perceptions rather than reality. People have all sorts of weird perceptions and interpretations of what is said to them:  the police should not be investigating mere perceptions, only veridical perceptions. Third, ‘violently threatening’ might mean a violent threat, i.e. a threat of violence; or it might just mean threatening something that is not itself illegal, such as saying something nasty, which threat was delivered by the use of violent language as I defined it above. Fourth, he is further muddling that ambiguity with abuse. ‘Abuse’ is another of those concertina words. If you object to exaggeration, suddenly, by ‘abuse’ they meant physical violence, but when you take the pressure off, ‘abuse’ just means something they don’t like, such as calling them an idiot.

Critchlow then finishes with a complete non-sequitur: ‘If not [i.e. if the police are not to investigate these perceptions], then are we prepared to stand by and allow the internet to become some virtual zone of anarchy where the law no longer applies?’. This is a frankly ridiculous call to suppress free speech… and exactly where you will end up if you studiously blur the lines in the way Critchlow has done.

Critchlow hopes that ‘others will follow my example and use the law to stand up to cyber bullies’. ‘Bully’ has become yet another of those concertina words. It used to mean someone who beats you up, engages in physical humiliation, uses violent intimidation, often enlisting others to join in. But cyber bullies do none of that. They just say nasty things.

Because of Critchlow’s relentless blurring of the very lines that matter, it is unclear whether others should follow his example. If Critchlow was actually threatened with violence then he was certainly right to call in the police and I hope the person who threatened him will be convicted. But if he wasn’t then he wasn’t and I don’t.

 

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10 Responses to Free the trolls

  • Devid Christopher says:

    Great post, do you mind if I re-blog this

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    • Cori says:

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  • Roland Nadler says:

    [I originally attempted to put up this comment a few days ago, but it seems the commenting system was not working for this particular entry …]

    This is a stunningly tone-deaf post. It consists of equal parts table-thumping assertion and straw-man punching. Nowhere does it meaningfully engage with the best version of the opposing view, or even a halfway decent and representative version.

    You’ve (angrily) asserted that no one enjoys a fundamental “right” to be free from offense, insults, or abuse. Right away you miss two points: first, that very few people who disagree with you on this topic actually frame the case for tougher restrictions on harassing speech as proceeding from a fundamental right rather than from, say, a mere legitimate interest, or from concern about the emergent societal effects of this sort of harassment unfolding en masse and unchecked.

    Second, that part of what your interlocutors are arguing for — and hence a point whose negation you need to establish, rather than merely assume — is a recognition that there is a rather wide spectrum of harmful speech, ranging from speech causing mere disagreement, to bigoted utterances causing moral outrage and offense, to invective calculated to silence or dehumanize, to out-and-out criminal threats. It is not an honest treatment of your interlocutors to collapse this spectrum down to a binary — “utterance of textbook-example criminal threat” and “everything else.” In fact, no one (except, perhaps, Critchlow, whom you do not get to simply appoint as the representative of the opposing view) is interested in applying criminal or civil sanction to speech that simply offends or outrages. Had you paid better attention to the many writers out there articulating the view you’re trying to knock down, and not simply tunnel-visioned on a very silly whine from Andrew Critchlow, you would have appreciated that the furor over “trolls” is aimed at the systematic and sustained deployment of abusive speech in order to effectively deprive people of their ability to exercise their own powers of free speech.

    Entirely missing from your treatment of this issue — and this is particularly disqualifying because you can’t make sense of the calls to take online harassment seriously unless you acknowledge it — is any engagement with issues of social power or privilege. Contrary to the convenient assumptions of too many philosophers, the world is full of people who enjoy unequal background levels of respect and belonging, people whose plight we tend to feel more or less indifferent about when they are subjected to beastly treatment. You can’t talk with any kind of seriousness about online harassment and fail to note that it has, historically, overwhelmingly been wielded against women in order to shut them up.

    This isn’t a minor detail. It is central to the case for taking harassing speech more seriously: because this kind of widespread, bullying deployment of nastiness has cumulative effects that one misses if one tunnel-visions, as you do, on individual cases. The sum-total effect of the “trolling” whose potential regulation so offends you is to substantively deprive marginalized segments of society of the full, fair, and free exercise of their voices in the marketplace of ideas. You can’t just hand-wave away the fact that the ugliness of human bigotry functions to levy a tax on the participation of people who aren’t privileged white men. I’m sure you don’t agree with Waldron on “The Harm in Hate Speech,” but for crying out loud, acknowledge him.

    There’s not much to say about the Critchlow article except that it’s risible and rather cherry-picked. No half-serious individual engaging with this issue is going to support bringing the full horror of the carceral state to bear against internet slights or snide remarks. There is, and should be, plenty of serious discussion about how private, self-regulating communities can foster more healthy, less troll-swamped exchanges by properly structuring incentives and treating campaigns of silencing harassment with the moral seriousness they deserve. There is also plenty of serious discussion about how small shifts in legal doctrine could put an end to outdated, implicitly dualistic double standards that treat most physical harms as actionable but hardly any emotional distress as worthy of legal recognition (as though PTSD doesn’t have its correlates in the amygdala; as though the flood of cortisol brought on by a credible rape threat from an anonymous Twitter abuser doesn’t slowly pickle the brain). To hear you tell it, we are on the verge of rewriting our statutes and constitutions so as to ship off to the gulag anybody who types out a rude sentence. This shows you haven’t paid sufficient attention to the side of this debate you are trying to score a point against.

    I’ll close by noting that your namecheck of the Gamergate controversy is ominous. It’s not crystal-clear what you mean by bringing it up, but it sounds like you think that the response to this hashtag movement is an example of Orwellian dissent-stifling. I cannot even imagine what would make a serious individual sympathize with a movement whose chief accomplishments have been to terrorize a woman for daring to have a sex life, driving three female video game developers / commentators out of their homes with credible, police-investigated criminal threats, stealing and disseminating personal information — including bank information, nude photos, and home addresses — belonging to progressive voices in the industry, and unleashing torrents of truly benighted misogynist abuse at anyone who dares to take issue with this. Surely you meant to condemn all of that as an example of what we can all agree is over-the-line, right?

  • Nicholas Shackel says:

    I do not respond to people who attempt to smear me.

  • Nick Fitz says:

    Hold on a second… I could swear I read somewhere that it may be right to offend, insult, or verbally abuse people…where was that again?

  • Jose Ortiz says:

    Fascinating that Dr. Shackel reads the second commenter’s thoughtful treatment as “an attempt to smear.” Certainly demonstrates his point that “people have all sorts of weird perceptions and interpretations of what is said to them.”

    I, too, read the author’s Gamergate reference as an apparent demonstrative in the false criminalization of trolls. That is surprising to the point of perhaps being an accident. The benefit of the doubt should be given here; perhaps he didn’t mean to discuss Ms. Quinn’s experiences directly, or at any rate he deserves a chance to egress from that topic entirely, as it risks overshadowing the rest of the discussion…

    …were there a discussion being had. But I guess there isn’t. Let’s chalk it up to that Orwellian thought control I suppose 😉

  • Max Brown says:

    Impressive. The original post got him most of the way there, but the response to Mr. Nadler’s thoughtful critique gets Shackel full-blown officious orifice status.

    Of course I’m joking. The original post and Shackel’s response just mentioned can hardly be interpreted as anything other than satire, meant to illustrate how trolls typically operate and how they are so unpleasant.

  • Ray says:

    They way I have it set up, each video is basically the eeaivulqnt of having a video from YouTube embedded in a news post. It still counts towards views and I do not attempt to embed videos that have embedding disabled by the uploader.So far, the system is compatible with YouTube and Vimeo, but I will try to see if it can work with MTV videos as well. I’m not sure why they are such sticklers about their videos either. I think Gaga has always had the right attitude by caring more about getting her music and videos out there for people to see rather than obsessing over where they are seeing them or if she’s getting paid for it. I mean, I get it. I think they overdo it a bit though personally.With that said, it is important to me that Gaga (and anyone who puts hard work into their videos, cast, crew, and all) get proper credit. Therefore, I will always use the official videos whenever they are available. A few of the Gagavisions have mysteriously disappeared from Gaga’s official YouTube channel, so those have been filled in with fan uploads of them.Anyway, I’m heading out. Enjoy!!

  • Greg says:

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