The comments section of online publications can be a cesspool of vitriol, vulgarism and just general nastiness. It can be all that. At the best of times, comments can be encouraging. Sometimes comments are simply hilarious. Everyone who reads news and information online knows these things. My personal belief is that negative criticism is much better than unqualified praise.
I had a brief exchange with someone on social media over the past week. I pointed out something about the predictability of his work and of the positions of his cadre and institution. He replied with something about my being an “old man” who was “trolling”. I should still have access to the comment, but I “unfollowed” him…
Anyway, his reply, which is, of course, his right and privilege, raised a couple of interesting things. I am restricted from mentioning his name and institution; we look, as we should, towards who owns the means of economic production and ignore, at our peril, who owns the means of knowledge production…
It can be said that all trolls are not equal. Context matters. It’s fair to say that when we like someone’s online comments, they’re treated as “commentators” and when we dislike or find what they said uncomfortable, or challenging they’re “trolls”. There are, of course, people who actually troll the internet in search of a fight (over anything from milk to meat, marriage or meringue).
With my “troll”, I said that the person, whom I had known since my early days in journalism, was flagging where he was and what he was doing, in particular what he was going to write about what he had seen. He and the institution he is part of are part of the paleo-conservative movement who fell for the intellectually embarrassing “end of history” nonsense of the early 1990s.
Worse, still, they fit snugly with the predictable tropes (also in the early 1990s) of “coming anarchy” especially in Africa, which was repeated a few years ago; anarchy was now coming to Asia (2016). Everything that is not Made in America™ is necessarily nasty and, well, anarchic.
A case for the trolls
The people who have space to write commentaries and analyses are a privileged group. There are more medical doctors, janitors, plumbers, rubbish collectors, policewomen or domestic workers in the world than there are columnists. For most people, the comments section is where they can expect their voices to be heard. They do not have access to knowledge production, the process of sharing views, new information and knowledge about state and society.
And so, the comments section of online publications is where the so-called trolls dwell. I have to stress, again, for those unfortunate people who are handicapped by personal incredulity, that comments section trolls can be mean. A case can be made for the trolls, nonetheless.
As a recently identified troll, my story is simple. You might think, dear reader, that I can write what I like in my columns and essays (that I write to put food on the table), but I am always cautious and constrained.
There are times when you want to slip into Cockney rhyming slang and call someone a Berk or let them know they’re talking Pony, but I can’t. It would be impolite. There are, also, times when you want to call out people for their concealed biases and prejudices (their hatred of others, concealed as “disappointment”); there are people who have been waiting years for an opportunity to Darby and Joan, express their bigotry, or inflict violence on others and need only the slightest provocation.
I’ve used this before… Imagine a man, a misogynist, driving around day after day, week after week and for months, then notices a woman not indicating that she was about to make a left turn and BOOM! “There, you see, women just cannot drive. They should not be allowed on the roads.” Point that out on someone’s social media and you’re a “troll”.
My interlocutor on social media, who referred to me as a trolling old man, belongs to a very specific transnational class that reaches from the Hoover Foundation in California to K Street in Washington (I can’t mention their location in Johannesburg) to think tanks in Taipei who encourage American Cold War–style conflict with China.
When these intellectuals (which I have written about in this space previously, much to the chagrin of the ideological fraternity) write about Africa, Asia or Latin America, the Wall Street-Washington axis, and sometimes the City of London and Downing Street, are the reference points.
Almost everything about “state failure,” “state collapse”, and “fragile states” produced over the last three decades by scholars, thinkers and think tanks in Washington (World Bank, Freedom House); the “coming anarchy” in Africa and Asia (Robert Kaplan); “why nations fail (Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson); or “political order and political decay (Francis Fukuyama and his league of research assistants)… has emanated from “the West”.
All of these suggest that if you cannot be like the US, you’re a “failure” in “a state of collapse”, facing “anarchy” and “political disorder and decay”. There are journalists, respected among their fraternal twins, who fall in line, too… Development and modernisation, whatever those may mean, are presented as a race up a ladder, and you can only “win” if you are like America (or Europe).
In it, Wolf writes that “we have been taught, both inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations.
“Many of us even grew up believing that this West has a genealogy, according to which ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the Industrial Revolution. Industry, crossed with democracy, in turn, yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Just placing this in context of the current end-of-empire era of US dominance can be career-ending. Pick a side or an ideological position that has not been defined in or sanctioned by Washington, and you’re dismissed as a supporter of despots and dictators who hates democracy, freedom and, well, you’re simply a “troll”.
The thing about the feller who called me a troll (he has a recently assumed position as side-kick) is that, for all the above, he is untouchable because he is, like Elon Musk, a free speech fundamentalist and sings from the same sheet music as old Samuel Huntington, Fareed Zakaria, John Mearsheimer, Christiane Amanpour, the World Bank, Fukuyama, Nicholas Kristof, Robert Kaplan, the New York Times and Washington Post. To these people there are only two sides to everything ever written anywhere — the Democrat position and the Republican position.
I am not a populist, but I believe in constant struggle to expose hidden injustices and iniquities concealed by “nice people” who “mean well” and tell us that they are simply “accepting the world as it is”… you know, because that is being “realist” with a capitalised “R”.
Spare a thought, then, for the trolls. DM