Monday, August 4, 2008

The Devil's Advocate And The Devil Himself

Yesterday, like a lot of people, I read the Times story about the internet trolls with a kind of horrified fascination.

I knew there were people who would say things they didn't believe, or ask dumb questions, just to get other people riled up. And I knew anonymous comments boards could be horrifically nasty and stupid.

But I didn't know there was this kind of connection between internet cruelty and real-life cruelty and harassment, like when some kids call up and mock the family of a teenager who killed himself. And I didn't know the people who act this way consider it an important or meaningful thing, or that they act together or even that they talk to each other. But there is, and they do, and they do.

I hope all C and C readers will join me in saying, "ZOMG WTF is wrong with these people?"

Anyway, here are three quick thoughts on the whole trolling concept.

1) There's a whole "back up your arguments!" "you can't just say that!" "you have to logically prove your point!" thing you find from regular commenters and trolls alike on message boards, and there's a bit of it here on the Times blog-form discussion of the story. That aspect is hilarious if you happen to teach at a university, like I do. I mean, every day I'm in the classroom asking students to have opinions, to disagree with one another, and to freakin' back up their opinions using logic. Usually I can't get a peep out of them, and when I do, they're usually trying to reconcile some other disagreeing views to show how they really "fit together." Why does this kind of "arguing" and demand for logic come so naturally online to people who shun it so vigorously in real life?

2) The obvious answer is "anonymity." I know, I know, people want to argue when it's anonymous, and they don't want to argue when they're sitting in a room together. I don't really get why this is so, but people have told me it's true, and I believe them. I get why people want to say "*%#@ you, you %$#%ing ^@#$&(@!!!" when they're anonymous, not that it's a taste I share myself. But arguing and demanding reason and logic? That is what you do for fun when no one knows who you are?

3) There are people, some of whom also commented on the Times blog post discussion, who like to say, "Well, I wouldn't do anything really bad, but I do like to stir up trouble on internet discussions by saying stuff I don't really believe in order to get a rise out of people. In order to, you know, get them to back up their arguments. I'm playing Devil's advocate."

As a philosophy professor I suppose I should be thrilled that someone wants to have a debate, but you know what? I think this sort of behavior is actually not OK. I mean, it's fine to say, of something people actually believe but you don't, "I don't really believe X but some people do, and what do you say to that?"

But to pretend to believe something so someone will have to back up and prove to you the opposite is true? Beyond sophomoric, and entering the territory of evil. First, it creates in every reader's mind the possibility he is surrounded by morons or worse. Second, it uses up everyone's time and energy on stupid stuff. Finally, it just makes us all feel like we're surrounded by a bunch of disagreeing and disagreeable weirdos.

So: playing devil's advocate? OK if you're among friends, OK if you explain you're just playing devil's advocate, and if you have a reason. Otherwise? Knock it off!!

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