Rise of the Trolls

From The New Criterion

A Wojnarowicz Self-Portrait

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my wife and I left a restaurant after a pleasant family dinner, to find under the windshield wiper of our rental car a piece of paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook. Someone, I thought, must have hit or scraped the car while parking and left a note — a mark of civility as universally recognized in our society today as any there is. Why, even the “Seinfeld” gang, who at the end of the series in 1998 all went to jail under a “Good Samaritan” statute for laughing at someone who was being mugged, devoted a whole episode to the inescapable etiquette of leaving a note in these circumstances. Who says that Americans have no remaining standards of honor or decency? So sure was I that the note had to be from some such latter-day Galahad that all I could think of as I extracted it from the wiper was the lengthy correspondence with car rental and insurance companies I was in for once I had got back home and to work again.

But the hit turned out to be of a different kind. On the note was written the following in large capital letters that took up the whole sheet of paper: ASSHOLE! LEARN TO PARK, JERK. Actually, although I’m pretty sure that this is verbatim, I don’t remember if the writer used the vocative comma before “JERK” — and, having thrown the note away in a nearby receptacle shortly after reading it, I cannot now check. My guess is that he didn’t, obliviousness to the finer points of grammar being likely in one so deficient in manners of a grosser kind. I also guess that he was a he and not a she, though both assumptions may be grounded in unwarranted prejudices that are the product of my old-fashioned upbringing and general unworldliness. Anyway, my rule has always been that, in quotations, punctuation and capitalization can be silently adjusted for grammatical correctness or to fit the new context without an unsightly apparatus of square brackets, so long as there is no distortion of meaning.

Maybe I need to adjust my rule. Maybe, too, as my anonymous friend so kindly pointed out, I need to adjust my parking, my sense of what is and what is not distorted being in need a drop of Wilfred Mulliner’s elephant tonic, Buck-U-Uppo. For I hadn’t thought anything amiss with the parking of the car either. I had pulled two hours or so earlier into the end slot in a row of parking spaces, all of them marked off with painted lines. Though the vehicle was not, perhaps, perfectly parallel to the painted line on one side or the curb on the other, neither was any part of it projecting over the line or even excessively close to it. My car, a Nissan Versa which fit easily into the parking space and was completely contained within it, could have inconvenienced, so far as I could see, no one in the only adjacent space, now vacant. Perhaps the note had been written by some passerby whose sense of symmetry and order had been offended by my slight default from perfect rectilinearity? Yet why resort to scatalogical insult over something like that to someone you don’t know?

Of course the answer is at least partly to do with just that: namely, the fact that one is unknown to the insulted person and therefore immune from retaliation or the sort of unpleasant confrontation that would most likely ensue from speaking such words in the victim’s presence. Thus taking refuge in anonymity would once have been regarded as a cowardly and dishonorable act but obviously is so no longer. On the contrary, the boundless possibilities of the Internet have made anonymous comment, intended to wound, much more common and, therefore, accepted. On my first day back at my desk after the holiday, I noticed an article in The New York Times by Julie Zhuo, described as “a product design manager at Facebook,” which explained that this phenomenon, when one encounters it on the Internet (which I have, too, once or twice) has a name:

Trolling, defined as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums, is a problem as old as the Internet itself, although its roots go much farther back. Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges. That mythical ring gave its owner the power of invisibility, and Plato observed that even a habitually just man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that he couldn’t be caught. Morality, Plato argues, comes from full disclosure; without accountability for our actions we would all behave unjustly. . . Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

“Trolling,” in my dictionary, means something quite different from “behaving like a troll” — which I gather from Miss Zhou’s article is the argot for an Internet boor or thug. I like the name, as a troll is a once legendary but now merely fantastical creature, and fantasy is appropriate for pretty much everything on the web. But I am tempted to turn troll myself to those who thus attempt to verbify it. Writing well and clearly and within the conventions of the language is also a form of civility — though, once again, one strikes up hard against the paradox that it is nearly always good manners not to notice someone else’s bad manners if one can avoid it.

Except, that is, when one is a licensed critic, which is the contemporary equivalent of being a licensed fool in the royal and aristocratic courts as portrayed by Shakespeare. It is pretty clearly in everyone’s interest to have at least one or two such figures around to tell us a few home truths and point out to us the faults that everyone else is happily too polite to mention or even to notice.

Yet if the critic, like the hangman, performs a socially and culturally useful service, he is no more beloved for it than the hangman is. As our own David Yezzi points out in a thoughtful essay for Contemporary Poetry Review, the critic’s trade has sadly fallen off in prestige since the days, only half a century or so ago, when Randall Jarrell wrote of his times as an Age of Criticism. Jarrell was of course viewing with alarm. He thought criticism would take over the proper place of the things being criticized, as the Cliff’s Notes or Spark Notes versions have taken over for the literary monuments they purport to explicate in so many high school and college literature courses. What he could not, perhaps, have foreseen, was that the proliferation of criticism contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The more people who took to writing criticism with skills learned in literary courses designed to teach nothing else but the writing of same, the less possible did it become for any individual critic — and of course all critics are first and foremost individuals — to perform the essential critical task of taste-formation. There were as many tastes as there were critics, and as a result criticism itself was effectively abolished.

The contribution to this process of our democratic and egalitarian assumptions about culture, our anti-elitism and the technological means, through infinite self-publishing on the Internet, to indulge these anti-taste tastes should not be underestimated either. As one who has throughout his writing life worked as a critic, I still believe in the nobility of the profession, but I would be a fool not to notice that as we approach ever nearer to that ideal state in which no man’s (or woman’s) opinion is of any more worth in the cultural market place than any other’s, that my position, like that of the news media whom I criticize in these pages, is becoming increasingly untenable. And although I continue to believe that I still have important things to say which not just anyone could say, the language I must use to say them and the culture within which I must use it are becoming steadily degraded to the point where eventually no one will be able to say anything much more useful or valuable than the crude personal insults scribbled anonymously on the paper under my windshield wiper.

As an example of all-caps, Learn to park, jerk, criticism, that of Mr Blake Gopnik, of the Washington Post takes some beating. Lately, Mr Gopnik has been objecting to the withdrawal from a Smithsonian exhibition “about gay love” called “Hide/Seek” of a video by the late David Wojnarowicz which included an image of a crucifix covered in swarming ants — a move that Mr Gopnik described as the act of “cowards” and tantamount to censorship.

If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty — or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya’s great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn. Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I’m offended by: I can’t stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn’t call for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to pull the Rockwell show that runs through Jan. 2, just down the hall from “Hide/Seek.” Rockwell and his admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that’s why we don’t allow it.

Is it really possible to be offended or insulted by Rockwell’s sentimental vignettes of small-town and middle-class life in the middle of the last century on the grounds of what he doesn’t represent — to wit, “a huge number of us non-mainstream folks”? So far as I know, he doesn’t represent any Eskimos or Hottentots or Micronesians either. Should they be offended? Should everyone who cannot find a plausible representation of someone very much like himself there? Does the oeuvre of David Wojnarowicz thus include everybody? Anyway, how does Mr Gopnik, who is not obviously (to judge by his photos) out of the “mainstream” himself, know that the people Rockwell does represent are “mainstream” and not non-mainstream? What would the artist have had to do differently to accommodate the allegedly insulted non-mainstreamers? And has his critic any examples to show of other “non-mainstream folks” besides himself who feel insulted by the works of Norman Rockwell?

As the answers to these questions are either unclear or non-existent, you have to suppose that Blake Gopnik is a man who, rather like my anonymous Thanksgiving parking critic, is looking very hard for something to be offended by. Nor can this be entirely unrelated to the fact that, as an art critic, he is operating within a cultural milieu in which artists who are the heirs of David Wojnarowicz (who died in 1992) are looking very hard for something that will give offense — which everyone knows is, along with the accompanying publicity, today’s conceptual artist’s ticket to fame and fortune. Offending and being offended would once not have been thought matter for aesthetic discussion, but what else have we got now? Art, like politics, is becoming an exercise in the skillful management of offense-taking by those who seek to appropriate for their own purposes what Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

Thus it is rather remarkable that Mr Gopnik objects to the view of Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia that taxpayer-supported institutions should be bound by “common standards of decency.” According to Blake Gopnik, “such ‘standards’ don’t exist, and shouldn’t, in a pluralist society.” What nonsense! Common standards of decency have always existed, even in the most pluralist of societies — and, indeed, are the more necessary as the society is more pluralist. If you doubt it, just imagine what would be the reaction to an exhibition that celebrated not gay love but violence against gays — or that advocated white supremacy or female subjugation. The common standards of decency that would make any such display unthinkable today would once also have protected the sacred symbols of a “mainstream” religion like Roman Catholicism. It is that protection that Representative Cantor, a Jew, wishes to preserve and Mr Gopnik to rescind — not because, as he disingenuously puts it, “my decency is your disgust,” but because he wishes to re-draw the boundary lines of decency and disgust for all of us.

I’m afraid that such disingenuousness is all too common among the critical champions of free speech, and not only of the artistic kind. In the same way, Mr Julian Assange, proprietor of the Wikileaks website, has no respect whatsoever for the privacy of diplomats, whose business absolutely depends on the confidentiality of their communications, while seeking zealously to protect his own. As Scott Johnson of Powerline pointed out (at the suggestion of Steve Hayward), The New York Times, which was one of the principal retailers of Mr Assange’s document dump, only last year declined to publish the purloined “Climategate” e-mails on the grounds that “the documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.” The same was true of Mr Assange’s collection of diplomatic cables, of course, but now, according to “A Note to Readers” “The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.”

As with the desecration of sacred symbols, the betrayal of one’s country’s official secrets, whether to a foreign enemy or to the world at large, would once have been thought an indecent, even a profane act with which no respectable newspaper, let alone the country’s “newspaper of record,” would wish to be associated. Now such secrets don’t even rate the respect owed to the discreditable prevarications of a random bunch of scientific charlatans whose political views The New York Times happens to support. Once again, at least some notional “common standards of decency” continue to exist; we merely wish to reserve to ourselves the judgment of where they do and do not apply. The same is true of the “civility” that is on so many tongues in the aftermath of a hard-fought and divisive election, as we see in the perhaps unintentionally humorous headline in The Huffington Post “[Joe] Scarborough Attacks Palin, Agrees To Help Launch Centrist Civility Group.”

Howard Fineman proceeded to write under that headline and without any apparent sense of irony,

TV’s Joe Scarborough, who today dismissed Sarah Palin as a symbol of “anti-intellectualism” with a “dopey dream” of being president, will help headline the launch next month of a new national group dedicated to restoring civility in politics. Scarborough, a Republican, former Florida congressman and host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, will participate in the debut event of “No Labels” on December 13 at Columbia University in New York.

As James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal put it, “C’mon, Scarborough! Even a drooling buffoon like you should know that if you let loose with the insults one day and deliver a sanctimonious lecture on civility the next, you’re going to end up looking ridiculous.”

Would that it were so! The problem is that there are lots of people now, possibly even including veteran political reporter Howard Fineman and seemingly more and more like him every day, to whom he does not look ridiculous — any more than David Wojnarowicz looks like a blasphemer or Blake Gopnik like a hater or Julian Assange like a dangerous enemy of our country or The New York Times like it is engaged in an act of treason — or the Thanksgiving parking critic looks like he is an angry yet cowardly social malcontent. Mr Gopnik may not actually believe that “my decency is your disgust,” but large numbers of those without any political agenda of their own do believe it, and have come to expect that all those idiosyncratic senses of disgust should have their own right or even duty of self-expression. When we start to argue about the “common standards of decency” it is a sure sign that those standards have been seriously and perhaps fatally degraded. That’s why I’m afraid I can hold out little hope for the success of the “No Labels” summit in New York, which will have taken place by the time you read these words. “Civility” itself can nowadays become the excuse for the most uncivil sorts of behavior.

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