Trolling has risen as a form of protest to class oppression, and it doesn’t bode well.
I remember when gay marriage passed in California. I woke up next to my girlfriend, checked my phone, and saw celebrations across facebook. “Prop 8 was overturned,” I said.
“And DOMA?” she asked.
“Yeah, that too.”
What that meant was that legal marriages could start happening again in California. I sat on the side of the bed and she stayed curled under the covers, and I had this feeling like something had happened, but I didn’t really know what. I wasn’t really happy. I had never wanted to get married, my girlfriend had never wanted to get married. We sort of thought that straight people shit was for the birds.
But, it meant something, you know? All these people had shown up to let us know that they cared. And, on some level, they didn’t really know what it was like. They didn’t know how afraid we felt when we checked into hotels together, or how men shouted “kiss her for me!” when they saw us in the streets. They didn’t know about how sometimes, even my good friends overlooked our relationship by offering to set me up with a man. They didn’t know how we were losing our community as the last lesbian bar shut down. Even in San Francisco, the best place for gays in the world, all these things happened. Our friends didn’t know there were places in America we had accepted to ourselves we would never go to, that our life together was limited in a way that theirs was not.
Not that we’d ever complain about it, that wasn’t our style. My girlfriend — she was a lesbian, so I’m not sure she’d ever known anything else. But, I’m bisexual and I’ve dated men, and I felt the loss. I felt the loss of respect the world used to give me. I felt people’s awkwardness, how they sometimes didn’t know what to say. And, you know, it was ok. I could accept people’s well meaning mistakes by looking toward their intentions.
And that’s how I took the Prop 8 and DOMA overturn. It wasn’t high on my list, but I saw the intention behind it was loving. People wanted to make being gay ok in America, and they didn’t quite know how to do it, but this seemed like a start. And, it didn’t change the people who shouted at us and it didn’t change the fact that there were places we could never visit, but people were trying, and that mattered.
I wore a rainbow flag pin my girlfriend had given me on the strap of my bag when I did my morning walk of shame. On the way, I passed a middle aged man looking sharp in a pink dress shirt and dark grey pants. He also had a small rainbow pin on his shirt, and we had a quick moment of eye contact and recognition before going our separate ways. He was of the age where, if he’d been in San Francisco, he probably saw a good number of his friends die of AIDS. And I wondered to myself, what did these rulings mean to him? What would it be to have lived through so much death, and rejection, and neglect, and suffering to see these rulings fall? Many gay men his age, they weren’t even sure they’d live to middle age. What must it be like to not only get there, but see the world transformed over that time?
I don’t know what these rulings mean to middle aged gay men, but I think they mean something very different than they do to me. I’d guess, on the one hand, it was a joyful thing but on the other hand, there must have been pain at missing all the people who should have been there. You know, in the entire discussion on gay marriage, we never talked about the people we lost. I never learned about these deaths through the queer community; I learned about them through hospice. I learned about AIDS from people who aren’t afraid of death. Our fear of the unknown has caused us to forget a crucial part of our queer history — people died. Lots of people died, and we abandoned them when they needed care. Their government abandoned them when they needed care. We can’t forget that.
But, most people in the country didn’t know any gay people. They didn’t see their suffering. They knew conceptually what death was; they didn’t see the reality of young men — sometimes hardly older than children — dying alone and scared. They didn’t see their bodies being torn apart by various diseases as their immune systems failed. They didn’t see what a deeply terrible thing it is for someone to die alone without being with the people they loved.
So, you know, I see how the AIDS crisis happened. I understand how good people can seem heartless. It’s not that they’re heartless, it’s just that they’re not seeing what they need to see. And, I think the same thing is happening in America right now. A common facebook post after Trump won the election was “they must really hate us.” That’s how electing Trump felt to a lot of people; they feel like America hates them. They feel like America wants them to die, because there are messages going around right now saying just that.
But, I don’t think most Americans really wish ill upon people of color, or queer people, or women. I think most Americans are — essentially — trolling, or willing to tolerate trolling. I think Trump was trolling, frankly, and I think that most of the people who supported him get that. Donald Trump has said he’s willing to keep some of the most popular parts of Obamacare and I don’t think any of his supporters will care even though he promised to undo it when he was campaigning. People who get troll culture understand that you say these over the top things to annoy your opponents, and that annoying your opponents is the only point.
I get troll culture cuz I’m kind of a troll. I’m going to my cousin’s posh English wedding soon, and these kind of flowery hats are in vogue in England thanks to Kate Middleton.
Anyway, my dad keeps going on about how much he dislikes these hats, so every time we talk about the wedding, I keep saying how much I want a big flowery hat. Or, maybe one with a large feather on it. It’s not that I really like the hats, and frankly I find the British culture of imitation of the royals somewhat odious. However, I’d be willing to put all that aside to annoy my dad. I don’t know why; it’s just fun. And, if it goes far enough, I might end up actually wearing a completely ridiculous hat to my cousin’s wedding just to annoy my father. I’m 32. I should be over this shit, but I’m not.
Toxic liberal political correctness is something that deeply triggers the desire to troll. And, I get it, I really do. Every time someone tells me to check my privilege, I want to smack them in the face. Or, the verbal equivalent by saying the most offensive thing possible at that time. It’s not that I disagree with the intention of political correctness; it’s just that I just can’t stand someone else trying to dictate my behavior.
Political correctness has built up all these rules you have to mindlessly conform to, and people have developed additional vocabulary exclusively designed to control the behavior of others. And it’s gross. And I get the desire to “say the forbidden thing.” Do do the taboo. To be like “dad, you can’t tell me what fucking hat to wear! I’m going to rubber cement a dead pigeon to my head!”
But, let’s take this to the other side. Imagine a teenager from a small town sees two middle aged gay men walking hand in hand and yells out “go die of AIDS, fags!” (I’m sorry for repeating that, but I want to break it down.) Like, why would she say that? My guess is, she wanted to impress her friends. She wanted to say the things everyone keeps telling her not to say to prove she’s her own independent person. I think, in most cases, it won’t actually connect to a deep hatred for gay people; it will connect to a desire to be controversial. It will be, essentially, the desire to troll.
Now. Imagine that you are a gay man who watched most of his friends die of AIDS. Imagine you saw the faces of people you love break out horrible sores, rendering them virtually unrecognizable before they fell to a painful, early death. Imagine witnessing scores of young men dying in the prime of life, full of fear, full of loneliness. Imagine living with the worry that you would be next. Sometimes, gay men actually have AIDS. Some of them survived the epidemic, even though they never expected to. Some of them assumed they would die just like everyone around them, but survived through random chance.
I mean — you probably can’t imagine it. I can’t. If you’d like to get a better sense, I highly recommend this move We Were Here. But anyway — hopefully you get a sense that when this type of language lands on someone who has actually experienced AIDS it is very painful. It’s like yelling “ha ha, your mom’s dead, asshole,” and “you’re going to get cancer and die, fuckface!” all rolled into one sentence. But, to the people yelling it, I think it feels more like teenage rebellion than deep cruelty.
There has been an explosion of hate speech in the wake of Trump’s election. I think this is a resurgence of troll culture that has risen in opposition to PC culture. And, you know, sometimes trolling people is a good thing. If you irk people along their irrational preferences, you can sort of highlight the places that they’re too uptight. You can keep people from getting too serious and too somber, and have a little fun.
But, sometimes trolling is a bad thing. The thing about saying these over the top controversial statements to piss off uptight liberals, is that some people are going to believe them. Some people are going to read about killing gays, and blacks, and immigrants and whatever and actually go out and commit violence. Not most people, most people just want to vent. But, crazy people absorb the culture around them, and if that culture around them is openly hostile to certain groups of people — even if it only started out as a joke — some people will absorb that message and actually act on it. And, it’s easy for people disconnected from these communities not to see that, to feel like the only impact of these statements is that they piss off annoying liberals.
People often say or suggest terrible things when they are disconnected from the ultimate consequences of their words. As an extreme example, consider how Rudolph Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, described what happened when officials in the Nazi party came to watch the gas chambers in action:
Himmler sent various high-ranking Party officials and SS officers to Auschwitz to see the process of the extermination of the Jews. All of them were deeply [affected] by what they saw. Some of them who had lectured before very fanatically about the necessity of this extermination became completely silent while viewing the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” and remained so. I was asked repeatedly how I and my men could watch these proceedings day after day. How we could stand it?
Death Dealer: The Memoirs Of The SS Kommandant At Auschwitz by Rudolph Höss
Even to the Nazis, who recommended in seriousness killing all Jewish people, actually witnessing what The Final Solution entailed shocked them. The gas chambers were crucial to furtherment of the Nazi regime because they isolated people from the consequence of their crimes.
I think that if anything really bad starts happening to queer people, or people of color, or women all these trolls are going to feel really bad. I think that they don’t actually want any harm to come to anyone. I just think they’re resisting a liberal culture that didn’t care about them, and one that overplayed its outrage hand. I remember telling a lesbian friend of mine that some of my family members referred to my girlfriend as my friend rather than my girlfriend. The lesbian friend was outraged, she thought I should like, make a big stink and cut off my family until they used (what she thought) was the correct terminology.
But, I was like — look, I’m not going to do the American offense thing when I can tell my family likes my girlfriend and is trying hard to accept her. They just didn’t really know the right words to use, and that’s fine. Over time, they’ll learn as culture catches up but this was all new to them. We need to reserve our liberal outrage for the really bad things not for well intentioned microaggressions. Microaggressions require a different type of corrective action; something friendlier, because they’re usually done by people trying to be nice to you. And, if you’re mean to people trying to be nice to you, eventually they’ll stop trying.
Additionally, if you have the ability to force other people to conform to the behavior you want them to have with your anger rather than rational explanation, maybe you’re not the person who is being oppressed in this situation. The ability to control other people with anger is a classic hallmark of privilege. People don’t like acquiescing to anger, so if they acquiesce to yours, you probably hold some type of power over them.
Anyhoodle. Much of this mess has arisen because, in recent years, liberals have acknowledged and devoted a lot of attention to the oppression of women, queers and people of color but refused to acknowledge class oppression. There’s a lot of anger directed toward “entitled white men” but you know what? I’m a queer white woman, and I think I hold considerable privilege over many straight white men in the USA, primarily because of the benefit of my education. Educational privilege is huge, and it’s rarely seen.
And, funny enough, that’s what a lot of politically correct culture was designed to mimic. PC culture has coopted the language of universities and academics without also absorbing the critical and independent thinking that went along with it. People act PC because they’re trying to advertise their own membership in the educated class which… actually, is kind of its own form of oppression. People who are not educated well enough, and who lack the verbals signals of being well educated, are un-hirable right now. And, people without education privilege are fighting back against this type of oppression with troll culture. Unfortunately, the original politically correct ideas didn’t come from nowhere; they came from a legitimate desire to protect people.
By co-opting politically correct language to oppress people of the working class, we have opened a pandora’s box of our old oppressions. As the trolls come out to overthrow the politically correct culture which has oppressed them we are going to lose a lot of the victories we won. And, I’m not going to say it’s our fault — I’m going to say we missed something. We missed something big, and we’re paying for it now.
I wonder what it will feel like to wake up next to my girlfriend and realize that we can no longer get married.