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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Trolling is the New Politics

Your classic troll was an amoral sociopath or played one on the internet. His only cause was his own amusement. He advocated horrible and contradictory causes because it amused him to infuriate people. If he could get an entire group howling for his blood, he won. If an outraged media reported on his antics, he was a prince among trolls. Chaos and absurdity were his only agendas.

But eventually the trolls who did it for the "Lulz" gave way to the "Moralfags" sincere trolls who
were sincerely terrible people. They had the same style as trolls, but there was nothing to deconstruct there. Trolling was just how they advocated for their agenda. It was like the difference between Andy Kaufman and David Letterman. When you actually have an agenda and a program, your surreal deconstruction isn't deconstructing anything. It's just a stylistic choice, it's how you present your agenda.

It's the difference between Dadaists dumping a kitchen sink in a fashionable art gallery and a fashionable retailer selling art prints of that kitchen sink a hundred years later. Deconstruction becomes fashion. The subversive becomes stylistic. The troll turns sincere.

Today the sincere troll is everywhere. There was a time when Anonymous was a name associated with random acts of trolling, many of them nasty and malicious. Then it became trolling for a cause. It stopped being subversive or chaotic and just became another tool of political intimidation.

The sincere trolls really took off on television where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made it big. Stewart pretended to be subverting the news, when he was just stylistically updating it. That was what made mainstream news personalities love him, rather than hate him. Stewart wasn't really at war with the news media. He was teaching them how to make their left-wing biases hip.

Stephen Colbert was the prototype of the sincere troll. Underneath the dour, humorless fake conservative with an agenda was a dour, humorless real liberal with an agenda. His move to CBS made that obvious and sent viewers fleeing to watch the sincere trolls still pretending to be trolls.

Obama is the highest profile sincere troll, but the only real joke in his routines is that the most powerful man in the world is acting as if his trolling is subversive, when it actually is one of the ways that he maintains his power. Like Putin's global political trolling, the latest being his move to welcome Jews to move back to Russia, trolling is just a more brazen form of propaganda.

But trolling with an agenda is not everywhere. The old style chaotic trolls, like Joshua Goldberg, who pretended to be everything from a social justice warrior to an ISIS terrorist, are a dying breed. The new troll is just an extra-obnoxious political activist who wears Jon Stewart's clown nose while attacking people for political reasons. It can be amusing, but mainly to those who agree.

In substance, the new troll is really no different than a belligerent talk show host. The style is edgier and trendier. The aim is to disrupt narratives and then construct new ones in their place. And that's where the old trolls, who were concerned with disruption as an end rather that a means, differ from the new trolls who adopted disruption as a means for spreading their message.

Trolling is arguably the new politics. And you don't have to be young to play the game. Trump is great at it. But when presidents and billionaires, the RNC and the DNC, do something, it's not subversive anymore. It's the new language of power. Trolling is how we communicate now. And sincere trolling isn't deconstructing or subverting, it's just a total breakdown in civility.

A total breakdown in civility can be refreshing. It's why watching Trump can be fun. But what it really means is that discourse is now the YouTube comments section even at the highest levels.

What happens when disruption becomes the norm? Then it's no longer disruption. It's just a breakdown into factions that spend all their time mocking each other. Sincere trolling removes most of the self-awareness of the classic troll, the new trolls no longer understand that they're trolling because trolling is just how they communicate now. Trolling becomes the default humor and political commentary. There are no standards and no true sincerity and therefore no one to actually troll.

Sincere trolls are living out a joke that isn't funny and has no actual punchline. They have retained the old troll's sense of false superiority by provoking other people, but when everyone is trolling, then eventually there is no one left to provoke. The sense of superiority is no longer at actually provoking people, but at the expectation that they would be provoked or that they should be provoked.

The end results of that are hubs of insanity like Salon where every headline reads like something a deranged troll might come up with, but it's all sincere, and it's all written to provoke people who aren't reading it, but instead outrages liberals who do read it, so that the site is effectively trolling its own readers. And that's what sincere trolls really end up doing. Instead of trolling their enemies, they end up unintentionally trolling their own side by making it crazier.

It's one reason why Colbert had to leave, because he was increasingly being targeted by social justice warriors who didn't get the joke, didn't like jokes and just wanted to skip straight to the lynchings. And so the sincere trolling comes full circle to a point where trolling has become so sincere that it's just hate. The ironic posture is discarded, the distancing goes away, and there's just anger.

The classic troll filtered his anger through humor and detachment. The sincere troll loses the detachment and eventually the humor leaving behind only the contempt and then the anger.

Trolling was always about contempt. Sincere trolling becomes a collective contempt agenda. In other words, propaganda. But even contempt contains a measure of detachment. Eventually even that measure of detachment erodes and all the filters between agenda and rage vanish. The sincere troll tells himself this is idealism. And yet what makes the sincere troll seem so hip is the distancing self-awareness, the dashes of self-mockery mixed in with the collective contempt agenda. But this is only a pose and politics eventually kills all poses. Political power kills poses even faster.

Contempt is based on either cynicism or idealism. In politics, it's fashionable to base contempt for the other side on idealism. When contempt becomes based purely on cynicism, then the rot has really set in. And yet trolling is contempt based on cynicism. The very need to mask that self-righteous anger which makes political activists look like Howard Dean yelling or a bearded Al Gore preaching, is itself a cynical act. Sincere trolling is cynicism in the service of idealism. But it ends as neither.

Cynicism is at least pragmatic. Idealism isn't. Cynicism in the service of idealism is too self-deluded to be properly cynical. Instead it's just idealism gone rotten. It stinks of the limited pragmatism of power in which the vile means become the self-righteous ends into which the left, like all totalitarian ideologies, eventually falls.

Obama doesn't believe anything he says. You can understand what he believes only based on what he does. Everything he says is only a cover for what he really wants to do. This is cynicism in the service of idealism. Obama offered the country a false idealism in the service of his true idealism. Given enough doses of this dichotomy and you end up with Putin, a man who believes in nothing, because he is the product of a wholly cynical idealistic system where the only smart people were those who believed in absolutely nothing, while appearing to be completely sincere.

At the final stage of the sincere troll is a KGB or Gestapo thug working people over for the greater good. And when that's done, he no longer believes in anything at all except the exercise of power.

The left found a new method of discourse with sincere trolling. Its renewed sincerity was based on the distancing effect of its new style. It did not have any new beliefs. It only had a new style. But the style's self-conscious cynicism lapsed into a worldview that was unthinkingly cynical. Constant trolling for idealistic reasons created a cynical idealism, a limited idealism contained within a larger cynical worldview maintained as a defense mechanism against outside ideas and internal dissent.

Another name for this mindset is fanaticism. The fanatic hoards his idealism by shielding it with an unacknowledged cynicism. This is how cults program a constant contempt for the rest of the world. Underneath the ironic stylings of the new discourse was a narrow-minded fanaticism, around the core of sincerity was a thick shell of dishonesty, the idealism was strategically dependent on cynicism.

Instead of true self-awareness, there was only a pose of self-awareness, a carefully calculated contempt dispensed for idealistic reasons whose idealism derived from a cynicism that had to be concealed from the sincere troll's awareness. This mental house of cards was fragile. It doled out lies based on truth based on lies. It was so rotten with its own distortions that it could only destroy. 

This is now the mindset of our media, especially its younger apparatchiks. It is increasingly the tenor of our politics. As everything becomes politicized, it takes on the sincerely insincere taint of politics in which evil must constantly be done for the greater good. Total politicization means total insincerity which requires new forms of discourse that maintain the illusion of sincerity by acknowledging the insincerity. And so the sincere troll becomes the political model with just enough acknowledgement of his own insincerity to appear sincere, just enough cynicism to appear idealistic, just enough lies to appear to be a truthteller.

21 comments:

Colonel Robert Neville said...

My Lord, Daniel, this may be THE essay of the decade and one to carry in my wallet. OUTSTANDING - which is quite an achievement among your other many brilliantly empirical writings of inspiring and illuminating clarity. Thank you. Semper Fi.

Common 'tater said...

Actually, that was enough to give me a headache as it describes the current political landscape so well. In other words, as far as politics goes it is really SOSDD, just packaged in a more upbeat and hip style. Otherwise it is the usual bunch of "elect me" narcissists joining with the special interests du jour trying to convince the new crop of voters to vote them into office. The "new" media is all too happy to be a part of this new model as long as it brings in more readership, clicks, tweets, and of course, advertisers. (If there was no money in this, the media would not want anything to do with it.)

We get promises of hope and change, but get the usual sewage running down hill. Yes, eventually all of these trolls turn on each other and cannibalize each other until there is only one or two left (very left at that) to celebrate the victory of the left. But then, look at what the great role models Mao, Castro, and Stalin did. At some point they destroyed all but a small close cadre of the old revolutionary guard that put them into power in the first place. Trolls trolling trolls to destroy trolls. As it is written, "There is nothing new under the sun."

Y. Ben-David said...

Very true, but also very depressing. As Shelby Foote said in Ken Burns TV series on the Civil War the US had a tradition of civilized political discourse that lead to compromises everyone could live with in spite of major differences between different groups of Americans. The Civil War happened because that ability to talk and compromise broke down. Recall how an abolitionist Senators was almost beaten to death on the floor of the Senate and that members of Congress were walking around armed.
These new political trolls are leading to another breakdown in the political culture that enabled the US to become the rich, powerful country that it became. By ridiculing and delegitimizing those with whom one disagrees, people will end up hunkering down and demanding a "no prisoners taken" assault on the opposition. Very frightening prospect.

Empress Trudy said...

Hyper partisan trolling, snarkiness, insults and the like are merely an admission by everyone involved that it's all theater, that none of it matters in the least to anyone. That there is no difference between success and failure. It's nihilism the realization that there really are no limits on what you can get people to agree to.

Anonymous said...

This explains why totalitarian societies have no sense of humor. Everything is so deadly serious to them, because the pursuit, accumulation and preservation of power requires the shedding of all frivolity.

zdena said...

Excellent and depressing. ABSOLUTELY right, Daniel!

Daniel Greenfield said...

Humor is subversive, that makes it dangerous. The political use of humor is to subvert the other side, ridicule and mock them. But once you have absolute power, then humor has to be closely controlled. This is what is happening with the rebirth of political correctness here.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Explains why the trolls of today do so much to debase the discourse. They aren't trolling, they're just being snarky.

In Russet Shadows said...

The article is a head-spinner, for sure. I think I got about half of it. :)

As to insults being theater, nope. Perhaps the people you hang around just insult each other for fun, but that's because they believe in nothing. Those people can be seen through easily enough and they don't have much staying power in any forum that I've seen.

Anonymous said...

Amazing depth to which you have analyzed trolling or behavior in terms of trolling. I'll have to read through a couple more times to digest.

gstarr said...

The one troll type not mentioned here are the ones that show up in the comment sections of conservative websites.

They are there just to insult or mock with little one liners. People make the mistake of trying to engage them with logic but nothing said works. The troll just keeps spitting back insulting one liners.

The aim is to disrupt a thread by getting everyone off topic.

What does work is not responding or a simple "Don't feed the troll" or "Troll alert" post. And don't follow up. The troll will grow weary and go away because no one wants to play.

Sally said...

Isn't there a grad student out there to compare and analyse the boards of say breitbart and salon? They can run words like hate through to provide insight into the character of the posters

Redwine said...

This explains the power of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, used so extensively by Obama, Hillary, and now Trump, who now has an army of little brownshirt trolls who make sure that anyone who dares to write anything in support a competitor to Trump, especially Cruz, is browbeaten with insults and mockery.

Anonymous said...

Quite brilliant and enlightening.

Dennis Latham said...

It's all one big political party, producing a big show for the dirty peasants. The end result is always the same. Yesterday, another solar company that received a billion dollars of taxpayer money is going under. How does one achieve such failure? Because no one cares on either side. They all dip their beaks. I read that 30% of college students think Japan is next to New York and Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. What possible difference could trolling make on anything other than to raise blood pressure? I like Trump for three reasons: he wants to close the borders, says what he thinks, and makes Liberals tremble with fear. Put that online most places and watch the anarchists and self-righteous women with three names come out of the woodwork. But ask them to name one positive thing Hillary has accomplished in the political arena to help the American people and they have no answer and back off.

Joan of Argghh! said...

That's the danger of deconstructing language and meaning while replacing it with mockers. I've never cared for Stewart, Colbert, Letterman, Mahr. Nothing is easier than mockery.

Kelli McAllister said...

"Total politicization means total insincerity which requires new forms of discourse that maintain the illusion of sincerity by acknowledging the insincerity."

I think this is the point where Danny Kaye jumps from behind the bushes to remind us that "Moses supposes erroneously."

I know it's English, but I understood somewhere between eight and twelve words. Maybe it's me. I usually love your insights, especially regarding Islam.

Here's what I've discovered to be a much shorter definition of Internet Troll: anyone who disagrees with anything you've said. I can't think of a website that encourages honest debate.

Try your own experiment: visit any site, conservative or liberal, and disagree with the prevailing ideology or the blogger's premise, then count the seconds till you're at the bottom of a 30-person dogpile.

mindRider said...

How discouraging trolling can be I remember from seeing a hateful left-wing "interviewer" repetitively asking the late Andrew Breitbart an insulting, offensive question completely off the topic of what Breitbart was discussing and throwing this intelligent, very verbal man completely off balance unable even to give a sharp riposte.

Leah said...

Daniel, sir, you have an incredible gift from HaKodesh BaruchHu! Phenomenal, brilliant, erudite article!
Like the first.commentor, I must place this in my arsenal to disseminate.
Yasher koach!

Anonymous said...

I had this told to me that humans are divided into Shepherds, sheep,and Predatory humans. It is the Shepherd's job to protect the sheep from the Predatory humans. Lazy shepherds hire out to hirelings who don't give a hoot if some sheep get savaged and killed by the Predatory humans. Good shepherds also get and train certain types of predators which become sheepdogs to work alongside the Shepherds to protect the sheep. Stupid Leftists in all their variations of being Predator humans have been attacking the sheep and the Shepherds have done nothing and in fact when the sheepdogs have set up alarms the Shepherds have twacked and kicked them to silence them. Now it appears that the sheepdogs have gone on the defensive to protect the Shepherds and the sheep and now will not be silenced.
Now you are not being complimentary to the sheepdogs by calling them trolls. They are attacking the stupid Leftists with a vengeance. Now that the stupid Leftists go on Conservative sites hoping that they can bully and subdue the Conservatives they are not getting the expected response of cowering in fear.

Algorithms said...

Most explanatory article on internet behavior I ever read.

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