Logging on and hurting the feelings of total strangers with invective and deeply personal insults is as natural as waking up and pouring a cup of coffee in this age of profound alienation.
It's what many of us do when we plug into our various social media platforms, and it comes so easily. You, a faceless human on the internet – or someone playacting a character – find someone to hurt, maybe after they hurt you, maybe not. You exchange pain for a while and put down your phone until you're ready for your next hit of pain and dopamine, in no particular order. This is what constitutes community in the 21st century.
I've trolled folks. If you follow me on Twitter, you know this, and maybe you enjoy this – the half-cocked bits I'll deploy in hopes of making a larger point or critiquing someone I find detestable. For a decade I've been trolled mercilessly, mostly by self-identified alpha males who worship Elon Musk and call middle-class people poor and think the best football is played in subzero temperatures. Tough guys take no mercy on their online prey, using their limited vocabularies and limitless hate to injure their enemies as swiftly and deeply as possible. I won't lie: Sometimes it gets to me. Don't tell the alphas.
Please believe me when I say I've gone toe to toe with ruthless internet trolls, foolishly believing I could hurt them more than they could hurt me, only to walk away stung and unable to look myself squarely in the mirror. Who am I to have said that to a stranger? Why did I stoop so low? Why did I think that I – a feckless bleeding heart – could step into the ring of pain with someone pulsing with pain and hate and uninhibited by basic human decency? I stood no chance. I believed I was standing my ground – fighting for what beyond my own pulsating ego, I don't know – and came away shellshocked by what I said and what was said to me. Such is life online.
It took far too long for me to take the counterintuitive approach to handling online trolls. Going against intuition has proven invaluable for me in various parts of my adult life. After months of sleep struggles in my early 30s, I got back to normal sleep patterns by staying up late and getting highly concentrated periods of rest instead of lingering in bed for eight or ten or twelve hours. Much of successfully sleep training a baby is counterintuitive. Dealing with anxiety in a way that denies your intuition – your determination to keep it internal, letting it fester – is the only was to address the infernal issue. So why not go against my intuition in fighting with horrible people on Twitter?
There's no such things as real discourse or debate in the 21st century. You know as well as I do that facts don't matter in our fragmented world of a million realities shaped by a million media platforms trying desperately to shape the world in their image, like a million gods competing for ratings and the ad budgets of pharmaceutical companies and oil conglomerates and Burger King. With no agreed-upon reality, there is no starting point for a civil discussion with someone whose political views are diametrically opposed to yours (I don't want to both-sides the issue here: Obviously right-wing media has successfully crafted an alternate reality for tens of millions of Americans who are now turning on their gas stoves all day to trigger the libs). If you ever considered arguing with a stranger in good faith, you paid the price and likely never tried it again.
So what would a counterintuitive approach to handling trolls look like? It would look a lot like love. I don't write this easily; I write it through gritted teeth and something akin to self loathing. I don't want it to be true – I want very much for love not to be the answer. But when I turn off my emotional brain and switch on my analyst brain (which never really turns off), I know it to be true. That's why I've begun telling terrible, ignorant, loveless internet trolls that I love them.
I don't mean it, of course. Not in the way Jesus Christ would have meant it, or any religious figure who preached love above all else. I tell these cretins that I love them mostly for strategic purposes. Simply put, saying "love you" shuts them up. It frazzles them more than anything else you could spit at them in the heat of an online fight. There is no limit to the pain they can tolerate because they are made of pain, born in it, shaped by it. Expressing love in that moment is more off putting to a troll than joking about their dead mother. They might smirk at the latter; they have no idea what to say to the former. A hater knows only how to respond to hate. They are ill-equipped for love. It is alien to them.
Iggy Pop, widely known as the godfather of punk music, recently released his 19th solo album, "Every Loser," which includes the old perpetually-shirtless man's musings on perusing internet comments sections – the true heart of darkness. "Every loser needs a bit of joy," Iggy growls in his song, "Comments." And it's true. Everyone – even the stone cold losers harassing people on the internet – needs a little joy in their lives. What else to counter the pain?
A lack of joy in one's life hardly excuses the behavior of trolls, especially if these folks are threatening vulnerable communities. What trolls do and the lengths to which they'll go to make someone feel unsafe and fearful is vile beyond description, unforgivable in a very basic sense. Yes, it is my privilege as a straight cis white guy to say "love you bro" and check out of the thread.
That doesn't mean they don't require joy. And love. How loveless these people must be to unleash such vitriol in such enormous quantities. How utterly without joy or meaning or community they must be to suffer so greatly, to lash out at people they do not know, to inject their pain into someone else. How brutally sad. These humans are telling you how desperate they are for connection and communion and, quite simply, love. So I tell them I love them and let it be. They never reply, probably because their soft loveless underbelly has been exposed. Expressing love circumvents the steel outer shell they've constructed to hide themselves and allow their hate to flourish. They are Pink behind the wall. When someone says they love you, it is time once again to retreat behind the wall and cultivate resentment and hate for the next online battle.
Every loser needs some joy, and every troll needs some love. I am anti-troll and take no pleasure in confirming this.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.