This is a fight I’d largely have preferred to stay out of, but having been dragged onto Mark Parton’s show to answer for my crimes this morning it seems I’m in it, so I may as well lay out my thinking.
The Daily Telegraph is rolling out a bandwagon, in their words to “Stop the trolls”, in my words to entrench privilege and ensure only the big end of town may be heard.
First, let’s understand our terms.
Urban Dictionary has this to say:
The art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off, usually via the internet, using dialogue. Trolling does not mean just making rude remarks: Shouting swear words at someone doesn’t count as trolling; it’s just flaming, and isn’t funny. Spam isn’t trolling either; it pisses people off, but it’s lame.
The most essential part of trolling is convincing your victim that either a) truly believe in what you are saying, no matter how outrageous, or b) give your victim malicious instructions, under the guise of help.
Trolling requires decieving; any trolling that doesn’t involve decieving someone isn’t trolling at all; it’s just stupid. As such, your victim must not know that you are trolling; if he does, you are an unsuccesful troll.
When Jeremy Clarkson says something outre on Top Gear and gets in all the world’s papers he is trolling.
When John Howard would say something innocuous to middle Australia and get dirty hippies to throw eggs at him he was trolling.
Both of them did very well out of it.
One could say that the ancient role of Devil’s advocate is a form of trolling.
On the other hand people are often simply stupid, ignorant, mean spirited, or just arseholes.
They’re arseholes in person, they’re arseholes online. Pseudo anonymity might let them show off their inner arsehole in ways they normally wouldn’t. But it doesn’t make them less arseholes, just more easily identified.
Not all arseholes are arseholes all the time. One of you out there might be so saintly that you’ve never upset anyone ever, but not many.
If we’re going to outlaw being an arsehole it’s going to be a bugger of a job finding anyone to staff the prisons.
Incivility in the written word has not been invented by thoughtless fools on Twitter.
But what we’re seeing from the Telegraph is people who are already rich, famous, and the friends of powerful people attempting to ensure only flattering things may be written about them.
The great and good already have extensive recourse to the courts when people say things about them they do not like, now they want pre-emption?
When they’re finished policing Twitter, Facebook, the rest of the internet, why stop there?
That strikes me as far more disgusting than any troll.
And so we come to what Voltaire didn’t say:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Also I’d like it if you could stop; trolling, being ignorant, mean spirited, stupid, or just an arsehole.
But I don’t think we should lock you up for any of those things.
UPDATE: 13/09/12 09:19: It occurs to me having raised Sir Thomas More his speech in “A Man For All Seasons” is highly relevant:
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!