Feeding the Trolls: Different Perspectives

Over the past few weeks I’ve reflected on the experience about which I wrote in my first blog for my Advanced Human Development course. My professor (Hi Judy!) pointed out that the male aggressor on the YouTube thread used a pseudo-rational/scientific argument to deliver a largely aggressive message. I’ve been turning this over in my head. This aggressive pseudo-rationality is one of the main forms of aggression (and perhaps micro-aggression) I’ve observed on online discussions and forums. What is this phenomenon? Why do we use it? What purpose does it serve? Several different ideas have surfaced for me.

On a whim, I looked up pseudo-rationalism and found out it was a thing. A German philosopher named Otto Neurath presented a paper in 1913 that presaged the wider adoption of the limits of scientific rationality and immutability presented by Kuhn in the 1960s. I bring up this little tidbit because I think the ideological wars being played out on the national and digital stage are often argued with the help of “scientific fact”, no matter how grossly outnumbered or untested the facts actually are (man-made global warming, for example). The wider populace now has access to an almost infinite amount of information from which they can cherry pick the data that supports their emotional, irrational, and largely ego-defensive views. I don’t exclude myself from this assessment; I too have often used science and surface rationalism to rationalize my feelings. Since I became aware of this, I’ve started clicking through to the referenced study every time I read an article based on the phrase “studies show”. As I learned in Research Methodologies course (722B represent!), published, peer-reviewed studies often do not show any compelling argument for the claims they make due to shoddy research, small or unrepresentative samples, or conflicts of interest. “Studies show” is not code for fact.

I recently wrote a very emotional blog about an article I read in Huffpost on fat discrimination. The article, mainly a combination of whining and self-loathing about body issues, pissed me off, so I wrote a rebuttal on my website. While you may find my rant entertaining, what actually stands out the most about the subject article was the discussion in the comments section at the bottom. A few excerpts:

“I am like you in many ways. I am sorry that people cannot understand that health issues and not overeating are sometimes what contributes to our weight. You seem like a wonderful woman and I pray that soon people will stop judging others on how they look.”

“I know how it feels to be invisible.”

“You are beautiful; inside and out. Very brave of you to share your story! Thank you!”

Most of the comments are either sympathetic, empathetic, or encouraging. There is little to no policing of her science or rationality, as she does not claim to be happy with her weight, just unhappy with her perception that people don’t like her because of it. If I had to break the comments into categories, they would be: 1) I hate myself, too, 2) You’re beautiful anyway, and 3) Dude, get over it.

Compare this to comments made on a photo posted by a successful independent plus sized model, Tess Munster. Here’s a representative argument between two people who follow Tess’ posts:

Person 1: It really worries me that people actually find this attractive… Says a lot about one of the biggest and fastest growing world problems: overweight/obesity. Stop eating crap and please stop acting like this is normal.

Person 2: Thin people are unhealthy also… doesn’t matter what weight you are! If you’re not a fan of Tess, unlike the page.

Person 1: … i didn’t even liked the page thin people can be unhealthy too, but it doesn’t mean they actually are. However, overweight is always unhealthy and it’s definitely not normal. (Although some people start to think it is, so indirectly they say that it’s normal to have a highly increased chance to get cancer, diabetes, heart diseases or anything else.) Your weight definitely matters! I can’t believe people ignore that… But please enjoy your meal at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or any other fucked up fast food place.

The first article doesn’t really challenge any of the existing norms about body image, as the author is apologetic and self-abasing for her body. Hence, she doesn’t attract aggression as the norm-defying plus model does.

But back to pseudo-rationality. See what happened there? The two people are trading “facts” while avoiding whatever emotions prompted them to post in the first place (just like the conversation I had in my last post on this topic).

After scanning about 100 comments, they seem to break down into three categories: 1)You’re Awesome, 2)You’re Gross, and 3) Get Lost, Haters (in response to #2 comments). What’s interesting is how much of the discourse around 2 and 3 are based on semi-rational arguments that are betrayed by highly emotional language. If I apply Vaillant’s defense mechanism spectrum to these exchanges, they look very much like the one I documented before:

  1. Person A projects directs negative emotions on public figure using pseudo-rationality (reaction formation) as the justification for the aggressive act (ex. “Stop eating crap and please stop acting like this is normal“;
  2. Person B takes it personally and rebuts Person A with more factoids (ex. “Thin people are unhealthy also… doesn’t matter what weight you are!“) ,
  3. Person A responds with a mix of pseudo-rationality and ridicule (acting out) (ex. “ However, overweight is always unhealthy and it’s definitely not normal...But please enjoy your meal at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or any other fucked up fast food place“,
  4. Person B either tells person A to fuck off, or doesn’t respond, OR the conversation turns into a pseudo-rational clusterfuck on both sides with multiple citations of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles. It eventually peters out or devolves into name calling and cursing.

On the surface, these exchanges are pretty depressing. They seem to be a draw at best; the highest level of adaptation observable is at what Vaillant (2000) would call the Compromise Formation Level – repression (ignoring feelings), isolation (withdrawal) and reaction-formation. Reaction formation seems to be closest to the pseudo-rationality visible in these online forums. Those who exhibit reaction formation repress a taboo or shadow emotion such as rage, jealousy, or misogyny, and replace it with the appearance of its opposite; in this case rational, critical discourse. However, in most of these forums the veneer that masks the infantile emotion is quite transparent, as the aggressive commenters often use words that betray the repressed emotion. What I find particularly interesting is that the participants who respond often let the initial aggressors set the rules of the game; they respond in kind with either rational arguments or aggressive attacks.

In relationship counseling, there is an assumption that both parties, regardless of outward behavior, are usually at the same level of differentiation. Meaning if my husband never picks up his socks and I am righteously angry about it, I’m probably not any more mature than him; I just express my immaturity/aggression in a different, perhaps less obvious way. This seems to be the case on online forums, as well.

Tess Munster may be just a self-employed model who has more supporters than detractors, but she is a lightening rod for the same kind of conversation we see happening on a national scale about abortion, gay rights, global warming, and immigration. Whichever side we find ourselves on in these issues, we believe that science and rationality are on our side, while the judgement of those on the opposite is clouded or flawed. And in the digital era, these arguments take place not just between news anchors, presidents, or pundits, but between all of us, every day, in multiple forums and on multiple issues.

Giselle Labouvie-Vief (1994) talks about tension between the forces of mythos and logos in the human psyche. Traditionally logos, rationality and strength was assigned to the masculine principle while mythos, emotion, nurture, and creativity, were assigned to the feminine principle. Labouvie-Vief deconstructs these arbitrary classifications as reflections of the relative social status of men and women, and looks instead at the myth of Psyche and Eros as the dialectic between the rational and imaginative mind necessary for integration and adult development on a personal and social scale.

Online personalities like Mary Lambert and Tess Munster who provoke  such vociferous critique, defense, and discourse are perhaps examples of mythos in action; choosing to be visible, vital, and alive in a world that marginalizes certain types of people is not a rational act; it’s an emotional and spiritual one. In order to be creative–to embody Mythos–they must defy social norms. They knowingly expose themselves to anonymous aggression, conquering  fear of rejection and judgement. While the people caught in this seemingly endless and stuck cycle of aggression and argument do not seem to be progressing, perhaps there is a larger force at work.

Neo-Jungian James Hillman (1997) discusses pathologizing as a vital force for eventual integration and individuation:

…I am introducing the term pathologizing to mean the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective. (p.143)

Wow! Look at that language! If I had a dime for the number of times I’ve read the words “morbidly obese, disorder, disease, and abnormal” on the forums I observe, I could pay off some student loans!

Hillman believes that the projection of abnormality on others is really an unconsciously shared experience of our  our unavoidable physical and mental flaws (which will lead to our eventual death), displaced and experienced on the Other. From a Jungian perspective, this is profound! The aggressive online troll who verbally bashes a happy fat person and is confronted with the mirror reflection of his own aggression (even when masked in pseudo-rationality), is actually reaching towards the integration of his or her own fear of mortality, disease, and death. Forcing the image outward makes it semi-conscious, allowing for the possibility that the irrational, emotional, and imperfect can be eventually integrated. Perhaps the seemingly endless skirmishes and standoffs are really a cultural movement towards awareness, which is scary as hell, and integration which is necessary for our spiritual and collective survival. Remember, deviating from the socio-economic-racial-sexual norm was unthinkable and often punishable a scant century ago in our country (and still is in many parts of the world). But in the wild, wild west of the internet, these ripples of disruption, of people who refuse to hide, are forcing our aggression out of hiding and into the observable world.

Hillman, J. (1997). A Blue Fire. (T. Moore, Ed.). New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Labouvie-Vief, G. (1994). Psyche and Eros: Mind and Gender in the Life Course. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2000). Adaptive mental mechanisms: Their role in a positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89–98. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.89

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