When the Trolls Are Silenced

I started following the Humans of New York Facebook page, not only because of the incredible photographs and arresting captions, but because the comments section was so positive. It was this big upbeat community, and it was like a miracle. How amazing that people are able to rein in their nastiness in support of HONY’s subjects, who are really making themselves vulnerable by agreeing to be photographed.

It wasn’t long before I realized the comments must be moderated. I’m no stranger to comments sections, and people’s behavior in this one was atypical. Sure enough, Brandon addressed it himself.

“Been getting some emails from people who have been banned…the moderators have very clear instructions: ban anyone who is attacking the subject…feel free to joke. We aren’t stiff or prudish. But we do know the difference between being funny and being a dick.”

That was written last year, and as far as I know, he hasn’t addressed it again since. At the time, HONY had 5 million followers. It’s now up to 16.3 million. In other words, not allowing commenters the freedom to be an absolute shit to someone is not limiting his readership. It is helping it.

The beautiful thing about this is that HONY moderators are setting a standard of behavior that the members of the community help enforce. If someone says something nasty that gets missed by the mods, the community members chastise that person. We love our safe, supportive, troll-free space, we love to read people’s stories. We want people to pose and talk when Brandon shows up with his camera, not run screaming.

I’m a member of a women’s writing group. The group has guidelines, and it is moderated. It is another troll-free zone. The moderator, Barbara Bos (who runs Booksbywomen.org, in addition to this writing group) is smart, dedicated and no-nonsense. She has said she has zero tolerance for trolls. She doesn’t announce that something will be deleted or call the person out; she just makes the comment disappear (and, I assume, the commenter sometimes.)

We are none the wiser, and that’s okay. If I knew, if she hinted, I would feel myself wondering,“Who? What was said? What happened?” It would make me a little outraged and feel a little more guarded. But we don’t know. It’s rarely mentioned, and I don’t have to wonder.

The result is a warm, compassionate and supportive group of writers. When I joined, there were under 1000 members. Now we’re nearing 7000. Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t mention how safe and supported they feel in this group. I have met some amazing people and made dear friends in the space because I felt safe there.

A lot of people say,“You need to toughen up and learn to deal with criticism.” I wonder how often the people who say that are ones who are fond of criticizing but who are upset when others push back.

Yes, there are some areas in our lives when critiques are necessary: when we are learning something new, when we are on the job, and (most importantly) when we are voicing opinions about other people’s realities.

But I really think the last thing this world needs is more toughened people. I feel like that “toughen up” cry is just a bunch of bullshit said by people who don’t want to be called bullies so they can keep bullying. The fact is, this world is starving for more compassion and less toughness.

The smallest acts of kindness, the unexpected shows of compassion, the little pictures and videos that make us smile, these things are trending now. This is what’s going viral.

In Western culture, we are sold the lie that toughness equals strength. That’s more bullshit. That is demanding that people change their reactions to attacks instead of demanding a stop to the attacks.

Toughness in the face of constant, unrelenting and unrepentant negativity isn’t strength; it’s a tragedy. It demands that we disconnect ourselves from our hearts and our feelings so people can’t hurt us. That is expecting that the good parts of ourselves should be changed, damaged or denied so trolls can’t get to us.

And guess what: You can never be tough enough for a real troll. If you don’t react, there will always be escalation until you do.

Actual strength is being authentic and vulnerable, and understanding that it is right to be hurt when people are hurtful. Actual strength comes from allowing others in the space to be authentic and vulnerable safely, as well.

There are people in this world who thrive on negativity, who feel like they can only make an impact with their fists, who feel so threatened when someone challenges the status quo, that they have to stomp on that person. Their voices are not meant to share an idea but to stop other people from sharing. They demand the freedom to deny others a voice through intimidation.

But a funny thing happens when you silence trolls. People start opening up, sharing their experiences more, seeing different points of view and supporting each other. I know I do.

When I know I can speak without getting stomped on, I will speak. Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe I can and should keep myself to myself. But it feels good to connect and share. It feels good to read someone saying, “ME TOO!!” It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel inspired and hopeful, the opposite of the way I feel when I am in a space overrun with negativity.

We are social animals, and we tend to take our cues from one another. If a community is mostly positive and welcoming, the expectation is that others will be positive and welcoming, as well. Most people there are already that way. Some people will begin to act that way because others do. Some people who are that way naturally will be drawn to the environment. And some people will not conform and will be negative. Often when this happens, the existing community members will speak up to maintain the benefits of their positive environment.

A while back, there was a TED talk given by Monica Lewinsky. Nadia Goodman and three others had the unfortunate task of deleting the negative comments on the Facebook feed. She said it was some of the nastiest most vitriolic stuff she had ever read. But after several hours of boosting the positive comments and deleting the vitriol, the trend began to shift. A lot more supportive and positive comments started being posted.

People who moderate spaces and make them safe from trolls often experience outraged push back. “How DARE you silence me?! This is oppression!! You are being cowardly by not allowing a lively debate!!” they might be heard to shriek.

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No, Veruca. That’s not how this works. When has this ever been the way things work? In what area of the real world, are you free to storm into a community conference and call the presenter a stupid fuck? When was the last time you were invited into a women’s meeting to weigh in on whether or not you believed them to be a bunch of uptight feminazis? At work, are you encouraged to publicly provide your opinion on your coworker’s attire and if it makes her a slut?

Freedom of speech is the freedom to express your opinions without being arrested. That’s all. It is not the freedom to enter people’s homes, studios or businesses and shout your opinions in their faces. If you want to talk about it in your own space, talk about it. But don’t expect to be welcomed in and handed a cup of tea and a microphone.

I have found myself becoming relieved when there are no comments sections, especially connected to articles and posts about women’s issues. These are a lightning rod for nastiness, as well as dismissive and violent rhetoric. Not having a comments section makes me feel safer as a reader. It saves me from my own sick compulsion to view the opposition to the very simplest of women’s concerns, which are my concerns, being a woman and all.

Recently, my mom was telling me about the people she met on a cruise and how wonderfully kind and friendly they were. She was high on humanity. Then she asked how I was, and I said I was depressed by how miserable everybody was.

Mom was like, “But haven’t you been listening? They’re not!! I just met a whole ship full of good, nice people.”

I was being influenced by all the nastiness I was seeing everywhere. But the nastiest people are not a representation of the whole world. They are just the loudest. It’s really hard to remember that.

Yes, I know I’m comparing the outside world to the internet. But we can’t keep pretending that online is something separate from real life. There are still human beings on the end of these wireless signals. A lot of people ONLY interact with others online. Some are lost and hurting, maybe waiting to see which way the tide is turning: hatred and vitriol? Or positivity and compassion?

So what will I do? Well, first of all, I need to spend less time on the internet. But beyond that, I will stay in safe spaces and help build safe spaces. I will promote the positive and try my hardest to disregard the negative. I will ignore outright nasty trolls, but speak up when I see bullying. I’ll share the good stuff and not give a voice to the trolls.

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Humans of Walmart

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It was late, and I had found someone to stay home so I could sneak away for an hour. I was on a mission, and the only place to accomplish it was Walmart. Options were limited in my small New Hampshire city.

I remember feeling two things that night: 1) Exhaustion so utter and complete that I was shivering and sweating at the same time and so deep that my muscles screamed when I commanded them to move my bones. 2) Excitement about my mission.

I couldn’t tell you what I was wearing. I couldn’t even guarantee I was wearing pants. I remember a jacket. I don’t remember having bare feet. I couldn’t tell you the last time I brushed my hair or even washed it.

My mission: Cloth diapers. I know, it’s not exciting or Earth shattering, but I had the idea that they could help us, and anything at all that could help was welcome. Cloth diapers would be absorbent and could be layered. My hope was that they would keep us from having to change the sheets as often. Nothing we did day to day hurt my husband as much as changing the sheets, but cancer was breaking down his skin. When skin breaks down, it leaks. When it leaks, sheets need to be changed.

I pray most people don’t know first hand that cancer has an odor. It smells of rotting broccoli. (I apologize for being graphic.) My quests in caring for Jim in his last stage of cancer were to keep him comfortable and to keep the smell of cancer away. The odor threatened me. It threatened all my efforts to deny what was happening. If I was going to face the next minute, I needed that denial more than I needed breath, because of how much I loved him and how much he was my hero and how wrong, wrong, wrong it all was.

I didn’t find what I wanted that night, and I went home defeated. When I didn’t find what I wanted, I’ll bet I made some terrible faces. I might have looked like a bitch to someone. I don’t know. You know what else? I might have looked hilarious.

As far as I know, I was the only person in Walmart that night. I didn’t see anyone else in my exhaustion and frustration. It was before everyone had cameras on their cell phones anyway, so probably nobody snapped a picture of me in my craziness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and compassion this year. It seems to be a tougher year than most for it. If current events are any indication, it is sorely lacking these days. I think compassion doesn’t just disappear all at once, but it is chipped away little by little.

It may start with something as simple as a candid picture of a person looking crazy while they are at Walmart. Someone takes it. Someone shares it. Everyone laughs. The subject of the pic becomes a joke, instead of a human. I have clicked and laughed before, more than once. I wish I hadn’t. I won’t again. It’s a tiny chip, but an important one. It is step one, possibly followed by calling a kid a thug, a protester a looter, or a vigil a riot. Removing the human context, the pain, the anger, the fear, the loss, removes the empathy and allows prejudices to blossom.

There is a great TED talk about voting with your clicks. The more people click on dehumanizing pictures and videos, the more likely it is that someone will view a person acting strangely as an opportunity for a viral video instead of a reason for concern, or just a bad moment in someone’s day. They are going to whip out a cell phone and start recording instead of helping, instead of trying to be understanding, or just instead of respecting someone’s privacy and minding their own damn business.

Instead of click-voting to take away someone’s humanity, now I try to find proof of goodness and compassion, and click-vote for that. It makes me feel better. If you’d like to do the same, I highly recommend starting with Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton is the living salve for all the dehumanizing click-bait out there. He’s younger than me, but I want to be him when I grow up. He traveled the world in August/September. He and his subjects make me smile-cry all the time.