When we talk about cyberbullying and trolling, we’re usually talking about savagely vindictive people, or people who take a strong pleasure in trying to make others squirm in outrage.
There’s another type of troll though – a fancy troll, if you will, who takes another path. One of righteous indignation on all manner of topics. “Someone said something politically incorrect! I must rush to the credenza and get my trolling kit!” … OK, that’s likely not how they react, but it’s probably not far from how they’re perceived to have reacted.
Political correctness is usually at the heart of the matter when fancy trolls are concerned. There’s a good reason why political correctness became popular – it created a level of politeness in discourse which had been littered with impoliteness, racism, sexism, discrimination, and so on.
Yet it’s easy to forget that with so many things, we can consider discourse to be like the swing of a pendulum. At one extreme end of the swing you have the discourse from the 70’s and early 80’s – full of racism, sexism, nastiness. At the opposing end point of the pendulum swing though you’ve got discourse which is just as undesirable: “political correctness gone mad”, as the shock jocks would have you believe. The fact is though: they have a point.
It’s not about calling for an end to political correctness, but it is about finding a middle ground that works – that’s neither so toxic that it makes any form of civility impossible, nor so sterile that it makes any form of understanding impossible. Language does most definitely influence thought, and if we so totally walk down that path of political correctness, we risk losing passion and conviction. Don Watson’s Weasel Words dictionary highlights the end point of political correctness taken too far: corporate and political gibberish. From the synopsis:
“The prime minister speaks of core and non-core election promises, your boss asks you to commit to an involuntary career event (you’re fired), and hospitals refer to negative patient outcomes (you’re dead).”
It’s that sort of gibberish that the fancy troll insists on. The fancy trolls sit like the trolls we’re so familiar with at the edges of conversations, then pounces at the first sign there’s any hint of politically incorrect discussion or thinking going on. They still imagine it’s the 70s or 80s and their influence is still needed at all times, rather than in moderation. They’re the new breed of Mary Whitehouse – they have a broader social tolerance, but just as narrow and limiting a view on what can and can’t be said.
Political correctness is important. It’s important to stop bigotry and prejudice. Yet, robustness and passion in conversations is also required. One can argue that if we treat discourse as a pendulum swing, then the optimum place is going to be somewhere around the equilibrium point rather than either end. If we don’t accept that, we remain in a situation where the shock jocks revile any form of political correctness as “political correctness gone mad”, and the fancy trolls revile any form of discourse not entirely made of weasel words to be “politically incorrect”. The problem in both cases is actually a profoundly simple one: context. Neither of the extremes accepts the possibility of context playing a factor in discourse. Yet, those in the middle see that context in civil and reasonable discourse is actually everything; context requires that we look at inappropriate forms of speech and say “no, this isn’t right any longer” – regardless of which side of the pendulum swing the inappropriate speech came from.
A case in point: it’s oft considered politically incorrect to call someone out for being a bigot. It’s a harsh, unpleasant term, and the fancy trolls would insist that we seek to explain away prejudices as coming from particular upbringings, or socio-political backgrounds, or all manner of other reasons. Yet, sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, in order to make your point. A highly important article on this is in the New Statesman, Let’s call a bigot a bigot, by Ralph Jones in November 2012 (I really suggest you read it):
“Things have reached a slightly ludicrous situation when a gay rights group can be patronised for labelling as ‘bigots’ those individuals who have gone most out of their way not only to prevent gay rights becoming a reality but also to viciously insult and ostracise the entire homosexual community.
“Nelson Jones tells Stonewall to ‘grow up’ and calls its Bigot of the Year award ‘offensive and out of date’.”
The above claim would be highly unsettling to the fancy troll. It’s a rejection of political correctness once it’s reached a certain point. It’s about allowing passion and strong language to remain in discourse. It’s about calling a spade a spade.
A fancy troll of course will argue that I’m being horribly politically incorrect. That I’m opening the door to racist, sexist and abusive language, and they would be wrong.